A Pinch and a Dash

I’ve been reading recipes since I could read. The first recipe I can recall following was off the box of my Easy Bake Oven cake mix and, while I don’t recall the recipe exactly, it had to have been simple enough for a six-year-old. Probably something like: Add water. Stir until blended. Certainly not too taxing for the young reader.

A bit older now, I subscribe to several cooking magazines, which I read cover to cover every month. And I usually have a stack of cookbooks next to my bed for bedtime and middle of the night reading. I like to plan my meals, or dinner parties before I go to sleep. I find it relaxing, kind of like counting sheep, I suppose. There is something simple, elegant and satisfying about a well–constructed and well-written recipe. I like reading them. The point is, for over forty years, I’ve logged a fair chunk of time reading and studying recipes. Yet, I hadn’t really understood what makes a good one, until recently when I had to write some. And what I learned not only taught me something about writing generally, it also taught me something about myself.

A few weeks into the editing phase of my debut novel, my publisher asked me to include some recipes. The story, about an Italian-trained female chef, named Mirabella Rinaldi, is entitled Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses. So, of course, I was encouraged to include a recipe from each course of a traditional Italian meal. I had several problems with that request, none of which I was willing to admit to my editor. First, the food I described in the book comes largely from my imagination and wasn’t based on my own—or anybody else’s—recipes. And while I hope the food descriptions have a certain literary panache, translating them into pinches and dashes, and directing when to sauté, as opposed to braise, was something I’d never given much thought. To further complicate matters, I’m a ‘seat of the pants’ cook, meaning that when I cook, I don’t measure things. In addition, I often have trouble making the same dish twice, because each particular version is heavily influenced by what is in my refrigerator, the last meal I ate and enjoyed, and, whether on that particular day, I feel like adding thyme or basil.

I also used to consider myself a ‘seat of the pants’ writer, (or a ‘panser’ as they are affectionately known in literary circles). I wrote the first chapter of Aftertaste because Mira wouldn’t leave me alone. She interrupted me one day as I was eating lunch and wouldn’t loosen her grip on me until I told her story. (If you’ve read even the first chapter of Aftertaste, you know the girl’s got quite a grip!) Pansers are notorious for saying things like, “I just never know what she’ll do next.” They are surprised by their characters and often by the things they say and do. We do not govern our creations; they are our willing collaborators. For the panser, writing feels a tad more intuitive than intellectual. When I began Aftertaste, I hadn’t really given much thought to what the story was or where it was going. Suffice it to say that my first draft of the novel was the literary equivalent of a hefty, patchwork quilt—one with no discernable pattern, filled with blind alleys, intricate patterns and far too many characters.

Aftertaste was my first novel and I began it without knowing how to write one. Sure, I’d read plenty of them and had even studied literature in college, so I knew, at least intellectually, how good stories are put together. But, like writing recipes, I didn’t really learn how to do it until I actually did it. Since that time, I’ve learned that I’m not really a natural panser and I think that is why recipes both fascinate and soothe me. I need a structure, a scaffold, to hold me, to reign me in when I’m tempted to wander too far afield. Recognizing that need has helped me become a better writer. Creating a scaffold also requires discipline, a useful and necessary quality for any writer. The scaffold frees me to do, what for me at least, is the real work of writing—editing. Writing a book or developing a recipe is a work in progress and to perfect it you must be willing to make changes, small and large. Sometimes, I think both writing and cooking are as much about what to leave out as they are about what to put in.

Here is what Mira taught me: “There is an art to the written recipe. Assume your reader only knows so much. Deliver the information clearly and in small doses. Leave just enough ambiguity to allow for interpretation. Each cook needs to find the holes, the tiny gaps that allow her to improvise, to make the dish her own.”

The same could be said of readers—and writers. We all need to find the holes – the gaps that allow us to internalize the story and make it a part of us. As a reader it’s what makes me stay with the characters long after I’ve turned the last page of a wonderful book. As a writer it is what makes me want to write the next page, the next book. And it also epitomizes so much of what I love about cooking. For me, cooking and writing are both avenues, in equal measure intellectual, intuitive and spiritual. The intersection of those avenues is where I live, a wonderful place to nestle in and take hold.