The Poetics of a Recipe
  1. Boil water in medium saucepan. Stir in macaroni. Cook 7 to 8 min. or until tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. Drain. DO NOT RINSE. Return to pan.
  3. Add margarine, milk and Cheese Sauce Mix; mix well.

I think I’m not unreasonable to assume anyone reading this has probably stumbled across this “recipe” at least once in their lives, or some variant of it. The quintessential childhood (and maybe adulthood – I’m not judging) favorite: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Even you boujee Velveeta-lovers can relate.

The beginning of my cooking career is grounded firmly in Hamburger Helper, which is only slightly more complex than the aforementioned “recipe.” When I was a kid, before I even considered the possibility of me seriously cooking dinner, my mom used to make it maybe once every week or two – a reasonable amount. Being a kid, I was totally into the artificial cheese and the knock-off Stroganoff, but I didn’t feel too strongly about it. I didn’t feel too strongly about most dinners. Like many kids, mom put it on the table, and we sat down to eat it.

I’ll save you the details of my familial turbulence, but eventually my dad became my primary guardian. My dad and I suddenly found ourselves standing in our local Stop and Shop, staring dumbly at the various apples and plethora of cereal brands, silently exchanging the question, “What would Mom buy?” I had always gone to the grocery store with her, sure, but I hadn’t really paid attention to anything besides “Gushers! Can we please buy Gushers, Mom? Please! Please oh please!” But this was a new era. I somehow felt that the gravity of grocery shopping had transcended begging for the things I wanted to eat, to the necessity of buying the things I had to eat – the things that Mom used to take care of.

So with no real knowledge of cooking, my father and I wandered anxiously through the aisles, inspecting raw chickens and wondering what in the hell was hominy. For that reason, it seemed like a real God-send when we stumbled by the Hamburger Helper “10 for $10” sale. Safe to say, we bought ten, even though I’m pretty sure this sale runs pretty much every week.

I am not sure if you guys have ever had Hamburger Helper, but just picture Kraft Mac and Cheese with some ground beef cooked into it, and, like, maybe some variant packet of spice or something. And then picture that for, like, two weeks straight. Yeah. The image in your head is right. The first few nights were like, “This is awesome,” but I think by night seven we were like, “Let’s get take out,” and then by night fifteen we were like, “Yeah, this isn’t sustainable.” So we invested in a “30-Minute Meals Cookbook.” None of the meals actually took thirty minutes, but the whole process of my dad and I running around the kitchen, trying to chop peppers and simultaneously sauté chicken and frantically google the difference between “dice” and “cube,” all so that we could get dinner on the table before 9 PM, was sort of fun.

I have graduated from “30-Minute Meals” pretty significantly, but I can’t pretend to deny what those first experiences provided for me, even if they were borne out of necessity. The cooking itself was fun, but there was something more to it, and this ambiguous “more” became crystallized when I discovered NYT Cooking. I would spend whole mornings reading each recipe from the “What to Cook This Week” section. I would reread them when I ran out. I would click each link in the weekly newsletter I subscribed to. I opened up a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine. In between trying to not fail Quantum Mechanics and finishing my American Folklore paper, I was googling how to make vinegar, reading Internet forums on sourdough starters, researching the various ways to make Kouign Amman which no one seems to agree on. Mostly, though, what it came down to was a voracious desire to read recipes. Not even just the narrative paragraphs at the beginning, dense with the particular inspiration for kale-pesto, and the specific circumstances under which Samin Nosrat likes to make tofu. I liked the steps. I liked to think them through, turn them over in my mind, think critically about why it might need to be cooked at 325 degrees instead of 350. I liked the onslaught of… what? Directions? Yes, I liked the onslaught of directions. I like the onslaught of directions.

And I think this was true of the backs of the Hamburger Helper boxes, too. Hamburger Helper came into my life most potently as a consequence of a difficult time. But really, I could rely on it to be candid when no one else was. There was no question about what was meant. Boil the water. Cover the dish. Simmer for ten minutes.

I am writing my thesis on cookbooks and have consequently been reading a lot of them. While they are definitely more “adult” than the backs of Hamburger Helper boxes, they crystallize what I see now first made me fall in love with reading about cooking. The recipe is inextricable from its sincerity. It means exactly what it says.

Strawberry Milk

1 pound strawberries, hulled, sliced

3 cups milk

1 cup buttermilk

½ cup sugar

Macerate strawberries in sugar 1 hours.

Add milks. Steep overnight.

Shake well.

Draw the juice of the berries out with sugar first. Don’t add milks until you have syrupy berries.

Berries have to be excellent – don’t try to compensate for shitty berries with more sugar, please.

from Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton

You might be like, why would I ever spend this much time to do something that Nestle strawberry syrup could handle in thirty seconds? To which I would respond, you literally never have to. These are great lengths to go to for strawberry milk, I know. But then, the actual completion of the recipe isn’t really the point. The recipe grants clarity. It lends the comfort of finally someone is speaking to me candidly, directly, without hesitation or indecision or uncertainty! It is direction, forthright and point-blank.

And what’s greater, it speaks to more than just strawberry milk, if you let it. You really should never try to compensate for shitty berries with more sugar. In your strawberry milk, or anywhere else. End of story.

-NG

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