While collecting recipes from all the participants of our latest swap, I started thinking about the idea of recipe discovery, collection, and sharing. What makes us go, “Ooh, I’d like to make that!” when we see a recipe? What makes us toss out a recipe without ever making it again, and what pushes us to tweak a recipe to perfection?
I have countless cookbooks at home, I follow an endless list of food blogs, and every time I visit home, I try to write out the recipe for whatever my mom is making in the kitchen. And yet… I can’t help but feel that there’s more to it. For the longest time, I had a recipe for sweet potato gnocchi sitting around. Weeks went by and it never got made, until I mentioned it to Jenn while we were chatting about what dishes we were going to prepare for the next swap.
“Sweet potato gnocchi?” she repeated, eyes gleaming.
“Yup,” I replied, “but I probably won’t make them. I don’t know. I’m thinking of maybe making this other soup instead.”
“I’ll make them, then!” Spoiler alert: she made them, packed them up and brought them to the next swap, and they were delicious. And the funniest thing of all? I’ve made them at least three times after trying Jenn’s homemade version.
And as I think back now to times when I really dared to try something new in the kitchen, it seems that doing it with friends was the thread that tied all those times together. Several weekends ago, while visiting my cousin, I was flipping through a food magazine when I saw a recipe for marmalade and basically demanded that we make it together. I don’t know why, but I don’t think I’d ever attempt to make marmalade alone. Perhaps it says more about me than the nature of recipes, and perhaps what it’s saying is that I’m too timid to do things without a buddy (and let’s be honest, that’s probably true) – but it certainly is true that attempting something with a buddy lowers the intimidation factor quite a bit.
I poked my nose around and asked a couple of my food savvy friends about what made them try new recipes, and my one friend put it quite elegantly when she said that she looks for a ‘golden combination.’ “It can’t be too intimidating,” she said. “Instead, it needs to sound simple and yummy, and it has to match my mood, or whatever’s in the fridge.” There are times when I find myself sucked in a vortex of food blogs, drooling over photographs of lavender and black current macarons, or perhaps squash and goat cheese dip – only to say, “oh, well, fine, I give up,” and eat a piece of toast with peanut butter on it instead. I still struggle with being able to pair herbs and spices properly – I’m not always sure what herb pairs up well with the fish I’m preparing in particular or whether or not some paprika will go well with the soup I’m making. I’m still not able to conjure up recipes from scratch in my head, the way some expert chefs and food bloggers seem to be able to do.
Perhaps that’s why the recipes that I feel the strongest pull towards as I stare at my fridge wondering what to make for dinner are ones that I’ve picked up from home and from friends, rather than ones that impressed me with a picture. I grew up watching my mom cook and bake almost every meal we ate – to this day, when I ask her how long I need to bake something for or how much flour I need to add, she’ll respond with either a blasé, “oh, you know – enough,” or “however much you need.”
I’m sorry to turn this into a cheesy outpour, but I believe that food is meant to be shared. Sure, not all meals need to be eaten sitting down at a table together – sometimes you need to grab a sandwich and run from class to class. Sometimes you need to quickly gobble down a granola bar on the subway. Sometimes you like to have a slow morning where you read the paper, drink coffee and eat oatmeal alone and in peace. But I feel like there’s a reason you can’t really cook one portion of boeuf bourguinon – such a lovely, warming meal that takes time and care and effort to make is enjoyed best with company that’s equally warming and lovely.
Not every recipe has to be from a tattered page of your grandfather’s recipe book. Not every meal has to be made in the company of friends. But there’s something about sharing a recipe, saying, “here, try this, I made this,” that perpetuates the idea of food as not just nourishment, but as a sort of social glue. And so perhaps that’s why I’m more adventurous in the kitchen when accompanied by a friend. It’s not always about the outcome of a recipe that makes us hang on to it, whether it’s salted caramel brownies or a simple grilled cheese sandwich – it’s the shared experience.