The other day I was cooking dinner, and it struck me that writing and cooking have a lot in common. In each case, you’re creating something out of – well, not exactly nothing, but many little somethings. Especially if you’re transforming leftovers into a new meal. Both pursuits require a fair amount of practice to become good, and while you can learn both from a book, nothing substitutes for hands-on experience. And, of course, both writing and cooking are greatly improved when performed with love.
The biggest similarity in my mind, though, is that no matter how good the recipe, it’s always better when you tweak it to your own tastes. I’ve been working my way through several recipes from Saveur magazine’s latest issue, and even the simplest found me deciding what I’d do differently next time. (I try to make a new recipe exactly as stated the first time. Then I go to town.) For instance, a lovely simple tomato sauce for pasta made of just canned tomatoes, butter, and onion was delicious. Almost perfect! But it will be even easier next time to remove the onion from the sauce as directed, if I halve the onion instead of quartering it. Likewise, I’ll probably add a pinch of salt and pepper during the cooking time, instead of at the end. In most cases, I have my own herbs and spices I favor over others, and I know which substitute well for others- say, Italian parsley instead of cilantro.
Writing is much the same. We learn the basics and then apply our favorite touches. Some favor lean, muscular prose – others prefer ornate and delicate strings of sentences. We bring our family histories, our experiences, out travels, and our taste to both writing and cooking. Proust famously had his madeleine; I have my grandmother’s klejner cookies. Stead’s When You Reach Me owes a great deal to L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but it’s not the same. Just as when I make my husband’s family’s infamous taralles (An Italian cookie) or meatballs, I make the recipe my own. (Grand Marnier instead of orange juice for the one and meatloaf mix instead of chuck for the other, if you’re interested.)
Today I made cheesecake – an old recipe from Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV Show. Sadly, the original recipe doesn’t seem to be on the web. My daughter always asks why I never change the recipe, unlike so many others. Simple, really: it’s perfect just the way it is. Here’s hoping I’ll come to the same conclusion about my novel – after it’s simmered a bit and I’ve revised it!