From Abstraction to Reality: A Half-Baked Essay on Food with a Generous Contest Offer in the Last Paragraph

Picture a cake.

Let’s say a yellow cake with vanilla icing. The cheap kind that comes in a box; the kind you would sell at the Chess Club bake sale. Picture it strewn with rainbow sprinkles; the large rectangle carved into equitable squares.

Now taste it. Do you have the flavor in your mind? The cake with its chemical richness–you can almost taste the yellow; the icing overly sweet, glopped on way too generously. And the crunch of the rainbow sprinkles in your teeth. What do rainbow sprinkles taste like anyway? Mini-sugar apostrophes that get caught in the teeth…

Now stay with me here.

We are going to reform our cake. We are going to make our cake from scratch. It’s still a “yellow” cake only now we’re using flour, baking soda, a pinch of salt. And buttermilk for that tangy richness. Eggs. Sugar. The batter gloppy and aromatic. We pour it gently into a round 9-inch cake pan. Bake until a tester comes out clean. Can you see the tester? Can you smell the cake?

Only there are three cakes. Four cakes. Five cakes. All the same. Well, not all the same. In one we put orange zest. Another lemon zest. One has bananas in it. The fourth is chocolate. We are going to slice the cakes in half and make-mismatched sandwiches.

No. We’re going to make a 5-layer yellow cake, our original plan. Let’s make a whipped cream frosting. Pour the heavy cream into your mixer, and beat on high until peaks form–add sugar. Vanilla. Rum. No rum. Which is it?

And now let’s layer our cake. Bottom layer. Whipped cream. Raspberries? Blackberries? Both? Another layer. More whipped cream. Strawberries? Blueberries? Kumquats?

Can you taste these things in your mind?

Let me cut you a slice. This is my half orange cake, half lemon cake mis-matched combo with a whipped cream raspberry interior and a whipped cream blackberry topping. Can you taste it? You can’t? Good!

I have a point here, you know.

I am not delirious or on drugs. I am not a monkey jabbing randomly at the keys.

I am trying to explain to you why cooking is wonderful, why food is wonderful.

It is the journey from abstraction to reality.

This is a journey many take. I am taking it right now. This essay was a soapy bubble in my brain, now I’m puffing air into it watching it expand. Will it pop? Will it grow?

It is in that space between an idea–a recipe, for example–and the realization of that idea (the food) that the magic lies. At some point Melville said: “A book about a whale!” He said down in the ether and grabbed oars and fishhooks and blubber and spun these disparate elements into a classic work of literature. We all sit in that ether at times. In the morning, when we plan our day. We lay in bed. “I will go to breakfast then go drag racing.” That’s the idea. Then there’s the reality. The breakfast you pictured doesn’t taste like you thought it would. You pictured fluffy pancakes. These are mushy. And the syrup tastes funny.

I’m losing you.

My best point of evidence is chicken. The journey from a raw chicken, pasty pale and rubbery to a cooked chicken–golden, crisp, and perfuming the air with its rich chickeniness is the journey of which I speak. You can’t know the magic I speak of until you roast a chicken. Stuff the cavity with thyme, garlic and lemon and feel the anticipation on your skin, in your mouth, in the pit of your stomach. Watch it in the oven as it browns and bubbles; the hot juices dripping down the roasting pan. Remove it in all its glory.

Writing instructors talk about the poloroid picture. When you start writing your story, everything is gray and misty and unclear. And slowly everything comes into focus. Soon you know what your story’s about, who your character’s are.

Food is like that. I frequently sit with my cookbooks flipping through them, picturing the recipes in my mind and in my mind’s mouth. I can taste them, I think. And then I make them. Sometimes they disappoint (Chez Panisse saffron risotto, for example) and sometimes they fly far beyond my wildest expectations (Chez Panisse wild mushroom risotto). And almost always–almost every single time–the taste that I pictured in my mouth flipping through the books tastes nothing like what the end product tastes like. This is especially true of the recipes I’ve never tried. Hence my opening paragraphs: all those cake variations. My point is that you really can’t anticipate what any of that will taste like. You have to take a leap. And it’s in that space between not knowing and knowing that captures us at our most alive. It emulates the human condition: we are here on earth between not knowing and knowing. And it can be wonderful.

And this isn’t even just a call to cook. Many people hate cooking, and that’s fine. You can’t make people love a process that involves great attention to detail and tiny maneuevers that might severely affect the outcome of a dish. I’m not asking you to do that.

I am asking you to take chances. Take chances with what you eat every day. Remember this quote: “Habit is the great deadener.” That’s the truest quote I’ve ever heard. If you eat the same sandwich every day, stop. If you eat with the same people, don’t. Don’t drive through the same drive-throughs in endless patterns of deathliness. I think Aimee Mann coined the term “deathly” on her Magnolia album. That’s deathly living. That’s not embracing life and all it’s wonder.

Do me a favor this weekend. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Order something you’ve never ordered. Eat frog’s legs. Eat liver wrapped in bacon. Make a souffle.

This website is not marginal. It is not just a diversion. I have a point with all of this madness. I’m trying to show you in every way I can that food is not nourishment, food is not sustinence—food is life. How you eat is how you live. And the greater your abstractions are; the farther you let your imagination roam the greater your realities will be.

I took a chance earlier tonight myself…

I said to myself: “These chocolate chip cookies are delicious. My caramel pecan milk chocolate ice cream is delicious too! I’ll make an ice cream sandwich!”

I took the ice cream out of the fridge:

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I put a cookie on a plate:

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I scooped some ice cream on to the cookie:

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[The ice cream melted very quickly…]

And topped with another cookie:

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And you know what? It didn’t taste as great as I thought it would. The ice cream was so runny, it basically lacked any presence. Its organs–the nuts and the milk chocolate–added a new element to the cookies; another layer of flavor. Texturally, it was a bit of a marvel: the ice cream soaked interior and the dry yet soft exterior. I wouldn’t make this sandwich again, oh no. But the flavor in my head now is very different from the flavor I anticipated. And the process of it–the magic moment before I bit in–made it all worth while.

If you’re still reading this, I would like to point out that no one entered my carbohydrate cooking contest. So I extend this offer to you. Eat adventurously this weekend. Do something daring, something zany. Bake a wedding cake. Drink absinthe. Throw a luau. And then e-mail me an account of what you did–pictures would be great, if possible. And at the bottom of your e-mail include the name of a cookbook you want, any cookbook (even the French Laundry cookbook). The entry with the most outrageous, most creative account will win. Go crazy! Have fun! Live life! [Send me your acccount by Sunday, 11 pm.] And you can thank me later…

1 comment

  1. i read this (half-baked) essay a week too late to enter the contest, but you still inspired me to make food not out of a box. thank you, food sensei.

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