Rendered Fat Content


Somewhere along about the Industrial Revolution, a subtle shift started in the kitchen. Before, it might have just been taken for granted that each meal would be unique. After, that each might properly aspire to become a replication. Cookbooks became books expressly not for cooks, but books for people who aspired to become chefs, and the purpose of cooking shifted a tiny bit away from creation into replication.

Before, Lord only knew what supper would be cooked on. After, every home featured a little industrial facility complete with gauged surfaces and uniform measures. There became right and wrong ways for employing this machinery. Recipes took over while intuition and craft fell ever further out of favor. Great grandma might have thrived on a pinch of this and that, but we now measure much more precisely, and what started as a small revolution eventually forfeited the very soul of our heritage.

We no longer cook like great grandmother did, working out from whatever’s seasonally abundant or threatening to fester in the larder, but start with a recipe then work to satisfy that soul-less thing instead. We ape entertainers performing on television in lieu of living our lives. This was the heart-felt aspiration of the Industrial Revolutionaries, that we might come to desire uniformity and revile craft until we became dependent upon others’ concoctions rather than upon our own creativity.

Preparing has increasingly become a matter of combining what someone else previously prepared. We buy sauces rather than concocting our own. We frequent the industrial middle zone in the grocery store, and buy meat we cannot even smell first. We willingly follow the instructions on the freaking packaging, ceding something terribly significant in the process of trying to sustain ourselves.

Last night, I made a dinner that will never be replicated. It tasted simply fantastic. Starting from nothing much more than a desire to find some suitable use for that leftover rigatoni, a masterpiece emerged. I cannot take full credit for it, for much of the blame goes to something more like synchronicity than skill, though the depth of my larder certainly contributed. I’d never seen purple cauliflower tossed with warm pasta, but it seemed a credible combination, improved with some of those long-suffering olives and a couple of anchovy carcasses, just enough washed salt-cured capers, half again more garlic than seemed reasonable even to me, and a third of my pine nut store.

Note, please, just how imprecise my units of measure seem. I say I used ‘some of those long-suffering olives’ and ‘just enough capers.’ I have no idea how many I actually used, for I was not trying to follow instructions but initiate a construction. Sure, I could have produced crap, but, surprisingly, always surprisingly, I didn’t. As a result, I not only created a fine supper, but produced surprise as well.

I claim that I never produce the same thing once in the kitchen, but this comes less from intention than realization. I would love to replicate last night’s supper and I would like you to be able to create it for yourself, too, but how would we accomplish that if the primary ingredients come together so indistinctly? Deliberately satisfying the preconditions for the meal couldn’t possibly produce the inadvertent preconditions which were the very soul of the meal. The resulting recipe would seem absurd:
1- forget, in the back of your refrigerator for a year or more, a quart or so of mixed olives such that their curing mottles the fruit and you seriously wonder it they’ve become toxic,
2- cook about two pounds too much rigatoni for a dinner party for thirty, retaining the remainder, well-washed and lightly oiled, in the refrigerator for about ten days.
3- remember as suppertime nears, the presence of one head of purple cauliflower which was threatening to go bad a couple of days ago.
4- notice how silly sequential scripting seems in this context.

I’m learning that much that happens in my kitchen, happens by accident. Whether these accidents turn out to have been happy or tragic relies little upon how carefully I follow recipes. Success seems to follow haphazard, though heart-felt preparation. I stock my larder for choice and variety, relying upon a few backbone staples and many, many curiosity-derived selections. I am a curious shopper, seeking novelty, though this is easy for me since I retain little memory of how I rendered something last time. I depend upon a few techniques when actually cooking, some of which I follow. I suppose my performances lean more toward patterns than specific actions. The results almost look like I must have known what I was doing, though they remain unrepeatable.

What if an infinite array of possibility stretched out before us rather than a finite set of options? The industrialists equate possibility with risk and finity with control; risk with loss and control with profit. Restaurants might rightfully be managed as industrial factories, but one’s own kitchen perhaps never should be. If we can’t be free there, where, now, could we ever find freedom?

I might over-state my case to make my point. I do use recipes, but I rarely follow them, and not just because I seem temperamentally incapable of following them. I use them for inspiration rather than instruction. Even in the unlikely event that I might properly interpret a recipe, I will most likely not have exactly the same ingredients and so substitute something. I might use a recipe to gain a sense of proportion: about how long might something like this cook? Or, to access a pattern: how might I sequence adding ingredients? I will avoid taking any recipe literally. These are stories reduced to something much less than the experiences they describe. They’ve derived a single instance from someone’s infinite stream, and even if the author wrote it, in the also unlikely event that the author rather than a professional cookbook writer actually derived the recipe, it’s not the experience incarnate. Following the instructions might be the very best way to ensure not creating the intended result.

I argue for a NeverAgain attitude in the kitchen, one not focused upon recreating any past or preserving for the far, far future, but upon crafting a present. I tell those who ask me for my recipe that I always rely upon the same one, no matter what I’m cooking. I start out with whatever’s threatening to fester in the larder, then work out from there. The resulting workout might well include referencing cookbooks and perusing others’ recipes. I might well repeat some patterns, since nobody need reinvent roux or completely re-imagine slow-braising, but my main struggle might well be to maintain enough presence of mind to recognize just where I am and just what I have present to work with. So I might well replace half the stock in the roux with that threatening-to-fester cider or slow-braise those spare ribs in cider rather than stock this time. I need nobody’s (or any disembodied cookbook’s) permission to deviate from what might be considered the norm. There is no normal. This, I argue, represents not only the soul of cooking but the heart of freedom, too.

When I prepare supper for a salon, thirty or so, people often mistakenly refer to me as the ‘chef,’ even though I wear no toque. I correct them. I am a cook, an often humbled one, for a chef knows what he’s doing in the kitchen. A cook’s making it up as he goes along. This represents no small distinction. I have great admiration for the chef’s trade, and spent a considerable part of my life trying to become ever more chef-like. After a decade or three of dissatisfying practice, I surrendered to an at first begrudging acknowledgement that I was not even then poised to become the chef I’d imagined becoming. Later, after the despondency disbursed, I accepted the cook that I seem to be.

People tell me that I should write a cookbook, but you see how absurd that might seem to me. I use the same recipe every time. I never, ever concoct the same thing once. What sort of cookbook could such a cook produce? The purpose could not possibly be to instruct others to replicate my process, which couldn’t satisfy even a generous interpretation of the term ‘process.’ The patterns I employ seem primarily pre-conscious, this, I suppose, the result of decades of failing to follow recipes and become a chef. Some stuff apparently stuck. When I need instruction, I go find some instruction. The Muse might have a recipe box, and I might even reference it sometimes, but I do not maintain anything remotely like one. I make do when making supper. Perhaps such a NeverAgain cook’s book would be about making do.

The book would have to be about changing story, about changing the cook’s relationship with his kitchen and his cookbooks and his larder. The industrial pattern of sourcing to satisfy the recipe would have to disrupt into one focusing upon discovery for potential delight. Merely satisfying a recipe’s requirements to produce what Alton Brown did won’t cut it there. Alton Brown delighted himself. No self-respecting cook should settle for less, I guess.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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