It’s that time of year again. First comes the “What To Do With Leftover Candy?” and the blood-tinted Halloween punch; then we’re in turkey month—just look at those glossies at your supermarket checkout—and, faster than you can say “hot buttered rum,” there’ll be the Bûche de Noëls, the potato latkes, and glasses of champagne to ring in the New Year.
Most mainstream food outlets—from blogs to magazines to cooking shows on T.V.—will follow the formula with precision. They’ve been plotting this since summer, when holiday strategy meetings took place: “What can we do this year that we didn’t do 50 times already?”
And so you’ll have “The First Absolutely Foolproof Turkey Recipe” and “A Whole New Take on the Christmas Ham.” A chef-of-the-moment will share his or her version of cranberry sauce that’s just different enough (preserved lemons! candied kumquats!) to justify it being heralded as a “A Bold New Take On A Familiar Favorite.”
How much of this is real and how much is salesmanship? If last year’s turkey recipe was really “The Only Turkey Recipe You’ll Ever Need” why are you publishing another turkey recipe this year? And why do readers/viewers/subscribers cheer the arrival of these posts/shows/articles as if in the thrall of something new, something important. None of this is new! You can dig up a copy of Gourmet from November 1994 and probably find recipes just as vital and useful as the ones you’re shelling out $5 to buy on your way out of Gelson’s or Kroger or Publix or Gristedes.
And yet, I’m a sucker for this stuff too. I’ll buy the holiday versions of Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, & Saveur just like the rest of you and I’ll pour through the pages as if searching for the holy grail of holiday recipes. Not only that, as it gets closer to the holidays, I’ll start strategizing my own holiday posts. I’ve been known to offer up Thanksgiving dinner menus with recipes, unique takes on cranberry sauce, and recipes for Christmas cookies that are just as seasonally-exploitive as those heart-tugging commercials where a long-vanished son returns home with a can of Folger’s crystals.
The holidays, though, only exacerbate a pre-existing condition, one that few of us acknowledge but all of us must know on some deeper level. Amanda Hesser made reference to it, slyly buried in this interview with Dianne Jacob. Responding to the argument that there’s no such thing as an original recipe, Hesser says: “There’s nothing new in the food world. It’s all about personal perspective. It comes down to the individual. If people are not putting their own voice and experience into the recipe, they’re missing out on the fun.”
I completely agree with this notion. As a food writer, my job isn’t to come up with a new take on the hamburger just for the sake of reinventing the hamburger. My job is to put a hamburger recipe in perspective, to contextualize it through my own experience.
Same is true for the most forward-thinking chefs in the world—the Ferran Adrias, the René Redzepis, the Thomas Kellers. They’re not reinventing the wheel, despite how revolutionary their food may seem. They’re applying time-honored techniques mixed with a little science to create food that is utterly idiosyncratic and deeply personal. It’s not so much the how as it is the why. If you look at how Thomas Keller makes his famous Oysters & Pearls dish (a Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and Osetra caviar) the techniques date back to the age of Escoffier.
There’s nothing new about making a Sabayon. But if you look at the why—the interplay of textures (pearls of tapioca playing off the tinier pearls of caviar), the playfulness of the name (which is decidedly tongue-in-cheek)—you have a window into Thomas Keller’s genius.
Which is why we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be deceived by claims of “newness” in the food world. “Newness” gets us to buy magazines, it convinces us to shell out hundreds of dollars at a restaurant where chefs do all that they can to convince customers that what they’re shoveling down their gullets has never been shoveled down a gullet before. Trust me: it has, in one way or another. The chefs that we patronize shouldn’t revel in gimmickry—that’s nice that you made a French Onion soup lollipop, but really, I’d rather have well-made bowl of French Onion Soup. Newness for the sake of newness is rarely a worthy enterprise, and that’s true in any field. Yes, I can write a novel from the perspective of a microorganism, yes I can make a movie that all takes place inside a tin can. But that’s meaningless next to a novel or a movie that has something to say, regardless of how “new” the techniques or ideas are that are used to make it.
As a home cook, you’d be better off learning the fundamentals of cooking—the techniques that are used to produce the “Ultimate Thanksgiving Turkey” or “The Ultimate Christmas Ham”—than buying the latest, shiniest food magazine. If you master the art of cooking meat at home, for example, not only will you be a star chef when the holidays come around, but you’ll be able to put your own stamp on the food that you make. And what’s a greater achievement: replicating something faddish from a food magazine or making a dish that says something about you?
I think it’s the latter, but I’m still vulnerable to the former. Maybe it’s not so much the promise of “newness” but the familiarity of searching for new holiday recipes at this time of year that gets me to buy those magazines. Which, come to think of it, has probably been the case for centuries. At some point an early settler asked a fellow settler, “What are you going to do with your holiday turkey this year?”
Our quest for “newness” is older than we are. Cue Peter Allen: