My earliest memory of my aunt is of her melting sugar on the stove in my grandparents’ old summer farmhouse in western New York. I was probably around four years old and it seemed to me that what she was doing was a little bit magical. But actually this was something kind of ordinary in that house, what with my French grandmother pretty much constantly whipping up Hollandaise sauce or ratatouille or something else that would take hours to prepare and minutes to wolf down. There was hardly a moment when someone wasn’t cooking something and this is still true of my aunt today, who I can only picture in the various kitchens I have seen her in, including her own.
Were cookbooks used? Very likely, but I hardly remember anyone looking at one. Somehow my grandmother always seemed to know how many eggs went into a soufflé and when precisely it needed to be taken out of the oven. Which is why I have always had a kind of wary relationship with cookbooks. I love reading them, don’t get me wrong. And how else are you going to make anything that you don’t already know how to make? It’s just that I hate having to cook while constantly reading and referring back to something. (This is strangely the opposite of how I am in my non-cooking life, in which I try to read while doing other things, such as walking down the street.) I think it’s the fact that I am so easily distracted while cooking that reading a recipe ends up distracting me further, if that makes sense. And then there’s also the very worst word you can encounter in a recipe. That word is meanwhile. There you are, following along, and suddenly you read: “Meanwhile, shuck 60 oysters” or “Meanwhile prepare the marinade and let it sit for two hours.” At that point, you realize that you have simply lost control of the whole procedure.
It would make sense, I suppose, to read an entire recipe before trying to make something new. I know there are people like that out there. Are these the same people who actually read all the directions before playing a new board game or trying to work a new digital camera? I think those might be the people that have what you might call patience. As for me, I might skim a recipe for cooking times, but sometimes the ingredient list is really all I get through before starting. But then once I have perfected something, all I eventually need to look at is the ingredient list, which is exactly my goal.
But the cookbooks themselves. Oh, I read these just like regular books: for the stories! The stories of how when you add balsamic vinegar to roasted fennel something amazing happens. Or how a triple mousse cake is supposed to come gorgeously together with just the tiniest bit of gelatin. Or how when you make David Chang’s ginger vinaigrette you will want to drink it straight up. Or how at the age of 8 someone’s French grandmother made her practice separating eggs until she got it just right (okay, this would actually be from my own personal cookbook, if such a thing were ever to be written).
I guess my point is that there is reading and there is cooking. And I love both. But, and this hardly makes any sense at all and yet I'm afraid it's true, not at the same time.