Essay for Cooking II, Johnson County Community College, 11/06/06
by Lyn Foister
Kitchen staffs invariably work in small quarters against hot stoves and ovens. They are under constant pressure to prepare meals quickly, while ensuring quality is maintained and safety and sanitation guidelines are observed. -- U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006
Don't be a fuddy-duddy with your hollandaise; be bold, dunk your pretzels in it! -- Miss Piggy
By training, and by natural inclination, I am an editor. I have edited everything from stories about county sewer board meetings to profiles of the spouses of potential presidential candidates. I've worked with writers and reporters who struggled to put two facts together in a comprehensible sentence to those who could (and later did) win awards for their work.
Although an editor finds true joy in working with accomplished writers, the joy is no less when working with writers who can barely find their way to the next split infinitive. For an editor, tightening the story, refining and putting the words and facts in a logical and concise order toward a product that brings "the reader into the story screaming" is an almost tactile experience.
Cooking, whether described by Julia Child or by the 18-year-old standing next to you in cooking class, has the same feel.
Cooking is the most tactile of professions. You wash, you chop, you dice. You combine all those preparations in a way that brings forth enticing smells and golden colors and flavors you could only have imagined. Even as you learn fundamentals, you learn to refine, to tweak, to master that special technique that at first seemed beyond your reach. Oh, the joy when you find that caramelizing onions is almost second nature, or when you can form a mental picture of mise en place simply by scanning a recipe.
In the kitchen, you can see the raw materials form a whole. You can see the parts of the puzzle fit together. You can go from an onion, a little asparagus, some rice and cheese to a meltingly delicious risotto. Unlike the puzzle, though, there is room to move, there is room to take a chance. Would some tiny mushrooms make a nice companion to those thin stalks of spring asparagus? What about another kind of cheese? With practice you learn what the answers might be.
It is true that most of this creation takes place over hot stoves in crowded real estate. It's hot, it's noisy, you can't sit down, there's not enough time, who moved my eggs, is a bit of yolk in the whites...did the recipe say oregano, or was it mint? Gosh. Where could you have more fun?
Don't get me wrong. The cooking principles, and the students who study them, are serious. But I believe it is the wow factor that keeps most of us in the kitchen. Wow, I did it. Wow, that looks good. Wow, that tastes good. Wow, they liked it!
It is like a good story. At first, you can only write a simple sentence, subject and verb. Then you can add an adjective or two, then a little phrase that describes the scene, then some dialogue that gives your reader a clue about an unusual character. And, finally, if you're lucky and you work hard, you have Hemingway's true sentence. Or to translate to culinary terms, good food, well prepared.
And like a good story, a cook sees a definite flow. There's the beginning -- how could these spices and this meat and this cooking method go together to make a good dish? It has a middle -- perhaps it needs a bit more salt or cooked a little longer. And, of course, an end -- once again, good food, well prepared.
Take Miss Piggy's hollandaise. It's just a few egg yolks and butter, after all, with a few special touches here and there.
Of course, if you described to any sane person how hollandaise is made -- whip the egg yolks over water till they're thick (how thick? how long did you say this takes?) add lemon juice (lemon juice? oh yes, stops the eggs from cooking), did you really say to drizzle in melted, clarified butter and stir and hold the bowl (stainless steel, please) over a pan, all at the same time (what? I need a towel, too?), how's that again? drizzle and stir and hold the bowl? -- they would wonder why all the bother.
Julia Child once described it this way: "Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet."
So step back and take a look at the hollandaise. A sauce the color of fresh butter. Frothy and light. Then take a taste. Who could ask for anything better? And who would want to be anything but the cook who could prepare such a hollandaise? Good food, well prepared.
Good enough to dunk your pretzel in it.