Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
When I was in high school, etiquette was supposedly falling out of favor. In my social circle, people made fun of fussybutts who p’d and q’d all over the place. We drank tea out of chipped mugs, unconcerned with serving plans, saucers, or the properly extended pinky. Cotillion this, we taunted the old and nosy.
Many years later, still drinking tea out of chipped mugs but reading a little more Levi-Strauss, I learned that even if you don’t like the word “etiquette,” you probably still follow one. Etiquette transcends even the most doggedly rebellious adolescent’s desire to live free of hypocrisy and status-seeking; it slops into the saucer of everyday life and colors a wide range of social interactions.
I was reminded of this as I sat with a group of food writers recently. In between discussions of children who put pebbles in their mouths and the best way to make pesto, we got onto the topic of recipes, specifically how people react when asked for them. A few of the writers laughed and said that they hated fielding requests for recipes.
“If you want to eat this food, then you need to be with me,” one woman passionately declared. “A food experience cannot be reduced to the ingredients called for in a dish.”
Heads nodded vigorously. I sat dumbfounded.
Another writer divulged that she gives out recipes with key ingredients left out. To me, that seemed kind of naughty.
These home cooks apparently feel protective when it comes to their signature recipes. Part of what bothers them is the notion that a mere pantomiming of their act of cooking will yield similarly sumptuous results. Recipe requests are like autograph requests: pointless and fetishistic.
I am enough of a tyro in the kitchen never to have considered any of this. If anyone asks me for a recipe, I feel flattered. When I ask, it’s out of admiration and, perhaps, a raw desire to eat this lovely food again.
Because, however, I had taken a liking to these writers, I attempted to see the problem from their side. Then I tried to think through the larger issue of recipe-exchange etiquette. Are there culturally specified rules regarding the exchange of recipes, cook to cook? How do those rules vary across time and space?
What are we asking for when we ask for a recipe?
The recipe saboteurs — what else can you call a person who pulls the spark plugs on a recipe? — justified their habits by emphasizing how emotionally and aesthetically bound up with the foods they prepared they were. When a diner asked for a recipe, that person was ignoring the urgency and improvisation of cooking by assuming that a dining experience could be reduced to a mere 200 words on a three-by-five card.
The saboteurs also said that they cherished the connections they made through their cooking. They did not want to be middlemen getting cut out of the action. In this sense, cooks seem to need forms and practices that elevate them and their work. The low social status of all but the highest-class cook feeds ambivalence about thoughtless or casual requests for information.
During our conversation, a writer likened cooking skills to money. Just as you would not give your money away casually, you should not let your recipes too far out of your sight. This was all new to me. And it was fascinating.
This is a big subject. I am just at the point where I will think twice before I request a recipe. I won’t assume that the cook whose table I have slobbered on feels exactly as I do about the whole recipe-exchange concept. And I have formulated a long list of questions that will help me understand 21st-century cooking etiquette.
I’m wondering now what kinds of social rules govern washing dishes when you dine at a friend’s house, how involved cooks really want their guests to get in the kitchen, what kinds of host or hostess gifts seem like veiled criticisms, how asking for seconds and thirds is received, how to handle refusing foods due to allergies, and other types of health-related food restrictions.
My list goes on.
What do you think? Is it time for a food-centric etiquette guide? A Miss Oven Mitts’ Guide to Kitchen Civility? Is the next great anthropological revolution going to require a person camped in your kitchen taking notes as you season your stew?
I guess I am just impertinent enough to ask.
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