Cooking and Not Cooking Recipes

There was a time when I said: “Why cook a recipe?” I said it for many reasons… I didn’t want to, I didn’t know how to, and I thought that maybe to be a good cook one had to not use recipes. I was trying to be a master chef and I hadn’t even cooked a recipe. Maybe I’d made cookies. But I felt like I should be able to just stir fry something, and that this should be enough to sustain me. And wouldn’t it be better, I thought, to stir fry and really know how, then to busy myself going out and buying a whole list of things just to come back and make them into something that probably wouldn’t even work?

I was wrong, of course. Cooking recipes is what cooking is. Recipes are just the product of someone who cooked something and wrote it down. Did I not know this?


So I started doing it. It is still a pretty big thing for me. I look up a recipe for, say, a stir fry, and I read it over a few times (not carefully) and then I check what we have and I go to the grocery store and buy the things we don’t. I usually have to walk around with my cell phone at the grocery store to convert between grams and pounds and Google questions like “Is bok choy big?” I was doing this grocery store bit so successfully the other day that a man asked me if I sometimes made fried rice and if I do, what do I put in it? I said I did (I’ve never, but it sounds so simple, I must have) and I told him maybe some zucchini? He winced. That would be a bad choice. I asked him what he normally puts in it. You know, the usual, he said. He named a few things. Eggs? I asked. Oh yeah. Then I pointed at the bell peppers. Maybe a red pepper? I suggested. Oh! His eyes widened. Oh yes.

It maybe isn’t in the recipe that one feels the magic. It is in the addition of the bell pepper, the extra dash of spice or the replacement of some ingredient with some other that is where cooking begins. And once a recipe has been repeated so many times, with various successes, maybe one becomes a cook by default, if the noun is just a reflection of the verb. Because with recipes I am cooking, and without them, I find it hard to.

Now I wonder where writing plays into this. Because I know that I don’t want to follow a recipe. I don’t want to write a murder mystery or an acrostic poem. I want to actually be a writer. But writers write. And when I’m playing with a novel for four years wondering about the consequence of a look shared between two people across a bar, and whether it’s a bar or a restaurant, and whether his name is Gil or Hugo, and whether she is 28 or 29, then the novel isn’t getting written. And there are (I believe!) other people who have written novels. Those are the recipes. They’ve written them down. So maybe the step toward writing isn’t writing, really—isn’t diving into the process of putting words in whatever order on paper—but reading. Maybe reading is the recipe to writing. And if you read enough, so that the recipes get engrained in you, and you know how a stir fry works (and tastes, and looks), then you can do it yourself, adding and changing and getting the flavours all right in the way that works for you. Just don’t use a zucchini in your fried rice. We all knew that.