How To Build a Personal Cuisine and Still Have Time to Have a Life
In the last section, I discussed the four tools every home cook, great or small, should have at their disposal. Today, I want to discuss the culture of cookbooks, the hows and whys of food marketing and how people can go about building their own personal cuisine. I would like to take a moment to state that the idea of personal cuisine is not mine nor do I believe that it belongs to the person from whom I got it, John Thorne. I believe that the idea and concept of a personal cuisine has been floating around for a long, long time. However, I do know that Mister Thorne is the only person that I have ever heard or read that refers to the idea as "personal cuisine". I have spoken about Mister Thorne at length in previous posts, so I shall not do so now except to say that anyone who is serious about developing their own personal cuisine owes it to themselves to find copies of his books Simple Cooking and Outlaw Cook and read them cover to cover.
Cookbooks are a two-edged sword for the home cook, initiated into the mysteries of cooking or not. On the one hand, they offer us the comfort and safety of being told exactly what to use, what to do and when to do it. On the other hand, they take away most people's sense of adventure and their ability to adapt in the kitchen. When confronted with a missing ingredient, most people will nix the whole project rather than go against the recipe. The key here for the uninitiated cook is to understand that a cookbook should serve as an inspiration and a guide, never as the end-all of cooking. You should use the book, not follow it blindly. The key is to absorb the lesson, apply it as needed and adapt it where possible to suit your taste. And that is the essence of a personal cuisine - your taste and your expressions as a cook.
The culture of the cookbook is, at its core level, an insidious thing. It is a culture of rules and standards. It says that you must cook a dish thus-and-so, for this long and with these certain materials. Doing so will allow you to sample the food that the celebrity on the cover says you will make. Failure to comply with the directions will result in a messy and untimely end, at least culinarily speaking. The reality of cookbooks and home cuisine is, in fact, much more complicated. Here's the fact that all those book-writing celebrity chefs already know and that their publishers hope you never figure out: You don't need those books. If you have a functioning set of taste buds, a pair of hands and a willingness to experiment then you can replicate almost any dish you've ever tasted. The last thing there is the most important. You have to be willing to experiment and you must have people around you who are willing to experiment as well. But we'll come back to this in a moment. More on cookbooks right now.
It is a fact that cooking has become big business. Everywhere one turns, you can find cookbooks by various television personalities who aren't even chefs. With the advent of FoodTV, even more cookbooks have been released and the entire "culture of cooking" has taken this nation totally by storm. Even as recently as fifteen years ago, cooking was not seen as a glamorous occupation. Now, people are swarming to colleges and universities to become chefs. The hype surrounding all things culinary can cloud things enormously for the uninitiated cook. It's very easy to believe that one -must- have the Emeril cookbooks, the Booby Flay grill cover, the Alton Brown santoku knives or the Rachael Ray apron. But, the fact of the matter is that none of these people's know-how come included in any of those purchases. Their inspiration will not, unfortunately, rub off on you if you buy their stuff no matter what the ads may say. Sadly, I have been routinely disappointed by the majority of the celebrity cookbooks I have received (Alton Brown and Mario Batali being the notable exceptions) but this doesn't mean that you should totally toss them out. However, I would like to give you an alternative to purchasing that very expensive hard-cover cookbook that Tyler Florence just put out which you will leaf through three times, maybe try one or two recipes and set onto the shelf to moulder.
Instead of spending thirty five dollars or so on a cookbook you may use twice, allow me to recommend saving that money and going to your local used bookstore or garage sale and poking through the books there to see if anything catches your attention. Almost every town and suburb now have at least one used bookstore in them and if they don't have one, then there's sure to be a garage sale, church rummage sale or estate sale going on that is sure to have at least one cookbook. And speaking of churches, don't forget that they, along with alumni associations, garden clubs and groups of all stripes just love to turn out cookbooks as fund raisers. The reasons I point these out as alternatives are as follows:
Firstly, this is a cost effective way of getting recipes that are probably staples of whatever area you are living in. For the price of one of the books by Paula Dean, Emeril or Alton, you could probably get two or three from your local used book store. Another problem with cookbooks as being sold and marketed today is that you get recipes from all over in one book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe that regional cooking is an important part of an individual's personal cuisine. And who is going to know more about your regional cuisine: the FoodTV Flavor of the Week who's capitalizing on his new fame or that bevy of blue-haired ladies at your local bridge society who are putting out their greatest hits in soft cover format to pay for new carpeting in their church rec hall?
Secondly, older is probably better. At least in my opinion, it's better. In the days before everything was coated in trendiness, you had food that was cooked with a minimum of pretentiousness. Sure, there were complicated recipes... but the ingredients themselves were usually pretty tame. The uninitiated cook is not going to have time to sit around and pick apart a couple of heads of belgian endive, separate the individual slices of mandarin orange and hand crush the walnuts for a simple salad. They'll probably have the desire to do so even less. Older cookbooks I have found are not quite as pretentious as the cookbooks today and concentrate on getting food that is easily obtainable from even the lowest common denominator of grocery store. That makes it easy for the uninitiated cook to scale their ingredients up instead of having to scale them down in terms of quality or price.
Lastly, these recipes are likely to be familiar to the people actually eating the food. This is especially true of the locally published cookbooks. It has been my experience that the amateur cook is willing to try any recipe that he or she finds, no matter how exotic the ingredients as long as it sounds good. It has also been my experience that the professional chef will figure out a recipe to fit an ingredient, no matter how exotic it may be, as long as he likes the way it looks or smells. However, the uninitiated cook is neither of these people. The uninitiated cook has neither the energy of the amateur cook nor the time of the professional chef. So trying to cook lobster thermidor enough times to get it right is probably not something that is going to happen before the spouses and children start screaming bloody murder. However, cooking a good version of poppyseed chicken casserole is probably something that can be done and added to the repitore within one or two times of trying.
And adding recipes to your cooking repitore is really what building a personal cuisine is all about. It's about becoming so comfortable with a dish that you know it backwards and forwards and , even more importantly, that you feel confident in altering it to fit -your- personal tastes. That is when a recipe quits being a recipe and becomes personal cuisine. -Your- personal cuisine. Most of us have one or two dishes that we know by heart and can cook strictly from memory, no written directions needed. To me, an uninitiated cook who is looking to have a personal cuisine should bump that to at least five dishes and shoot for a goal of ten. Ten dishes! You have to be crazy! Not really, friend. See, you're not coming up with these just out of nowhere. This is where those cookbooks come in handy. Take the recipes that you've tried and had success with. Put them in your regular meal rotation. Cook them once every seven to ten days (or more often if it was a big hit). Soon, you'll be able to remember what to do and when. Then, when you're confident in your cooking, switch it up some. Leave an ingredient you're not crazy about out. Add a double helping of one you DO like. Substitute carrots for parsnips or rice for potatoes. Go crazy and start making your food your own. You'll be amazed how fast your cooking becomes an extension of you as a person.
Tomorrow I'm going to examine how you can pull your personal cuisine into your life as an uninitiated cook and generally busy person (aren't we all?), what steps to take in how to plan to actually cook a meal instead of just warming something up in the microwave and what to look for in a grocery store when you are short on time and money.