Another Recipe Story
My Co-Star horoscope the other morning gave a simple direction: Ask for a recipe. As someone who spends a great deal of time cooking, I am familiar with recipes. A week after my ex-wife told me she wanted a divorce, I wrote a Medium piece called “Recipes.” My life collapsing around me, betrayed and lied to, I looked over at my book shelf and saw the various cookbooks I often drew culinary inspiration from. These books are based on the concept of the recipe: the set of instructions one follows in order to produce something to eat. The concept is fairly simple: If you don’t know how to do something, there is a recipe you can follow. The recipe, for me, was a metaphor. Recipes, attractive and slick in lovely photographed books, really do not solve the knowledge problem. Knowing a recipe does not make one an expert in Syrian or Danish cooking, for instance. One can follow a recipe as best as one can and still fail. One can follow all of the instructions, one can follow them as one is supposed to, and still not entirely know how to do something. That, too, is marriage.
I thought about that first divorce piece I wrote while reading Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken, recipes intertwined with life disappointment and the allusion of some form of depression she has experienced. She begins the book accordingly, with a combined reflection on cooking chicken and emotional collapse.
Perhaps, I thought, laying on the hall floor, I will just stay on the hall floor forever, and sink through the laminate, and into the concrete, and down into the earth.
To tell a food story, as James Beard showed, is to tell a life story. Beard’s story is based, to some extent, on disappointment: parents who did not love each other, an absentee father, a mother who may not have been attentive, being gay in a culture that treated homosexuality as degeneracy, being overweight, feeling unloved. Beard’s story, like Risbridger’s, contradicts the food narrative as only being one of satisfaction or of fulfilling pleasure, as if eating always completes us. No matter how much many of us enjoying eating, we seldom feel complete. A life story that includes disappointment or disillusionment or grief or depression likely is accompanied by some type of food story: what you ate recently, nostalgia for what you once ate, the desire to eat. Pleasure and sadness can co-exist in such recipes. Here Risbridger writes about a linguini and clam dish, whose recipe follows, with less melancholy and with hope.
It’s the sort of eating best done alone, or with someone who loves you just as you are. It’s glorious, and it’s messy, and I won’t apologize for either.
Elsewhere, the sadness prevails. Here she begins a section of the book on soups and bread: “On the third-worst night of my life, I made soup,” followed by “ I was crying on the kitchen floor: the kind of crying where you suspect you might actually die of it.” Or she writes about a “sausage pasta:” “Onions, like heartbreak or fine wines, only get better with time.” Or in a section entitled “How to Grieve with Challah Bread,” Risbridger writes, “How do you grieve for someone you no longer know?” This is not Martha Stewart writing. This is not Ina Garten smiling for the camera and cooking a bougie meal in a million dollar home for the never present husband, Jeffrey. This is a different type of recipe writing. This is a type of recipe writing not afraid to merge the personal with food, anxiety with eating, pleasure with the inevitable pain we will encounter not once, but many times in life. I identify with this type of writing.
Ask for a recipe, Co-Star instructs me. But from whom? From what? I seldom cook from recipes. I use them for ideas, method, stories, imagination. I am a member of many Facebook food groups: Mediterranean, Armenian, Israeli, Arab, Japanese, Mexican, vegan, vegetarian, and among all of the beautifully staged and posted photographs of recently prepared dishes, someone always asks: what is the recipe? They desire knowledge. They need more than anecdote and picture. Do I? I read a cookbook like I would read a memoir. Recipes are stories; they often narrate not just the combination of ingredients needed to eat something but the recipe writer’s life, a historical moment, ethnic identity, a period of our lives, a memory, a feeling, a longing, a pain, grief. A recipe does not solve the knowledge problem; it complicates it. This is how I see my writing unfold. I tell stories, often not of global or social issues, but of myself. Those stories I try to tell, I try to tell them as complications, not easy to solve knowledge problems. How do I understand the city I once lived in? How do I experience craft beer? What is academic writing? What kind of scholar am I? What kind of parent am I? Basic questions. One could write a recipe for any of them. I write books instead. I would not mind writing a recipe book that had few food recipes, but instead collected observational recipes which could be followed or not. Following my recipes would not be the point. The point would be merely my need to express myself and I what I feel, and a recipe provides me a genre for doing so. Few paragraphs. No analysis. Recipes.
Writing is sometimes posed as a recipe. For instance, we can imagine my professional writing accordingly:
Academic Writing in the Humanities
· Begin with one graduate level degree
· Survey field and field’s ideas
· Find moment of synthesis among ideas
· Offer additional insight based on synthesis
· Pretend to solve world or local problem (optional)
My academic writing, though, often follows a very different recipe, if any.
· Read, listen, and watch every fucking thing imaginable — from cartoons to music to news to academic writing to movies, etc.
· Propose idea no one thinks makes sense at first (the history of composition is about cool, Detroit is a network, craft beer can be understood via social media)
· Don’t offer to solve any social problems
Writing is one area I could provide as recipe. My daily life recipe, on the other hand, could be:
· Walk dog
· Drink coffee
· Read 15 horoscopes
· Go to the gym
· Do administrative work
· Try and be funny on Facebook
· Text and Discord with children when they are not here
· Drink espresso
· Pretend to write something meaningful
Some writers, academic or otherwise, pose recipes for how they work: wake up early, sit in a café, jot down notes, devote X amount of time in the morning or evening. When I was younger and in college studying English, I used to read writing advice that was presented from a fiction writer’s perspective: write what is true, write what you believe in, write from your heart. Hemingway. Capote. Steinbeck. Wolfe. Kerouac. There were always famous writers offering advice for how to tell stories or how to make up stories and then present them as some semblance of what is true. None of that advice makes sense to me. My stories are not made up. I am not writing to believe in something nor to pose what is true. Our world is too full of belief, as if everyone on social media or in academia has solved the knowledge problem when all they have figured out is how to attract attention to misinformed thinking and to feel proud of that feeble gesture.
I am writing to express. Songs. Movies. TV shows. Memoirs. Facebook groups. Tik Toks. We are surrounded by expression that lacks any concrete recipe for how it came to be. We have genres. We have cliches. We have repetition. But do we have expression recipes? I don’t really have a writing recipe beyond “write down ideas” and “read a lot.” I open my laptop. I make an espresso. I read. Links connect me to ideas and to expression. I read sites that aggregate narratives. I read emailed to me Substacks thick with links. I read through whatever is aggregated through my RSS feeder. I don’t wake up early to write. I don’t make myself write X amount of words per day. I don’t have a specific writing space: I write in my work office, taprooms, coffee shops, at home, outside in my backyard, with the sound of a 10 year old playing Call of Duty in the background, a dog at my feet, drinking espresso, with 32 tabs open on my browser, etc.
Recipes stay with us often long after whatever it is we want to make or know how to make has passed. My recipe for marriage was what exactly? Try and please someone? Give in? Ignore the warning signs? Ignore bad behavior? My recipe for being a single dad: try and make my kids happy. My recipe for being a department chair: try and make my colleagues happy. My recipe for myself? I don’t know yet.
I have been reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a documentation of the near simultaneous deaths of her husband and daughter. This is a memoir of loss far great than one experiences in divorce. No recipe, we might assume, could prepare Didion for the grief that would overtake her life from these two moments: her daughter’s illness and her husband’s sudden heart attack while they ate dinner together at home. There are no food stories beyond the horrific final dinner when her husband, who was also a writer, collapses in front of her while they eat. Grief, though, is often accompanied by food. When a loved one dies, people bring dishes over, cook for you, offer sustenance, distract you with the banality of food: casseroles, lasagna, pasta, meatloaf, chicken. We are supposed to eat when we hurt, whether we hurt from a loved one’s death or the trauma of divorce. Most people, I think, lose weight, though, when they grieve with all of this food. Prior to his death, Didion’s husband laments in a cab that everything he had done in life was worthless. After his death, Didion remembers this moment and wonders if she consoled him properly, if she followed the “recipe” for dealing with a partner’s anxiety or life crisis, or if she only asked: what do you want to do for dinner?
Ask for a recipe. What does Co-Star and its algorithms of hope mean? Horoscopes don’t usually suggest or require we ask for anything. The entire concept of the horoscope is based on predicted hope: the stars are showing us what will occur; and we believe the occurrence will make our lives better (money, love, happiness, new adventures, new people, etc.). We read horoscopes because we typically need hope. We believe that any one of the hundreds of daily printed horoscopes will provide us an escape from whatever misery we currently experience. Some people, like myself, cook food, at times, for similar reasons. Eating and cooking, too, can provide a type of hope: this tastes good; life will be good too. Or: this other person thinks what I made tastes good; our lives together will hopefully be good too. This is not a declaration of truth, of course. You can cook for someone every night, prepare requested dishes, adhere to someone’s diet, and the metaphoric meal fails. Marriage can become nothing more than “what should we do for dinner” and all the resentment that builds up when only one person is trying to create hope at the dinner table and elsewhere in the relationship. Cooking for someone is a challenge. Food, ambiguous, allusive, cultural, personal, provides a great challenge for two people trying to navigate their relationship — whether they were married for 40 years like Didion and her husband or whether they are a young English food writer and her partner like Risbridger. There is no exact recipe for relationship taste. Taste cannot be quantified in a list of ingredients or a glossy book with photographs of gorgeous plates of food. “Do you like mushrooms? Do you like pizza? Do you like spicy? Do you like humous? Do you like kale?” These are polite questions, but they are not a recipe for relationship taste. They are phatic gestures one makes prior to trying to please. They do not solve the knowledge problem: what is the recipe?
I think a lot about food. And relationships. And my horoscope. And the knowledge problem. I have no recipe for what to do, how to hope, how to “cook” metaphorically, other than to express this simple thought here for now. My Co-Star today was not about recipes. It simply said: Keep moving forward. Maybe that makes sense too.