Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cooking Versus Painting

These cooking infographics (scroll down that page), explaining how to use spices, herbs, and such, have gone viral. It's a whole new graphical way to present the same old blockheaded advice: use coriander with chicken, beef, fish, pork, or tofu*. Garlic powder pairs well with oregano, cumin, coriander, and turmeric**. Got it? Go forth and season!

* - 'Cuz who in his right mind would use coriander with shrimp???

** - hell.

Aside from the fact that such info is always insanely arbitrary and often flat-out wrong, the problem is that it just doesn't work like this. There are no rules in cooking beyond the dictum to create deliciousness. Any rules that arise have been arbitrarily concocted based on what the concocters, in their limited experience, have observed other people doing. They don't help you cook; they help you conform!

As I once wrote:
In composing his chorales, JS Bach invented modern four part harmony. His methods were subsequently analyzed and formulated into a series of rules which have been rigorously followed for centuries. Interestingly, Bach himself broke those "rules" repeatedly! His chorales, judged according to this abstract framework, weren't very "good"!

Of course, Bach wasn't trying to compose "correct" chorales, he was following his muse to achieve a result that would foster a certain effect.
For some reason, we're more clear-headed about this in the visual realm. How does the following strike you?
Let me teach you about color: blue works well alongside green, lemon yellow, and certain shades of pink. It's used to depict sky, trousers, and cars. Avoid using it with orange, because the two are opposites!
Ridiculous, no? We'd urge anyone consulting such rules to simply go out and watch for blue in the world, and then go home and use his blue paint/ink/crayon to bring out that aspect in his art. We expect people to recognize blueness for what it is, and to harness it in imaginative and original ways.

Why should the chef's palette resist our direct, natural acquaintance when the painter's palette does not? Why not notice flavors as we eat, and then bring out those aspects in our cooking? Why does one so seldom hear this suggested? Why is it so much more difficult for people to make this leap in flavor than in other realms?

In the visual realm only rank beginners would be caught dead painting from recipes (i.e. paint-by-numbers). Yet the vast majority of cooks are utterly helpless without guidance. They need to be issued daft orders like "use mint with carrots, eggplant, watermelon, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini."

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