Once in a great while, somebody comes up with a question so perfect that it brings a whole corner of your life into sharp relief and fills you with charity.
Last week, Jean Johnson asked me such a question.
“How did cooking turn into a rote exercise in following directions?” the Oregon-based food writer inquired as we talked on the phone. In an instant, my decade-long bout of boredom with kitchen duty became completely understandable.
Johnson already knew the answer to her question, having just written a book that addresses it.
“Cooking Beyond Measure” tells about the origins of precise recipes — the kind that turn supper into the equivalent of a small chemistry experiment — and goes on to suggest that measuring cups are to blame for America’s modern obsession with take-out windows and crinkly packages.
“Cooking Beyond Measure” is a cookbook, but its recipes sound more like friendly conversation snippets: “Smash some cranberries in a mortar with some orange segments.” “Stir an egg or two into leftover vegetables.”
Johnson figures people aren’t set on earning a Scout badge at the end of a tiring day of work. They just want a quick and tasty meal, and if that means having to hand over authority to one more demanding expert in their lives — in this case, a cookbook — then frankly, they’d rather order out.
Johnson, like me, grew weary of handing over control of artistic endeavors early in life. Maybe it started with paint-by-numbers art projects.
“You think this is something that’s going to turn out perfect, and all I have to do is paint by the numbers,” Johnson said. “But that implies I have the focus to do it and I’ll find satisfaction in doing it. I’m not sure we ever did.”
In graduate school, Johnson discovered a secret about the paint-by-numbers method of cooking — it was practically brand new.
Johnson’s professor was speaking to her class about America’s Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, a time when people thought science could cure every ill, and he mentioned offhandedly that this is when Americans got their first measuring cups.
“My jaw dropped to my chest,” Johnson said. “I don’t believe I heard the rest of the lecture.”
Johnson later traced the rise of such kitchen instruments to Boston elites. In the late 1890s, she discovered, they began sending their Irish help to Fannie Farmer’s cooking school in hopes of more memorable dinnertime experiences.
The result of this trend was a scientific approach, so to speak, to cooking — formulaic dinner that could be replicated with similar results.
For Johnson, knowing the story behind modern cooking meant freedom from cookbook dependence.
“Here was the message that, hey, this authority might not be appropriate or necessary,” she said.
Decades later, Johnson confronts a 21st-century America with a national eating disorder — a reliance on convenience foods that are in general hard on the waistline and the pocketbook. She points her finger at modern cookbooks.
“The formal recipe is by nature a project,” she said. “First you have a long list, and invariably you’re not going to have everything on the list, so right there you’re up against it. So you think, ‘Do I get it or do I leave it out, and if I go to the store, what am I going to do with the extra?’ All the sudden, a federal case is being mounted between you and dinner, and you go, ‘Where’s the pizza?’”
“Cooking Beyond Measure,” offers a third option. It invites readers to start with fresh, seasonal produce that already looks delicious, and then decide how they’d like to prepare it for dinner. Included are ample suggestions meant to inspire creativity, such as this recipe for cucumber-melon soup: “Give chilled cucumbers and cantaloupe a spin in the blender with a seeded jalapeno, salt, pepper and tarragon vinegar. Garnish this lean and serene drinkable smoothie with slivers of melons or toasted coconut.”
“Simple everyday cooking just isn’t that complicated,” Johnson said.
That’s a good thing for my waistline and pocketbook.