When I was cycling home at the weekend, my back wheel suddenly went clonk. It was completely bent out of shape, jammed against the brake, and I had to half-carry half-drag it the rest of the way home, which luckily wasn’t too far.
I took it into the marvellous Lock 7 bike shop where they said they’d fit a new wheel and I could pick it up later on. Incidentally, I cannot recommend Lock 7 enough.
A couple of hours later, I walked over to pick up my bike. I went along the Regent’s canal, a quiet, secluded path, lined by water on the one side, wild foliaged fence on the other. There was near silence except for the occasional tinkle of a bicycle bell, the rush of water as a lock filled up, an occasional pant of a lycraed jogger, an overheard snippet of conversation as people wandered past.
There were no decisions about which way to go, whether it would be quicker to go right and then left, or straight on and then the next right. The canal is a set route and takes all of those decisions out of one’s hands. I just got on the towpath and walked, knowing that it would lead me, eventually, to the bike shop.
On the way back home, I decided not to cycle along the canal. It’s a bit slow, a bit too meandering, too many pedestrians in the way, I thought. No, I’ll go on the streets, it’ll be much quicker. There were cars, speed-bumps, traffic lights, decisions about which turning would be best. I had to concentrate rather hard on everything that was going on, rather than just enjoying the journey. Yes, it was quicker, but far less pleasant.
I think that these two different journeys can be used to explain many things. Not least why I don’t cook properly.
You see, people who cook the right way decide they’re going to cook something, don’t worry about it taking a while, begin at the beginning of the recipe and then end up with the finished dish. Essentially they go along the canal. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no decisions; they follow the steps set out for them and everything goes smoothly.
People like me, who cook the wrong way, go along the streets. They skim over the recipe and then decide to cook it their own way. They look for shortcuts, ways to make it quicker, and the process is filled with interruptions and distractions – other things that need some concentration while they’re cooking.
So, for instance, they begin chopping onions while on the telephone and then decide, impatiently, that it doesn’t need to be fried for ten minutes but that five will do. Later on, another shortcut can be made by not bothering to leave the mixture to sit and infuse for twenty minutes. They decide, while they’re in the kitchen, they might as put a wash on and unload the dishwasher. They cut as much time out of the recipe as possible, try to multi-task, forget where they’ve got to, and end up with a not particularly good dish, but prepared in less time, with a washing machine going full tilt and a dishwasher half-unloaded.
Why do I follow this second, worse, way of cooking? Why do I not decide, right, this evening I’m going to cook and not do anything else, and I will follow the recipe very carefully and not take any shortcuts? Why don’t I decide to enjoy the meanderings, the little moments of watching onions soften, patiently letting things infuse, the careful browning of the meat, the sudden smell of a burst of herbs?
The problem lies in treating recipes as directions rather than respectable pieces of text. Reading a recipe should be enjoyable, like following a plot, digesting a novel.
A recipe has its own special plot devices, structure, intrigue. Ingredients are brought together, mixed, left to simmer, transferred to a different environment. Adding chilli to onions shouldn’t just mean ‘make it spicy’, but should be more like introducing a fiery love interest to someone with many layers (to adapt a line from Shrek). When reading a book, it’s unthinkable to skip a few pages, add in one’s own bits, miss out a vital character. Now I can see, when I interfere with recipes, I’m bastardising the plot.
As soon as one thinks of recipes as mini novels, it’s clear that cooking isn’t about the final outcome, the end scene, whatever it is that has resulted from the mixing together of ingredients. Cooking is like reading. It’s about enjoying the mixing process, seeing what happens when something new is introduced, when things are left to simmer or, indeed, when everything gets rather overheated.
So perhaps it was wrong of me to think about cooking when I was going to and from the bike shop. Recipes aren’t merely ways of getting from A to B. If that’s how I think of them, then I’ll always be tempted to take a shortcut. But, luckily, I’ll never choose to miss a chunk of a good novel.