Reflections on the recipe: the key to cooking, perhaps to life

Nov. 22, 2022
An old recipe box with measuring spoons. Old recipes help us make food, but also unlock family lore and more. Photo: Getty Images.
The recipe is the most fundamental of all things culinary. Photo: Getty Images.

Both of my parents died in 1999; she in April, he in September. Fifty years of marriage plus nine kids equaled a whole lot of stuff to catalog, sort through and redistribute to the surviving family. 

Among which was an enormous wooden trunk, dome-topped, lashed in iron straps and rivets. Totally “Treasure Island.”

My mother, Madeleine M. St. John, had filled it with one thing only, although many specimens of the same: each and every “Gourmet” magazine to which she had subscribed, likely as soon as she had moved to Denver from her native Belgium in 1950.

I and one of my younger brothers, he much burlier than I, could not lift the trunk without first moving out the magazines in phases. My experience is that the heaviest object on the planet is a 45-cubic-foot agglomeration of clay-coated magazine paper.

Our mother wanted to keep the famed magazine’s recipes, many of which she cooked for us — but obviously not one of which she had thrown away. I remember her saying, about one recipe in hand and therefore about all recipes that she kept, “Just in case I want to make this.”

The trunk was not the sole trove. She collected thousands of recipes, scissored from newspapers mostly, stuffed in drawers, layered like pommes Anna. She also wrote dozens of her own, many inspired by those from chefs from whom she had taken cooking classes over the years, plus the many that she herself composed for her own cooking school.

Of these recipes in their accumulation, what I remember most is their inviting perfume, of aging paper, mottled with cooking liquids long soaked up, dried and thus kept, and with the inks of both her pens and typewriter ribbons. 

Ever since that time, I have been in love with recipes, with reading them, writing them, playing with them. 

The recipe is the most fundamental of all things culinary — the foundation of the fundament, as it were. Without it, cooking doesn’t occur. Oh, some cooks (loftily) will state that they “don’t use recipes,” but saying that is like trying to talk without air; it cannot be done. Even in their slap-dash or mish-mosh, what they will call “a little of this and some of that” — there’s their recipe. 

There is no cooking — however primitive, simple or straightforward — without a recipe. It need not be written down or even orally passed on, but indeed the history of how recipes have evolved into written, told or preserved things tells us much about the history of cooking itself.

In essence, recipes are stories about food. In the most modern versions, they have beginnings (ingredients), middles (directions) and endings (dinners tonight). 

That way wasn’t always so. 

In the Latin declension of the verb “recipere” (here meaning “to take” or “to receive”), the verb form “recipe” is the second person singular imperative form. It means—and commands you to — “take,” hence the first word of countless recipes, “Take . . .” 

However, the original recipe-makers were what we call pharmacists who fashioned what were called, back to Chaucer’s English of the 1300s, “receipts,” or formulas or mixtures of various medicaments in aim of healing. (A “receipt” for, say, something purchased didn’t come to mean a confirmation of goods sold until the 1700s.)

When you see the “Rx” outside a CVS or a Walgreens, you’re seeing shorthand for the word “receipts”—the first “recipes”.

Recipes for cooking as we know them—a list of ingredients, their measurements and directions for their preparation—are a modern phenomenon, from only the mid-1800s. Before then, recipes in fact were short stories, wee narratives aimed at those who both already knew cooking and were familiar with the dish described.

Look at even this simple recipe for “A buttered apple pie” from Amelia Simmon’s “American Cookery,” our country’s first cookbook, published in 1796. It reads like the shortest of stories.

“Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste, cover in same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water.”

A modern cook (certainly a modern baker) would ask all sorts of questions. How many apples? What sort? At what temperature to bake? And, especially, how much of each of the ingredients and all those flavorings? 

The modern recipe evolved because cooking did. Cooking went from the concern of those who already knew what they were doing to instructing those who didn’t, especially the newly educated (that is, those who had learned to read and, consequently, that after the invention of print, in truth not so long ago).

All to say that the audiences for recipes change, but not what recipes mean. They tell stories about the processes that we call cooking.

To me, another interesting history of recipes is to examine how you, the cook, evolve in time in relation to them. That tells a story, too.

By now, I must have prepared the recipe here, Simone Beck’s “Poulet en Persillade” three dozen times, probably more. It is a favorite, obviously. Nevertheless, I haven’t consulted the printed, cookbook-bound recipe in years. (Although that is what you will find here.)

I simply make Poulet en Persillade by rote. Perhaps the dish that I cook now appreciably differs from the original, as in that old parlor game in which a story passes along a chain of people and ends up telling the opposite from where it began.

In my cooking life, Poulet en Persillade isn’t even Simca Beck’s anymore. My friends merely ask for “that chicken with cream sauce.” (The dish is a braise of chicken, tarragon mustard, minced parsley and garlic, finished with thick cream.)

I didn’t use to be so routine about recipes. When I began to cook, more than 50 years ago, I was OCD-precise. I feared to botch a recipe if I did not capture all of its detail down to every last pinch of seasoning.

Such as the time I asked a friend whom I routinely watched cook, “So, how much salt did you just add?” When she answered, “Oh, a touch,” I was exasperated. She must’ve known if it was a quarter of a teaspoon or a half or whatever quantity. Why didn’t she just say that?

Looking back like this makes me realize that a quietude has come over my own cooking and eating. Recipes no longer lay down any gauntlets. Many have become friends, like old house slippers.

Read more great articles and get cooking advice from Bill St. John.

I approach any new recipe with that in mind: Does it have in itself what it would take to become an old friend? And how would I determine that?

All of my favorite recipes tell me a story, about how tawny a crust is, say, or how oozy the fruit or layered the sauce. A recipe may smell faintly, or opulently. It may skillfully poise one flavor against another, or it may be a happy jumble of flavors or scents or textures or colors—or all of those. 

I read a recipe as if I were reading a short story or—better—a short theater piece. First, we have the dramatis personae, the list of characters (the ingredients); then the action, step-by-step perhaps, or interleaved; and, finally, the ta-da: “Remove from the oven and serve.”

Because I have cooked for so long, my mind’s eye (and palate?) can imagine how the story goes without having to have the ingredients, or the utensils, or even the stove and its heat before me.

If my imagination enjoys the story or the show, I’ll perform it myself. More likely, I will tinker with it and make it my own. Even more likely, I will take two or three recipes that tell the same story, by and large, and use what I like or choose from one at the same place in another, shuffling them like cards, as it were, until the final story plays out using all the characters or action that I consider would make for the best “ta-da.”

You, too, can slipstream into that same sort of history for yourself, as a cook, if you learn to see what recipes are for all of us: each a delicious story.

Poulet en Persillade (Chicken baked with mustard, parsley and garlic, in a cream sauce)

From “New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine,” by Simca Beck with Michael James (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979). Serves 6

Ingredients

2 fine, fresh chickens, each 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces

2-3 tablespoons tarragon mustard or Dijon mustard flavored with 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried

6 cloves garlic, peeled

8-10 large sprigs of parsley

1 cup concentrated chicken broth (made from a bouillon cube, if you wish)

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2/3 cup heavy cream

Salt and freshly ground pepper, as needed

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or parsley (optional)

Recommended equipment: An ovenproof dish (such as enameled cast-iron), large enough to hold pieces of chicken in one layer

Directions

Pat the pieces of chicken dry and coat them generously with the mustard. Finely chop the garlic and parsley together in a food processor or with a knife. Pour the chicken broth and vinegar into the bottom of the baking dish; sprinkle in half of the persillade—the chopped garlic and parsley. Arrange the chicken in the dish and sprinkle with the remaining persillade. Cover with a piece of buttered foil. The dish can now wait for an hour or so at room temperature before baking.

Bring the liquid in the dish to a simmer on top of the stove, then bake the chicken in a 375-degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Turn the pieces once or twice as they cook; you may remove the pieces of the white meat from the oven 5 minutes sooner than the dark, as they tend to cook faster. The chicken is done when it is fairly firm to the finger, still moist, and only faintly pink at the bone; it should not overcook or it will be dry.

Transfer to a serving platter and keep warm in the turned-off oven (about 200-degrees). Pour the heavy cream into the baking dish, stir it well to deglaze the baking juices, and reduce over medium-high heat. After 8-10 minutes you should have a sauce of nice consistency; taste it for seasoning. Pour a bit of the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with the chopped fresh tarragon or parsley. Pass the remaining sauce in a sauceboat.

To prepare the dish an hour or so in advance, cook the chicken for 30 minutes, then remove it to an ovenproof platter and cover it with foil (remove the breast meat 5 minutes before the dark meat). Finish the sauce as directed and pour it into a saucepan. Twenty minutes before serving, place the chicken in a 350-degree oven to finish its cooking and warm it through. Reheat the sauce and serve with the chicken as directed above.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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