When Did Following Recipes Become a Personal Failure?
Sam Sifton’s exciting, but daunting, invitation to improvise
This article was published online on March 14, 2021.
Last spring, early in the pandemic, the host of a radio food program called to ask whether I thought the lockdown would catapult women back to the 1950s. That sure looked likely: Families were home demanding three meals a day, and most of that food was coming from their own kitchens. I started wondering whether the pandemic would succeed where years of cajoling on the part of cookbook writers had failed. Maybe we really had been launched into a new era of cooking from scratch, and would see people joyfully plying their families with homemade grain bowls long after the return of recognizable daily life.
At this point I realized I was conjuring the Happy Housewife, that busy icon of the ’50s often seen transforming leftovers into attractive molded salads to be served on lettuce leaves. She wore high heels when she cooked, she kept two blond children by her side, and she was very, very happy at all times. So is she back?
Only as a refrigerator magnet, thank goodness. But I did sense a familiar presence hovering over the pages of Sam Sifton’s new cookbook, in which he declares right at the outset that he’s going to “make the act of cooking fun when it sometimes seems like a chore.” Fun? It’s a promise that has Happy Housewife written all over it. Not last century’s version, of course—the one I’m detecting in this book is a distinctly contemporary icon of unspecified gender, a casual figure in sweatpants and bedroom slippers. Eager to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients, the new home cook is wonderfully adept at tasting and tweaking until any mistakes with a recipe have been remedied. Actually, there’s no such thing anymore as making a mistake with a recipe. This enviable creature cooks with abandon, recipes optional.
Sifton, the New York Times editor who masterminds NYT Cooking, the paper’s hugely popular site for recipes and culinary chat, has long campaigned for what he calls “no-recipe recipes,” featuring them every Wednesday in his What to Cook newsletter. Now he’s gathered them into a cookbook called The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes—an unwieldy title, but his intentions are clear. Conventional recipes that spell out each step are useful, he says, and if you follow them correctly, you’ll arrive at the destination planned for you. But that’s not the only way to get dinner on the table, and here he evokes the great jazz masters who wouldn’t dream of relying on a printed score. Each “no-recipe recipe,” Sifton explains, is “an invitation for you to improvise,” a skill that will turn you into an imaginative, stress-free cook able to wing it through the preparation of any meal. To this end, Sifton has ditched the time-honored recipe format that starts with a list of measured ingredients, followed by a list of instructions. Instead, he sets out his directions in the form of a conversational paragraph, like this one for “Teriyaki Salmon With Mixed Greens”:
Turn your oven to 400°F or so, and while it heats, make a teriyaki sauce with soy sauce cut with mirin, plus a healthy scattering of minced garlic and ginger. It should be salty-sweet. Then put your salmon fillets on a lightly oiled, foil-lined baking sheet, skin-side down. Paint them with the sauce and roast them in the top of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, painting them again with the sauce at least once along the way. Slide the finished salmon onto piles of mixed greens and drizzle with remaining sauce. Cooking’s not difficult. It’s just a practice.
Apart from that sudden leap to zen in the last sentence, what’s most striking about this no-recipe recipe is that it is, unmistakably, a recipe. It’s clear and detailed; all that’s missing are the measurements. But if we’re being told how hot to make the oven, how the sauce should taste, how to prepare the pan, how long to cook the fish, and how to serve it—why not tell us how much soy sauce, mirin, garlic, and ginger we’re going to need? What’s so uncool about measuring? Okay, okay, so packing minced ginger into a spoon labeled “1 tablespoon” means we’re never going to cook like Coltrane. Schubert isn’t good enough?
Cups and spoons manufactured in standardized sizes for cooking have been ubiquitous in American kitchens for more than a century. Fannie Farmer, who was the principal of the Boston Cooking School in the 1890s, was the first culinary authority to insist on their use. She herself had grown up with such recipe locutions as “butter the size of an egg” and “a heaping spoonful,” but as a teacher she found them far too impressionistic to be practical. Standardized measurements, she believed, were indispensable to good cooking: They would guarantee correct results no matter who was reading the recipe.
She was wrong about her favorite tools being indispensable—the European practice of weighing dry ingredients on a kitchen scale works beautifully—but she was right about American cooks. Few of us have ever wanted to fuss around with scales when cups and spoons are quicker and tidier. Thanks to the immortal instructions Farmer set down in her best-selling The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)—“A cupful is measured level … A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level”—millions of home cooks across the country still heap flour into a measuring cup and then level it off with a knife. The aura of precision that accompanies this ceremony has reassured nervous cooks for generations.
That calming effect was one of the reasons Farmer was such a success as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. Plenty of women were relieved not to be left helpless on the battlefield. Whether or not they were born with a good palate, they could measure half a teaspoon of cinnamon and be reasonably certain it was the right thing to do. Well-meaning but uninspired cooks—and believe me, we have been legion since the dawn of time—long for specifics. Our least favorite phrase in the English language is season to taste.
Since Farmer’s day, the inviolable rule for cookbook writers aiming to reach a wide audience has been to leave nothing to chance, especially measurements. Irma Rombauer, who launched The Joy of Cooking in 1931 with a page-one recipe for a gin cocktail, laced her book with a deft, personable sense of humor that made it unique among kitchen bibles—but on the topic of measuring, she was all business. “The recipes in this book call for standard measuring cups and spoons,” she said flatly. Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, published in 1950 with an unheard-of first printing of 950,000 copies, gave a full two pages to measuring instructions, including illustrations and a poem:
Cooking success is up to you!
If you’ll take pains to measure true,
Use Standard cups and spoons all the way,
And then level off—it’ll always pay!
By the ’60s, even M. F. K. Fisher, the goddess of American food writing who drenched her prose in sensuality and romance, declared that she couldn’t stand recipes that took liberties with the conventional format. “The ingredients should be listed in one column or two, rather than in a running sentence, according to the order of their use, and with the exact amount of each ingredient given before its name,” she ruled.
But careful measuring, which originated simply as a way to make home cooking easier and more predictable, over time developed a more distinctive identity. It acquired gender—at the very moment the postwar kitchen was going upscale. Suddenly a fondness for measuring was discovered to be intrinsically female, practically a secondary sex characteristic, like small brains, shrill voices, and no sense of humor. Female cooks follow recipes “to the last decimal point,” complained the New York restaurateur Leonard Jan Mitchell in 1952, whereas a male cook “experiments, embellishes and is no slave to the cookbook.”
This insight flourished just as newly affluent Americans were learning to spend money on food more liberally than they ever had before. Newspapers and magazines ran splashy features about how to choose wine, serve a properly ripe Camembert, set fire to the crêpes suzette, and toss the salad in a big wooden bowl you must never, ever wash. Once a humble space for housewives, the kitchen started to sport fancy new equipment and a little European glamour. In other words, cue the men. A wave of ambitious male writers sprang up, eager to colonize the food world. Some were chefs, others cooked at home, still others just ate a lot, but they all agreed on what defined greatness in the kitchen: You had to be male. After all, women—the poor fools—measured their ingredients.
Malcolm LaPrade, the author of That Man in the Kitchen (1946), said he cooked in such a “free-and-easy fashion” that it was difficult to write down his recipes at all. His measurements were approximate; “I hope no man will feel bound to follow them.” Raymond Oliver, the chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour in Paris, said he generally omitted “exact quantities and proportions” from the recipes in A Man’s Cookbook (1961) because men, who cooked “in a spirit of joy,” were beyond such constraints. “If you had asked Renoir or Van Gogh … to set down in grams the colors used to paint one or another of their canvases, could you thereupon reproduce the same canvas?”
Sifton can’t fairly be placed in this lineage, despite his devotion to the use-your-imagination school of cooking. He never assigns greatness solely to men; he never even claims that improvisation in the kitchen will produce better meals. On the contrary, he’s designed the simple, brightly flavored dishes in this book so that they’ll work whether the cook is an artist riffing freely on the idea, or a drudge poring over every word. I made the teriyaki salmon, irritated at even the modest amount of guesswork I had to do, and it came out fine—because sure enough, the recipe told me nine-tenths of what I was desperate to know.
This left me wondering what the point of the exercise was. It wasn’t about the food—the food was going to be good whether I added a generous dose of garlic or a minuscule one. I think Sifton isn’t all that fixated on dinner. I think he’s fixated on us—or rather, who we are when we cook.
Every visionary cookbook writer is a bit of a missionary, and Sifton is no exception. In the friendliest way possible, he’s out to win converts. Throw away your crutches, he’s saying, and start cooking by faith alone. Soon you’ll be able to wander into the kitchen at 6 p.m. and emerge with a splendid meal. The message is appealing, all right, but I’m not sure who’s in the congregation. Many people who regularly cook from scratch nowadays—like the readers who flood his column with comments on the recipes—are already expert improvisers. They love explaining how they skipped the harissa, doubled the thyme, added this and didn’t bother with that, and everything came out perfectly. With this crowd, Sifton is preaching to the choir.
That leaves the rest of us. Some cooks will be delighted to know that they can jettison all those fussy details. But others cling to those very details. We cook from scratch doggedly, on principle. It’s a chore for us, not a romp, but it’s the only affordable way to eat well and avoid total domination by the food industry. Sifton knows we’re out here; he knows our occasionally lunatic dependence on exactitude. We’re the folks he had in mind when he chose a prose style dotted with rhetorical flourishes meant to dispel our fears and relax our death grip on the printed page. “Add a few glugs of olive oil,” he likes to say. “Hit that mixture with some ketchup and a splash of soy sauce.” “Rip apart a roast chicken from the supermarket.” “Hungry cats may grill a couple of sausages and add them to the plate.” “Kooky fantastic.” “Boy howdy.” “Yowza.”
Sifton has written a good book, and it’s not his fault that I’m going to give my copy away. The last thing I want is an enthusiastic jazz master looking over my shoulder while I make dinner, inevitably reminding me what a bore I am when I cook. Surely the day will come when boring is the new cool. Until then, I’ll keep my favorite kitchen bible on hand, though I consult it for moral support rather than dinner ideas: Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book, which appeared in 1960 and sold 3 million copies before retiring to a well-earned place in the pantheon. Bracken didn’t hate to cook, but she hated being told how much fun it was. “Do you know the really basic trouble here?” she asked in a chapter on the danger of creativity when dealing with leftovers. “It is your guilt complex. This is the thing you have to lick.” Yowza.
This article appears in the April 2021 print edition with the headline “When Did Following Recipes Become a Personal Failure?”
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