Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Knack

I remember when I was first married that when my wife went to make the recipes my mother had given to her, they never came out quite right. It wasn't until I compared notes with my older brother some years later that we both began to suspect that my mother had intentionally left out certain key steps or key ingredients in most of our favorite recipes. All of this came to mind as I was reading the November 23 issue of The New Yorker, which turned out to be The Food Issue. Normally that's not a topic I'd take a lot of interest in, but there's always a pleasant surprise buried in there somewhere, and for me it was this paragraph from Adam Gopnick's meditation on cookbooks entitled "What's the Recipe?":

Handed-down wisdom and worked-up information remain the double piers of a cook’s life. The recipe book always contains two things: news of how something is made, and assurance that there’s a way to make it, with the implicit belief that if I know how it is done I can show you how to do it. The premise of the recipe book is that these two things are naturally balanced; the secret of the recipe book is that they’re not. The space between learning the facts about how something is done and learning how to do it always turns out to be large, at times immense. What kids make depends on what moms know: skills, implicit knowledge, inherited craft, buried assumptions, finger know-how that no recipe can sum up. The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only by experience, a knack posing as a knowledge. We say “What’s the recipe?” when we mean “How do you do it?” And though we want the answer to be “Like this!” the honest answer is “Be me!” [Mom's meta-message, no doubt, or rather more to the point, "You'll never be me."] “What’s the recipe?” you ask the weary pro chef, and he gives you a weary-pro-chef look, since the recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work. The recipe is to spend your life cooking.

I like that distinction between "learning how something is done and learning how to do it." I like that compact little phrase he came up with, " a knack posing as knowledge." And I like that last broadening, generalizing, clarifying sentence at the end, "The recipe is to spend your life cooking."

One of the reasons I've been reading the New Yorker religiously for forty plus years now is that it's one of the few publications which regularly features writing like this: writing that is thoughtful and artful and apt, no matter what the subject. Reading the New Yorker each week is one of the more dependable rituals of pleasure in my life. There's a terrific short story by Sam Shepard in this issue as well.

1 comment:

Mr. B-G said...

Cool post. Nice concept.