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.

To recipe, or not to recipe

And why I’ve failed more than once at cooking

September 10, 2010

By accident, genetics, and sometimes pure perversity, I am my mother’s opposite.

She worked for many years as an accountant and likes nothing more than to enter a string of numbers into a calculator and watch blissfully as these numbers eventually add up to zero. I am a recovering math-phobic who still recalls the night in 1980 when I did ALL of a quarter’s math homework in a single evening (and early morning).

She is tall. I am short.

She likes to talk to people; I prefer to wave at most of them from about a hundred feet.

She works diligently to avoid guilt and cynicism and I . . . well, you get the idea.

She also believes strongly in recipes. And, as you may have guessed, I don’t seem to. I mean I want to, but I don’t. And it appears that I am not alone.

“Kitchen Frenzy,” by Bernhard and Anna Blume. Used courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

If I close my eyes right now, I can see her standing next to the stove with a three-by-five card two inches from her face and her glasses pushed down her nose, reading and re-reading the number of teaspoons of vanilla that go into the chocolate-chip cookies.

When we make a stir-fry, my job is to read the vegetables aloud in order (Ordnung muss sein!) as she scoots them off the cutting board and into the chiles, garlic, and oil.

As a gesture of goodwill and affection, for Christmas one year she got me a book called How To Cook Without a Book. As if the existence of such an ironical book (because aren’t you cooking with a book, if you read this book?) stamped smiling approval on my habit of chopping a bunch of stuff up and hoping for the best.

Out more recently is the similar book Cooking Beyond Measure, by Jean Johnson.

I would like to point out that my anti-recipe tendencies are not limited to cooking. I have tried to knit sweaters, sew blouses, sow gardens, remove stains, and write job applications without more than the most cursory attention to instructions, directions, and other forms of counsel written in short lists and a genial imperative voice. It doesn’t always go well for me.

There may be any number of reasons I rarely follow recipes. It could be ambivalence about authority, fear of success, laziness, or a persecution complex. Maybe I had an accident with a measuring cup during my formative years. I did grow up in the groovy 1970s, after all.

But I have come to suspect that a delusional disorder, akin to people believing they are significant religious and political figures, is also to blame.

I want to be the person who doesn’t need the recipe. I want either to know deep in my bones when I have tipped a teaspoon’s worth of salt into the biscuit dough or live with the salty biscuits I have wrought. (Did I mention that I don’t like to measure either? I also don’t use timers.)

I want the pleasure of discovering beautiful combinations of tastes, the same way I curate words, looking for a magical concatenation of tone, melody, and rhythm to strike me.

My mother has good-naturedly pointed out that practicing cooking as an art is the province of experts who devote their early lives to following recipes, and to tasting, seasoning, and preparing foods in as many different ways as they can imagine, in order to find an ease with their materials.

So I guess my method of cooking is a kind of fantasy life. And my mother’s method is an acknowledgement that the tension between making something good and creating something great is interesting, but not worth throwing away 20 dollars worth of salmon over.

Or maybe her attitude toward cooking is rooted in the fact that she was caring for a family of five by the time she was 27. My youth, by contrast, was spent wandering around, furnishing one-bedroom apartments with thrift-store finds, hunting for music in the bargain bins, and teaching myself how to cook for one.

Another irony is that she probably doesn’t need to follow recipes after six decades in the kitchen. Her nose is surely well-tuned; she can measure a half-cup dry or wet by sound and weight. But like all admirers of an art form, she enjoys observing the rituals of cooking. She follows the recipe because she always has. She is Tradition’s Guardian.

Does that make me a punk?

I’ll try to live with that and keep a straight face.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Debbie on Sep 12, 2010 at 8:08 PM PDT

Joan, Nicely written! I am not sure if you will be able to read my comment. In order for this to be acceptable I have to be able to type the letters that are jumping around in the box to “prove that I am not a computer” I may fail this test. Like your mother I am a recipe reader for many of my dishes. Bob, who does most of the family meals does not read recipes. such is life, we are all different I guess. Some of my meals work, some do not, the same can be said for Bob. The only difference is that if we like my dish there is a better chance that we may have the same dish again in the future.

2. by Karen Depp on Sep 13, 2010 at 7:43 AM PDT

I hear you! I actually try to read a recipe at least to figure out what goes in the deal. Sometimes I have it all and sometimes I don’t. That’s where our fun comes into play --- who needs a recipe if you have the chicken and a pot, right? What’s in that pantry that could go in here?? Right on, it’ll probably work. Or should I have said “right in” as in, dump it in and give it a stir.
I envy those who follow a recipe, but I don’t really like to play follow the leader much, unless I am the leader. I say, you go girl!!

3. by Lisamary Wichowski on Sep 13, 2010 at 10:17 PM PDT

What that all proves is that you are designed to “cook” and your mother is designed to “bake!” Those are different skill sets, mind sets, but together they make a great dinner.

4. by joanmenefee on Sep 16, 2010 at 1:29 PM PDT

It has stunned me how many people have disclosed to me what side of this divide they find themselves on. I would point out that I actually bake more than I cook. However, it is also true that though I still try to finesse the details I think I can get away with, I am much more apt to keep a book or recipe card handy. In any case, I am glad you all have grown into your cooking styles and learned to respect the cooks on the other side of the fence.

5. by vintagejenta on Sep 19, 2010 at 7:25 AM PDT

When I cook I generally don’t use recipes either. But baking? That’s a different story. Flour and butter are often negotiable, but salt, yeast, baking powder and soda, and number of eggs are often not.

Cooking is love, baking is chemistry. Lol. To a certain extent you have to use your instincts with baking - to know if a dough is too soft, if an hour is not enough to raise bread, if there aren’t enough chocolate chips for your taste. :) But the basics are there for a reason. I WILL often play with flavors when baking, but not the basics of the recipe.

Cooking, though? As long as you have a good grasp of flavor pairings and basic cooking techniques, you can usually get away with doing simple things like soup, stirfry, sautees, roasting, and braising by simply “throwing things in the pot.” :)

I can’t stand people who follow cooking recipes verbatim. Unless, of course, they’re imparting important directions on complicated techniques. But then? I avoid those recipes.

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