Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Recipes used to be simpler:
- Hit pigeon with rock
- Pull off feathers
- Hold over fire until inside temperature reaches ow.
Our ancestors learned the feather trick after some trial and error.
Then came the invention of tools. Cooks, touchy about the fact that up until then they had done nothing but burn things, decided they would get more respect if they renamed every tool that applied to cooking. They stopped using sticks and started using utensils.
Once they invented the arrow, the knife and the alphabet, things changed fast. Food parts were cut into littler and littler bits until they became too little to eat, fostering the invention of bowls, mixers and measuring spoons to put it all back together again, following a recipe. Cooks became chefs. And that’s when trouble began.
How could they screw up something as simple as a spoon? If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground pigeon flakes, you can’t use a spoon off the table and measure with it, because a table spoon holds only a teaspoon. How much does a tea spoon hold? We don’t know, because even the British don’t use tea spoons. You stir tea with a demi-spoon, which, in spite of its name, is not half a spoon. We have a soup spoon but nobody measures with it, even though it holds nearly a tablespoon.
They also invented the heaping teaspoon, two words nobody thought would ever go together.
Does a drinking cup hold a cup? Of course not. It holds 1.5 cups. If I cup my hands I can carry 1/8 of a cup. A cup holds 8 ounces of flour, which weighs 4 ounces. See how easy it is? This is why we give up on recipes and just go to Burger King.
Heaven forbid we use the metric system like the rest of the educated world. You know you are on shaky ground when your only compatriots using cups, pints and quarts are the British, who can’t be trusted with food or naming things.
The British call a spatula a scoop. The Scots call that a tosser, but that’s forgivable: if your homeland was famous for haggis you’d toss your food too.
I like the indistinct measurements, like a pinch and a dash. While not clear, at least they’re not misleading. Besides, they use our fingers, which we happen to have handy.
We need more such measurements. A fistful of cumin. (Okay, maybe not cumin, because then you go around with your hand smelling like you got lucky.) A finger of cake frosting. A nose of Coke.
Justin Timberlake introduced a cup of Janet Jackson. There’s a hands-on measure.
You’ll argue that we shouldn’t measure using our body parts, because bodies aren’t consistent in size. But I see that as a strength. A guy with big hands eats more, and his recipe would turn out accordingly.
How about a glom of yoghurt? A swipe of peanut butter? (I know there is a schmear of cream cheese, but I always feel a little shorted. No wonder: I looked it up and the word translates as “corrupt.”)
I love making coffee because I grind the coffee beans in a coffee grinder, put them in a coffee maker and make coffee in a coffee cup. I appreciate such clarity first thing in the morning.
Did we really need to call it a frying pan?
In my kitchen I have a whisk, which is a mixer. My mixer uses beaters. I beat with a tenderizer, which mashes. To mash potatoes I use a ricer, and I cook rice in the steamer while I steam vegetables in the colander before I toss them into a salad with dressing I whip up with my whisk.
My blender has buttons to chop, grate, crumb, puree, liquefy and whip. Guess what it doesn’t have a button for.
Written for Fall 2009 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine