Once upon a time, I survived organic chemistry lab by telling myself this is just like following a recipe. You follow a sequence of steps, mixing stuff together whose properties are known to influence each other in predictable ways. You apply outside forces, like heat, and use special instruments, like spoons or ocular micrometers, and you are ultimately constrained by the same physical laws of the universe. If you apply too much heat to protein molecules, for example, you will denature them. Attempting to un-denature a cooked protein is no easier than trying to un-boil an egg. All you can do is start over.
While useful for a time, this association between lab and kitchen eventually backfired when I dropped science as my primary operating system, in favor of pursuits of a more right-brained flavor. Then, recipes became a yoke and chain, a threat to my artistic spontaneity. My apron would melt into a white coat, and the bacon would burn as I crouched in the corner swatting at imaginary molecules with my spatula. I wanted that spatula to be a magic wand rather than a meter-stick, with its straight lines, precise measurements and suffocating confinement.
To this day, my inner rebel still cocks his middle finger at the slightest whiff of a recipe. Still, I can’t ignore the fact that structure can be useful, especially if it prepares you for the real work. Yes, recipes are more than fascist protocol. They contain tricks and techniques that can be applied elsewhere, during spontaneous sessions when I use The Force rather than the book. Recipes give insight into new ways of using ingredients and applications, thereby expanding my tool chest. I’ll never forget the cleaver-wielding Chinese chef on TV, who parboiled ribs before marinating them, and put star-anise in the marinade. These little bits and pieces add up.
Meanwhile, I just discovered a cookbook, Indian Cookin’, that I don’t have to talk myself into liking. The author’s identity isn’t on the cover, but if you find the table of contents, on page 61(!), you will find a statement about how rewarding it was to write this book, and a mailing address for Frances Lambert Whisler, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Written in a deliciously authentic voice, this is a book about culture as much as it is about food. It’s laden with interesting sayings—Here needy he stands. And I am he—and tidbits of advice. The last page contains a drawing of a tree, and the useful words, “Moss is thicker and greener on the North side of trees.”
Indian Cookin’ puts me in touch with my inner hunter/gatherer. The recipes, drawn from tribes across North America, are blunt and simple, offering glimpses of the lifestyle behind the food. Consider the recipe for frogs: Catch early frogs, twist off heads, peel off skin while holding under running water or meat will become bitter. Parboil and then cook like any other meat.
Meanwhile, the recipe for Yellow Jacket Soup advises, “Gather ground-dwelling yellow jackets whole comb early in the morning. Place over heat right side up to loosen grubs. Remove grubs. Place comb over heat again until the cover parches. Remove and pick out the yellow jackets and brown in oven. Make soup by boiling in water and season with grease and salt.”
The advice to “season with grease” is a universal that should be taken to heart. The Indians knew that fat=flavor, and it’s up to you in your interpretations of this or other recipes to apply appropriate grease in an appropriate manner. I myself am partial to olive oil, bacon grease and mayonnaise, to name a few. Never, ever, underestimate the power of a dollop of mayo in a bowl of soup. That’s why they call me “Fishes for Mayo.”
I wanted to test one of these recipes in my lab, but it’s too early for frogs or yellow jackets. Instead, I found some frozen corn from last year’s garden, and tried Easy Corn Pudding. Like many recipes in this book, this one reflects the influence of the white man integrated into the cooking.
Ingredients: 2 cups corn; 3 eggs, beaten; 2 teaspoons sugar; 2 tablespoons butter; 1.5 teaspoons salt, pinch pepper, 2 cups milk.
Combine corn, sugar, salt, and pepper. Add eggs and mix. Add butter to milk, heat until butter is melted. Blend the milk with the corn and egg. Put into baking dish, bake at 325 for one hour.
When I mixed this together I thought, “Uh oh.” It looked like a bowl of cereal with too much milk, and it was hideously salty. But after an hour in the oven it thickened nicely, with a warm brown skin on top. The flavor wasn’t the most complex I’ve tasted, but it came together nicely, wasn’t too salty, and it brought out the flavor of the corn.
The next morning, refried in bacon grease and served with salsa, mayo and coffee, Easy Corn Pudding warmed up my belly big time.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org