Picture an 80 year old Italian woman slowly peeling a potato (with a knife) in her well-worn kitchen. A potato that will make it’s way into a dish that she has made over a thousand times. Each time just ever so slightly different. She cooks with the love she feels for the people she is cooking for. Family. Friends. Lovers. You can taste it in every bite. You can even feel it.
But ask her for the recipe and the picture dissolves. She can’t do it. Yes, maybe she can get out a piece of paper and write down the ingredients and a close version of the measurements. Or, you could shadow her as she cooks and write down everything in excruciating detail, make copies, and give them to everyone. But, nobody can make that dish like Grandma does. Some things just don’t translate to paper.
Ask any Chef what the hardest part about teaching a cooking class is and you will get the same answer. Writing the recipes. I can come up with menus and plan beautiful, fun and entertaining cooking classes all day long but as soon as it gets to the writing the recipes time I freeze. It kills it. I almost want to cancel the class. I picture the people’s heads down in the recipe as I cook and not really listening because they know they have the recipe as a back-up. It is a crutch.
Some things just don’t translate to paper.
I have a book I carry with me pretty much all the time. The Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tsu. It is just some eastern philosophies in a very simple format but it’s the first line that always gets me.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
What this means to me is that The Tao, which usually translates to The Way, is inside you. Once you write it down or try to explain it the true meaning is lost. This thing we call language and words is just not powerful enough to translate it. Most people, when they reach some form of enlightenment, want everyone to feel that way so they try to teach it. They try to write it down. “Look, here it is. I found the way and now you can too!” But, that never seems to work. It suddenly becomes concrete and loses all it’s meaning. Any pastor, guru, priest, teacher, etc, etc (more words) or book can only point you in a direction. Maybe there is nothing really out there….nothing to get to or go to. Maybe we just have to look within and it is all there.
Okay, this might be a bit of a stretch as a way to look at cooking but indulge me for a second.
Pretend you take a cooking class and there is a particular dish that really speaks to you. You love it. You thank the chef for teaching it to you. You tell that chef he is now your guru and you decide to follow him. (On Twitter) A week later you make it for your family. You followed the recipe exactly and read your notes from the class. It comes out okay but not quite the way it tasted when the chef made it.
Then you make it again at a dinner party. But since then you have read a few other cookbooks and have taken another cooking class from a different chef. This time the dish is a little different but your guests rave about it. They love it and you feel good and even give them the recipe. (I found the way and now you can too.) Then months go by. You are open to everything. You follow other chefs (on Twitter) and even try different cuisines. You still have your original recipe but you don’t really need it anymore. The dish has evolved and even, I dare say, become your own. You may even look at that first recipe and think part of it is wrong. You know the way now. Maybe you will even write your own cookbook or start teaching your own cooking classes!
But, you can’t teach your dish to anyone. It is only within you now. You can point them in a certain direction, just like that first chef did for you, but that’s it. It is up to them to make that dish their own. Some may not. Some may just keep trying to make it exactly like you taught them and get frustrated because they can never really get it quite right. And, they never think to ask why. They don’t read other books or open themselves up to other cuisines in order to find the true chef that is within them.
So, next time you see a beautiful creation on Instagram or Facebook don’t ask for the recipe. Instead try asking what the story is behind that certain dish. How it came about. Then maybe that story will influence a recipe you have been trying to re-create.
A dish that can be told is not an eternal dish.