Issue 28

The Fifth Element of Cookery

The Fifth Element of Cookery

Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth have been described as the four classical elements of nature, the essential phases of matter. In the East they added Metal. In India or Classical Greece it was Ether. The elements vary, but throughout history every culture of note from the Greeks to the Native Americans has invented a system to still the flapping sheet of chaos, peg it down at the four cardinal points of the compass and restore balance to their world.

Not surprisingly, the culinary universe reflects the real one which is always a day late and a dollar short of unanimity: contracting vs. expanding, thawing vs. freezing, mustard vs. mayo, ketchup vs. malt vinegar. We’ve seen what imbalance in the kitchen brings—those gastronomic abominations that are greasy, salty, sickeningly sweet, sour as all get-out, or simply inedible. A well-balanced dish will weigh savory, acid, sweet, and piquant. Equal measures of fire, water, wood, and earth will result in equilibrium, good feng shui, Ayurveda, Mat, and a decent meal. Most of us who have tasted the extremes of a tipped scale agree that truly good food is a kind of alchemy.

By good food, I mean dishes from our past that lit up every synapse, stamping our brains with such powerful sensory daguerreotypes that our eyes close under a drape of daydream as we taste them again with mere whiff of lemon peel, the clink-clunk of ice in crystal, the warm springy tug of good bread as it tears, the chalky tang of coffee-bitter chocolate, the oil-pastel white and persimmon pinstripe of sliced wild salmon. As cooks, we must follow the road maps of our souls to be able to re-create such feelings with a single dish, but we grope for specifics. Even the most poetic shlop fails to describe sublime meals because it is just darn tough to fully answer one question: What about that food made it so great? Restaurateurs and home-cooks alike would give all their dried Madagascan vanilla beans and Kashmiri saffron to get that answer and use it accordingly.

And so we wonder, why was that crispy golden fried ravioli with pungent red sauce was so compelling? Why was my grandmother’s pound cake such heaven? Such confusion owes to the fact that great food sweeps up all the mundane things that accompany it, including the knot in our stomachs, and sauces them liberally into a single memory. It’s hard to say: was it bone china, chandeliers, wind-tunnel fans, or thoughtful, recycled, bamboo table linens? Was it the weather, the mood, the neighborhood, the decade, the hormones? Was it music, or muzak, or coziness, or location, or the buzz on the patio? Was it a conjuring trick that the amiable bartender slash owner slash chef created? As chefs it’s even harder to tell: Was it the well-seasoned cookware, the Japanese bi-steel hamon tempered cutlery, the free-range fois gras, the fifty thousand-dollar gas range with special Peking-duck-torching burners? Was it location, location, location?

Some insist that dining pleasure requires an enigmatic combination of all these diverse elements. But I argue for something more basic that tends to get overlooked by cooks and has been ignored in restaurants since Pliny the Elder sent back his stuffed olives: the food. This food-centric concept is no revelation to food critics. But the real significance of food quality may be a shock to people that eat out a lot, and can’t figure out why they just can’t get really good pasta or pad Thai or whatever when they dine. They may be haunted by the feeling that somewhere, there is a truly spectacular version of that steak they just mangled and overpaid for, but they can’t recall if they actually ate it, or just dreamed it. From a purely practical viewpoint, good food is the only thing that should concern a cook. A dining experience without it is as pointless as a pickup without a bed, or an argument without facts.

Concord on the plate is challenging when we cooks must face handicaps such as limited time, eggs of different sizes, varying relative humidity and altitude, and all the organic irregularities that make us sigh over one piece of fish and gag over another. But how can cooks know they are making good food? How can they be sure? As the great evolutionary biologist and skeptic, Richard Dawkins, put it, “How do we know that we know what we know?” As cooks, we may not reach perfection, but we muddle through and we can vastly improve the odds.

We can educate ourselves. No one says you have to read Marie-Antoine Carěme in French but if you’ve never heard of him, you will be guilty of ignoring the moon and looking at the finger pointing to it and you will, as Bruce Lee said, “Miss all that heavenly glory.” (Actually—Enter the Dragon fans know—he said, “heavenry grory,” but I doubt anyone dared to jab him in his titanium-strength external abdominal obliques to point it out.) Back in the 1800’s Carěme wrote, “When we no longer have good cooking in the world, we will have no literature, nor high and sharp intelligence, nor friendly gathering, nor social harmony.” Still germane, both Carěme and Master Lee.

We can educate our palates. You may never cotton to sea urchin roe stuffed into sows’ udders (what? It was a popular Roman appetizer or gustātiō) but if you’ve never tasted sea urchins at all, you are missing an important piece of the vast panoply that makes up the human palate. And don’t give me that “man can live on any restricted diet like meat and taters or twigs” argument. I will sum up the history of anthropoid gastronomy thusly: if it didn’t get away, we ate it.

We can guard our palate against desensitizers. Smoking, excessive drinking or limiting our diet to one over-riding flavor enhancer (salt, fat, hot sauce, tannins, fake sweeteners, Appleby’s) can seriously damage your ability to taste actual flavors. It was said that the great Victorian writer, William Makepeace Thackeray, always drank such strong red wine that when he was given a fine French Sancerre he remarked that the water in that part of France was rather sweet for his taste. I’ve seen people drown everything in vinegar, mustard, ketchup, salt, hot sauce or sugar. Somewhere, there exists a person (possibly from Manchester, England) who uses all of the above at once.

We must listen to our diners. You and your diners may all have the palate of a goat but you can listen to those that don’t. It rocks my world when producing mogul and Chef Gordon Ramsay examines restaurants and tells wanna-be chefs none too gently that their food is simply disgusting. Next, every diner is canvassed, along with the wait-staff and random passersby, and all give the same reply: “This food is terrible.” And again and again you will see the chef-for-a-minute respond, “There is nothing wrong with the food. It’s very good.” What is going on here? How do you know that you don’t know what you don’t know? Unsurprisingly, a serious disconnect exists somewhere and a cook’s job is to find it and reconnect.

We can stop trying to impress everyone. A few years in culinary school and there we go infusing everything with powders, foams, and reductions. It’s complicated, and certainly bears out the expectation of “value added” cuisine, but does it taste good? A typical test for a new chef is to have her cook an egg because an egg is the most basic thing one can cook but the easiest to screw up. Gumbo and goulash need spice, but they can still be fresh and simple.

We can do something well and stick to it. Not everyone likes Italian food (which is sad) and not everyone has a taste for organ meat (which is understandable.) But who really wants to eat haggis at the Authentic Mexican Chinese Tandoori Sushi Barbeque Shack? Some people take global cuisine to new heights and some just don’t know when to quit. If you live in the heartland, grill steak. If you live on the coast, steam clams. And if life gives you lemons and butter, you’d better be making some killer lemon curd.

Heeding balance, and with a willingness to challenge our desperate clinging to our own rightness, we will need no magic formula to make great food. We only need mindfulness, passion, and the sensible accumulation of good, time-tested, memory-blitzing recipes. We can know that we know what we know. Perhaps it is self-awareness that should be the final and fifth element.

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar


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