But if you want to be truly challenged and perhaps baffled by a cookery book you really need to refer to the text generally known as Apicius a collection of recipes from classical Rome. It’s not that the book tries to be difficult, in fact it tries to be enormously helpful, telling you “how to make one ounce of silphium last indefinitely,” and why, when you’re boiling a crane, the bird’s head must never touch the water; it’s just that the modern cook mightn’t find much use for such help.
Sometimes it’s not so much what Apicius says as the way it says it. The instruction to “disembowel the pig from the gullet” could have been put a little more gently, I think. And even though I’m among the least squeamish of eaters, the recipe for udder stuffed with sea urchin does leave me feeling just a little queasy.
On the other hand, if you’re in search of a recipe for flamingo or parrot where else are you going to look? And Apicius does contain a famous recipe for dormice—ground pork and pine nuts are involved. In fact it’s the only dormouse recipe most of us know.
OK, so if we’re aware of many of the difficult, dangerous, troubling words and concepts that can appear in recipes, then what are the positive, encouraging, confidence-building ones?
It’s always nice to see the words “simple’ and “basic.” “Foolproof” is another good one, and foolproof recipes are obviously very welcome, but you have to know who’s calling it foolproof. I’m less persuaded by Guy Fieri’s “Foolproof Turkey Breast” than I am by Julia Child’s foolproof mayonnaise, which she wrote about in My Life In France. I’m also much taken with her description, in The Art of French Cooking, of mayo made in a food processor about which she says, “no culinary skill whatsoever enters into its preparation,” which sounds massively reassuring.
Other encouragements: “season to taste” or “cook until tender”—I know the seasonings I like and I know what tender is. “Great hot or cold” is good, though in my experience really very few things are equally great both ways. Absolutely best of all is “combine all the ingredients in a pan.”
And finally a totally reassuring, simple, basic, foolproof recipe: It’s Frank Zappa’s recipe for Burnt Weenie Sandwich, which was the title of one of my favorite Zappa albums, though the recipe itself appears in The Rock and Roll Cookbook. The instructions in full read as follows, “Take weenie, put it on a fork and burn it on the stove. Wrap bread around burnt weenie. Squirt some mustard on it and bite.” Now there’s a set of instructions I think all of us can follow. Whether we really want to is another matter.
Geoff Nicholson is a writer in Los Angeles. His books include the novel The Food Chain and the nonfiction Lost Art of Walking. His other articles for Gourmet Live include “Funny Food,” and “The Art of Eating, the Eating of Art.”