Welcome to Cooking is Thinking, a column about the transformation of food and how we feel about it.
Two summers ago, my grandmother-in-law, whom I’ve always called Nonna, spotted a couple of overripe tomatoes in her fruit bowl and asked if I’d like to learn how to make “something with tomatoes and bread I haven’t made in a long time.”
In the near twenty years I’ve known her, this is how she’s identified many dishes to me. The “sauce, but for lasagna only,” or the “green sauce I used to make for company with a lot of chopped herbs” when her late husband would bring home a hunted goose. Even in the recipe cards she’s kept, or at least the ones I’ve seen, the titles focus more on their role in her day-to-day than a name. My favourite? Yelo Cake. It’s a simple pound cake recipe I’m convinced is designed specifically for her scratched-up 50-year-old Bundt pan. The couple of times I’ve tried making it in any other vessel it stuck and didn’t cleanly pop out.
Imagine someone has cooked a particular dish a hundred, possibly even a thousand times over during the course of their life. By “someone,” I don’t mean a kitchen or restaurant professional. Just a person, someone used to making food for themselves. Often for others, too, and often, because of the history associated with this labour, a woman. What might the actions involved in making the dish have to say about their desires, their triumphs and failures, and how they have learned to comfort others or nourish themselves? It’s taken me a long time to understand the value in explicitly recording this type of cooking, whether it’s by recipe cards or through extremely specific oral instruction that sometimes borders on the theatrical.
Anyone who’s lived long enough to learn to feed themselves likely has some kind of biographical dish, whether it’s a clear-as-glass chicken broth, or a tamale, or simply scrambled eggs smashed on toast. They aren’t necessarily perfect. To some they may not even be all that good. But what they are is embodied proof of what the maker knows.
There’s a chapter in London-based writer Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, released in the UK last year and out in Canada this summer, that addresses the question of the biographical dish through her documentation of making one thing a thousand different ways over the course of ten years. One night, as a lonely undergrad new to a big city, a classmate on exchange from Italy teaches her a simple method for tomato sauce. Garlic, sliced thinly; olive oil heated enough to pull the garlic flavour into itself and frizzle the edges just slightly; tinned tomatoes and salt go in and bubble until the oil floats to the top; a bunch of basil gets thrown in at the end. The process takes all of twenty minutes, maybe thirty.
This recipe becomes the anchor for Johnson teaching herself how to cook to impress or cook to feed, and how to distinguish between the two. What begins as an inquiry into the life of a recipe becomes a sort of side thinking project to her PhD at the time, and eventually a book on the intellectual nature of cooking.
Johnson was taught one way of cooking what is essentially a pasta pomodoro sauce. While searching for the recipe—that is, a written record of what she’d been instructed in person to make—she adopts a classic Marcella Hazan method for sugo. She learns that there are multiple written versions of the classic recipe in existence—that perhaps Hazan’s enduring influence through this sauce alone has more to do with the nature of its adoption in a home cook’s life rather than its to-the-letter execution from an original set of written steps. Johnson suggests that even this form of no-recipe adoption, too, is itself a recipe.
Cooking is thinking is the takeaway argument of Small Fires, and I can’t tell you how good it felt to read those three words in succession without some kind of qualification. There are many cooks and writers I’ve admired who have pressed this point through an essay, a recipe, or a film. But few in my experience have done so without hedging the argument in ways that suggest the thinking lies somewhere other than in the act itself.
Cooking is thinking, but only if it upends tradition—the implication being that if tradition means the country of grandmothers and home-cooked food, then in tradition lies the absence of thought. Cooking is thinking, but only if it adheres to the tradition of Continental (read: European) cuisine cooked in brigade-run kitchens. Cooking is thinking, but only if the ingredients are of a certain provenance. Cooking is thinking, but only if it does something—other than feed people, of course. Cooking is thinking, but.
Unlike with writing, I cook best when I’m not thinking. Or, more specifically, when I’m distracted enough not to be alert about the cooking itself: if I’m underslept, missing someone, faintly hungover, impatient about something other than what I’m making, hungry and in need of a meal soon but not now, immediately after an argument. In situations like these, a comfort-seeking, animal part of my brain becomes alive, one that can pay attention in ways my environment these days either doesn’t encourage or does not immediately reward.
Sometimes I’ll beat the hell out of a few eggs until they’re as thin as water, salt them, let them rest for ten minutes, then cook them on the lowest heat for fifteen minutes, stirring most of the time, till they’re custard-thick and perfect—only then do they get chives or pepper or a drop of cream. Or I can drop dried black beans in broth, olive oil, fennel, oregano, then epazote for tradition and baking soda for a science-backed way to skip a lengthy pre-soak. I’ll boil them for ten minutes and simmer for another fifty or so until they’re inky, creamy and ready to blend—my proof positive to anyone, usually just myself, that I know how to cook well.
This isn’t to say I cook without recipes. Far from it: the fact that I need to follow these steps, that I need specific conditions to cook in this way, is an indictment of what otherwise sounds like instinctual cooking. My ability to pay attention in the way these foods need renders the conditions of their making a form of recipe unto itself.
Watching my own mother cook, watching Nonna cook, and my own abuela before her, helped me recognize this deeply even if I didn’t understand it at the time. Shopping for what you know you have time to cook in a week sets the parameters of a recipe. Translating decades of domestic work experience into a set of strict oral instructions on how to turn past-prime vegetables, vinegar, garlic and sugar into a blissful braise is a recipe. Recognizing anxiety in a six-year-old child and calming her down with something as simple as hot honey stirred into lime juice will convince almost anyone that cooking—that creating recipes—is a necessary skill.
In 2017, American celebrity chef Tyler Florence announced his retirement from writing cookbooks (he’s authored more than a dozen), having declared the recipe deceased. “They’re dead the same way paper maps are dead,” he told the Washington Post at the time, decrying their inability to address every dietary need, every geographical and domestic reality—as if people who are used to cooking for others regularly don’t adapt written cooking instructions for these reasons every day.
Not too long ago, lockdown-enforced home cooking encouraged food writers to revisit their own relationship with the recipe. Was it masterful to cook without one? A door-opening text to understanding the world if followed to the letter? An ahistorical argument? I think all these things are true. But I also think their suggestion that the recipe is an either/or proposition, that you either cook with or without one, limits how we understand the act of cooking.
If you cook from experience, these instincts are still informed by a series of known steps. Perhaps they were relayed by a family member, a cookbook, a TV appearance—or even your own happy accident, all the more repeated step by step in the future because of the unexpected joy of the result. A trusted method, whether worked out individually or handed down from some multi-generational source, has still been tested over and over, has its own logic for how elastic or rigid its parameters are—is shaped by its own set of social conditions, artifices, even fantasies or superstitions.
For the tomato-and-bread dish, Nonna sliced the tomatoes in half, and asked me to scoop out the flesh with a spoon: enough to get the seeds out, but not so much as to disturb the fleshy parts that section the fruit. She instructed me to pile sprigs of parsley and thyme and two cloves of garlic upon themselves, chop them up together as if they were the same ingredient, then mix them into a bowl of stale bread soaked in milk. She insisted on mixing it all herself with her hands, then squeezing out the extra liquid into the sink, and I carefully watched her do this.
She stuffed the strained mass into the tomatoes, I topped them with grated cheese, and we roasted them for forty minutes. They turned out crispy on top and soggy beneath. Not the way she wanted. She promised we’d try the recipe again, but we haven’t since.
I came to understand that her disappointment in the tomato dish had more to do with her relationship with the act of cooking than the result itself. I followed her instructions exactly, at times in contradiction to what I might have done myself, or thought that in earlier years she would have wanted me to do. Nonna is ninety-five; an act of any kind on her part isn’t a given. She knew this then, and I knew it, too. What benefit was there in doing anything other than what she instructed?
Six months after the tomato dish, she began to recoil from foods neighbours had often brought by the house: bready pizzas, steamed vegetables, sheets of broken lasagna deep-fried and covered in sugar. “This soup? Horrible!” she exclaimed about something cooked by a neighbour she’d known for 50 years. This was not out of spite. Her sense of taste was changing. One weekend I brought her a litre of minestrone made from dried beans and garden-grown zucchini. She didn’t like the colour and wouldn’t look at it.
Another weekend, it was a container of pepperonata, made from red bell peppers, old and caving in; a glug of vinegar, and a pinch of sugar to mask their age. “Get me a fork,” she demanded the minute the lid was lifted. She ate the braised vegetables straight from the little plastic tub—cold, unheated, completely in contradiction to her lifelong insistence that food be eaten scalding hot. It’s extremely unlikely she was able to taste the peppers at that temperature, but she delighted in it, the first thing she ever taught me to make.