I seek out and devour food writing in all of its forms – from lengthy and flowery introductions, through drily academic histories to the tersely scribbled instructions you sometimes find tucked into old cookbooks. But when I think of all the recipes I have read, professionally or otherwise, stacked up as it were in one gigantic pile on an overflowing workbench, the main sensation I feel is frustration.
All those neat little lists – take this, take that – as if cooking begins when you pick up an onion, or finishes as the dish goes on to the plate. So much more surrounds a meal and its making than just the bare facts of its enumerated parts. At the top of the page it just says ‘two onions, chopped’, but someone had to grow them, to pick them, to store and transport and buy them, all before you take them from the vegetable rack or the fridge, halve them from root to tuft, and peel off the outermost layers of brown parchment; before you cut first in a wedging arch and then across, remembering the cook who taught you to let the onion fall into its own layers rather than force it apart into rigid dice, and wondering perhaps in passing why you are doing so, when the other recipe said sliced, when the other recipe contained no onion at all. The Koreans have a description for the specific qualities of a person’s cooking which translates as something like ‘the taste of your hands’; they know, I suppose, that knowledge rests in muscle and bone, which is never written down.
I have nothing against recipes. In fact I use them all the time, and am suspicious of cooks who claim never to do so. Recipes are a record of social and emotional histories as well as a means of travelling to almost any country or place you care to name, including, of course, the past. Anyone who tries to separate food from all of these things cooks for reasons I do not understand; it can only, I think, be vanity, trading the deep satisfaction of time for immediate gratification.
Yet, while useful to cook from, there is so much that recipes miss. The satisfaction of peeling a ripe, thick-skinned tomato, for instance, or unzipping a pod of broad beans; the smell of rosemary hitting gently warming olive oil; the yielding of a wing of skate to a gently pressing finger; the sight of a simply laid table in spring, awaiting the arrival of both people and lunch. None of this can be captured in a written recipe. These are sensations we feel behind the lines of our cookbooks, but the rigid lists that now fill them leave little room in which to do so, let alone to think about what we will do with this dish once we have cooked it. ‘Serve immediately’, these instructions end, but who to? Even a thousand recipes don’t make a meal.
Of all the contexts surrounding the acquisition and transformation of food, I think the meal itself is the most often forgotten. We cook in competition with ourselves now, imagining some bespectacled judge pacing around our chopping board and offering disparaging comments on our knife skills, our plating and our personal hygiene, while we collect and compare recipes of so-called genius and perfection, to be followed to the last detail. Whatever tortured dish emerges from such a process is designed not to be dug into with a questing fork, but to sit as it were under glass, to be admired one-on-one, alone. A plate is one part of a course, which is one part of a meal, so why fuss over the recipe so? I’d rather have, for example, a litre of wine, a pile of fresh pea pods, and many hands to peel and pour – with maybe a piece of cheese for afterwards.
Extracted from First, Catch: Story of a Spring Meal by Thom Eagle (Quadrille, £16.99)
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First, Catch by Thom Eagle