The Wall Street Journal isn’t the most likely place to be reading about emerging food trends, but there I was last week, reading the kind of story that makes my heart sing. An April 1 article, “A Shift to Recipe-less Cooking,” chronicled a rising tide of cookbooks focused less on step-by-step recipes than on techniques and improvisation. In shaky economic times, lengthy, expensive shopping lists are out of vogue. The ability to work with ingredients we already have in the pantry or refrigerator crisper is again imperative. And apparently more Americans think they’re up to the task.
Brittany Darwell, co-author of the new — and excellent — local food blog HeCooksSheCooks.net, is no neophyte when it comes to whipping up a meal on the fly. “I look at cookbooks and online recipes all the time, usually comparing several different ones for a dish, then go into the kitchen and wing it from there,” she said. “It’s much more fun that way.”
It might be more fun, but for at least a century, it hasn’t been the way most Americans have cooked. Manufacturers during the Industrial Revolution began to offer consumers food products with greater longevity and convenience. Healthful whole grains gave way to white flour, which in turn gave way to premade mixes and, eventually, snack cakes devoid of nutrition altogether. The same thing happened when butter became margarine and vegetables morphed into unappealing, canned shadows of their former selves. Somewhere along the line, Americans forgot how to cook.
Cookbooks followed a similar progression. Beginning with “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” in 1896, cookbooks began offering precise measurements and cooking times. Historically, recipes had relied upon the judgment of the reader to determine the details for him- or herself. No more. The books that followed — such as “The Joy of Cooking” in 1931 — remain handy references but ultimately might have helped paralyze several decades of home cooks with a reliance on canned, processed ingredients.
Judith Jones, the editor who first published Julia Child’s seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” captured the sorry state of American food during this period in her memoir, “The Tenth Muse”:
“It was still the era of fast and simple. The prevailing message was that the poor little woman didn’t have time to cook, and, moreover, it was beneath her dignity to waste time cooking if she could reach for a frozen product or ready-made substitute.”
Things didn’t start to change until the early 1960s, with the publication of “Mastering” and Child’s omnipresence on public television. Slowly but surely, people began to care about real food again. Early adherents such as Alice Waters were easily dismissed as fringe elements, but with the explosion of farmers markets across the country in the past decade, “slow food” has gone decidedly mainstream.
It’s hard to overestimate how far we’ve come in 50 years. Jones writes of having to visit an Italian market just to buy garlic. Grocers wouldn’t dream of not carrying garlic today, to say nothing of a keeping on hand a dozen varieties of balsamic vinegar, Italian cheeses and vegetables your grandmother never would have heard of. It’s an empowering thing to have all those ingredients at our disposal, and thousands of cookbooks roll off the presses every day to help us utilize that bounty. But the best of them don’t hew to a rigid structure, they teach. From there, all you need is a little inspiration and a willingness to try new things.
RESOURCES THAT CAN HELP
“Think Like a Chef” by Tom Colicchio
“Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman
“Cooking Beyond Measure” by Jean Johnson
“Cooking with Brook” by Brook Harlan
http://www.norecipes.com, a blog devoted to winging it in the kitchen
Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at showmeeats.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.