Read Old Man Scanlon

Writing Is Like Cooking, Says Dilettante

23 December 2013

Perusing online submission guidelines, I notice that in plain sight among the calls for fiction and poetry are calls for recipes. I notice, I say, but have given little thought to why we write about food. Maybe it's just another excuse to write, but I suspect more; any human activity that can compete against sex and hold its ground has undeniable power. In her TED talk Suzana Herculano-Houzel even posits that cooking was what allowed early humans to easily consume enough calories to support the energy requirements of their large brains. And, therefore, to write fiction and poetry.

Emerging from the wreckage of my first marriage, I had my first serious brush with cooking. Post-divorce I subsisted for a good while on Lean Cuisine TV dinners and, from the corner sub shop, tuna on pita (with tomatoes, onions, pickles, provolone, and hot peppers). Newly sensitive to the need for change and open to possibilities, I decided to learn to make soup, which I knew could serve as a whole meal. I was confident this achievement lay not too far beyond my proven competence at boiling water. An attempt at a Moosewood Cookbook recipe succeeded, which only encouraged me. My diet blossomed.

How I started writing for the sake of writing was similarly inauspicious. After retiring I remember saying to myself, "I bet I could write a book, if only I had something to say." These unclean thoughts have a way of bubbling to the surface, and I found plenty of time to dwell on them. Too often I heard, after tossing off a particularly scintillating email, "Hey, you should write a book." I decide to cross the Rubicon, made the Faustian bargain. "Write what you know" seemed like a good idea. OK: assembly language programming? Nah. My grandchildren? Yes! Cooking soup? Yes! A soup cookbook addressed to my grandchildren? Genius! I made the keyboard hum. For a while.

You can guess how well that turned out: the manuscript fragment lies in a toxic waste dump on my hard drive. I had taken the key motivational step of telling people that I was writing a book, so I needed to publish something—anything—to avoid utter shame and disgrace. Wriggling out of the morass I'd created I learned that while I still don't have enough to say to fill a novel, flash suited me. You don't need to exhaust your word-hoard. You can prevail by way of the constraints, not despite them—and publish.

Even if I find I have a novel's worth of something to say, surmount my chronic laziness, and write the book, I will never become a chef. My cooking urges are now pretty much satisfiable by dismembering and boiling down the occasional chicken carcass to make meal-in-a-bowl soups, though I sometimes stray from the controlled-ebullition genre and brown a French meat pie in the oven. Soup-making has taught me:

Not everyone will like the soup you make.

Recipes are only suggestions—parts lists, not technical manuals.

Chopping and peeling can be fun, accompanied by loud music (I get good results from symphonic Brahms and AC/DC).

Save all the peels and discarded ugly bits and boil them into stock you can use to make a future soup.

Never serve a soup until it's spent a night in the refrigerator.

And, hard-won: more spice is not necessarily better.

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Cauliflower Curry Soup

1 head cauliflower
3 small potatoes
1 lb. extra firm tofu
1 onion
5 stalks celery

1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 bulb garlic, minced fine
1/2 lb. sunflower seeds

vegetable stock to make 6 qts.

3 tbs. mild curry
1 tbs. cumin powder
1 tbs. ginger powder
salt to taste

Chop the first five ingredients; you know what size you like. Put everything into a 6-quart pot and add enough vegetable stock to fill it to a reasonable depth. Boil for about half an hour. This is not a subtle soup, and I contend that the robust spicing is appropriate for balancing the massive dose of garlic, which in turn is necessary to neutralize the deadly tofu blandness. The recipe is a schematic. You might use sweet potatoes instead of potatoes. I am certain there are many deletions, additions, and substitutions which would result in an equally functional product.