pas·sion: a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
I have been involved in quite a few heated discussions surrounding food in my life. I have successfully argued and disproved the myth of Catherine di Medici; whether Italian truffles are better/worse than Perigord truffles and even who has better rib tips, Hecky’s in Evanston or Lem’s on 75th street in Chicago. I am very passionate and deeply opinionated about subjects I hold dear. Controversy is not something I shy from. Nor am I troubled by my penchant for digging my heels in and relentlessly fighting till I turn blue in the face, maybe even purple. I am decidedly stubborn. Strangely I have noticed this seems to be a recurring trait of people with French blood cursing through their veins. Recently I was involved in an internet flare up on a favorite food writing board. The conversation heatedly broke into two opposing camps, the romantics and the scientists, with each side passionately arguing their points. Perhaps more accurately for my overly literal friends hellbent on reducing life to a series of experiments and cold numbers, one side argued scientifically. The debate centered around the question, is cooking an act of love or a scientific process.
Cooking is like love — it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
– Harriet Van Horne
Sure, I suppose we could reduce everything in life to be analyzed by scientific processes and be explained in cold mathematical equations. It may be an extremely boring and somewhat dry way to view the wonders of the world, especially those of the table, but it certainly is valid. I respect Harold McGee immensely. I really do. I even own three of his books on the science of cooking. I freely admit they make wonderful bedtime books guaranteed to produce snores within a few pages. Give me Waverley Roots’ ‘Foods of France’ and I will be up way past beddy bye time drooling profusely in the soft glow of my night light. I cook with lots of passion and love, not science. I can’t help it but the latter always conjures an image of someone in a lab coat wearing safety glasses and holding a clipboard busy heating my meal over a Bunsen burner in sterilized pyrex. Not the image I want associated with my stomach.
To prepare dinner for a friend is to put into the cooking pot all one’s affection and good will, all one’s gaiety and zest, so that after three hours’ cooking a waft of happiness escapes beneath the lid.
~ Edouard de Pomaine
I am more intrigued by authors like A.J. Liebling who famously said “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” Or M.F.K. Fisher who wrote: “The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…” I actually can taste the bread in my mouth reading her lines. If I am feeling conciliatory I would pick Edouard de Pomiane. who’s writing Elizabeth David described as “Unburden with excess detail but invariably embodying the touch of the artist…” while simultaneously described by Ruth Reichl as “A food scientist, he offers lucid explanations for why food behaves as it does.” Though I think the late Marcella Hazan best explains how I feel about cooking and dining:
The explanation is that I consider cooking to be an act of love. I do enjoy the craft of cooking, of course, otherwise I would not have done so much of it, but that is a very small part of the pleasure it brings me. What I love is to cook for someone. To put a freshly made meal on the table, even if it is something very plain and simple as long as it tastes good and is not a ready-to-eat something bought at the store, is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.
– Marcella Hazan
I often have told apprentices in my kitchens that you can give two cooks the exact same bag of groceries and even the same recipe and you will end up with two different dishes. The person who cooks with passion and love always prepares the tastier, more satisfying meal. Marcus Samuelsson once said “You have to balance, but you can be aggressive as a chef. It benefits the food. You have to be passionate. You can’t be angry cooking.” Emotion is intoned and verbalized in food. Food and emotion are so strongly interconnected perhaps science cannot rationally document that phenomena.
Yeah, well it wasn’t the duck, potatoes or the olives that made that meal great.. It was Francois and the enormous dollop of love that he puts in every thing.
~ Peter Zitz
People who view the world scientifically tend to see it in more black and white terms than in the beautiful hues of a rainbow. The other night I cooked duck confit with creamy Ratte potatoes confited in golden duck fat and served it with an impossibly delicious olive sauce made from leftover tapenade and reduced chicken broth. Lisa and I opened a simple $11 dollar Burgundy that sang with the bird. Birds and Burgs as my friend Peter always is quick to say. We are al fresco, enjoying the distant Oregon hills and mountains in the background with perfect weather and a light breeze. It felt like edible poetry in my belly. The recipe written by a scientist may very well start by explaining browning the duck with a full blown recital of the Maillard reaction (borrowed from wikipedia), “The reaction is a form of nonenzymatic browning which typically proceeds rapidly from around 140 to 165 °C (284 to 329 °F). At higher temperatures, caramelization and subsequently pyrolysis become more pronounced. The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with…” blah, blah, blah. Good god, shoot me. This may describe scientifically what is happening but none of this gibberish crosses my mind as I prepare my Sunday lunch for my family. Plain and simple, cooking is the ultimate act of love.Let it sink in again. Cooking food is an act of love NOT science.
Cooking is love made edible.
- 4 Duck legs, cooked en confit
- 1 pound freshly dug Ratte potatoes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig thyme
- two whole garlic cloves
- 2 cups duck fat
- 1 head of fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- Jacobsen's flake sea salt
- black pepper
- lay the duck confit in a pool of golden duck fat with the skin down.
- Turn the burner onto a medium flame and let cook slowly till the skin crackles.
- When it is brown and crispy you have achieved culinary nirvana.
- Reserve the legs while you slow cook the potatoes.
- Scrub freshly dug Ratte potatoes to remove all dirt.
- Put into a four quart pan and cover with cold water.
- Add bay leaf, thyme sprig and garlic cloves.
- Season liberally with sea salt and boil till tender, about ten minutes, depending on size. You want the potatoes slightly firm.
- Cool off in a strainer WITHOUT pouring any cold water over.
- When cool enough to touch without screaming, peel and halve lengthwise.
- Pour a huge glass of wine and get ready for the meal of your life.
- Boil 4 cups home made chicken broth down to 1 cup of thick and chickeny liquid.
- Add your tapenade and rejoice in the world's simplest, most amazing sauce.
- Heat the golden duck fat till it is gently bubbling away.
- Add the halved Ratte potatoes and cook without flipping for ten minutes on medium to low heat. The idea is to cook till they are withered and golden brown.
- Remove and drain from fat.
- Peel an entire head of garlic.
- Slice thinly and know with confidence that heaven will appear in your mouth in minutes.
- Pour about a ¼ cup of fat back into the pan.
- Add the garlic slices and start cooking on low heat stirring frequently. The idea is to slowly brown the garlic without burning. Burnt garlic tastes bitter and will kill the dish. If you do burn it. Throw it away before anyone notices.
- Chop fresh thyme leaves and toss with garlic.
- Add potatoes and keep tossing.
- Soon your house will be filled with the insane smells of my version of heaven.
- Eat everything with reckless abandon and with a good Burgundy.
- Jacobsen's flake sea salt
- black pepper
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.
~ M.F.K. Fisher, the Art of Eating