Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In the novelist’s kitchen

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A writer's breakfast

I do a lot of cooking. Even before our daughter was born, my wife and I would make dinner at home at least four or five times a week, and now that Beatrix is here, I don’t think we’ve eaten out more than once or twice in the last few months. I’m not much of a chef, but over time, I’ve picked up a few simple tricks. I know how to use a wok and how to blanch and sauté vegetables, and I know that my best friend in the kitchen is the broiler. At this point, I can put a pretty good meal on the table in less than half an hour, which is a useful survival skill with a baby in the house. I don’t often cook from recipes, but I also don’t move far out of a fairly narrow comfort zone, and I’m at a point where I’d rather stick with what I know than try to figure out something new on a weeknight. (I’m also the kind of person who tends to eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, with the result that I’ve gotten very good at making exactly one kind of omelet.)

In short, I cook the way I write, and the more I think about it, the more I feel that writing and cooking have a lot in common. In both cases, we start out by following the rules very closely: a cook who dutifully measures out a necessary teaspoon of turmeric isn’t so different from a writer who checks his work for unnecessary adverbs and dangling participles with The Elements of Style at his side. And that’s a good, honorable approach. Later on, we start to work more by intuition, seasoning to taste, throwing things together, trusting in experience to know when to use sesame oil or oyster sauce, or when to cut a chapter or combine two characters into one. And then, much later, we begin to figure out how little we really know, and undertake a second apprenticeship that tells us why those practical tricks really work. On the cooking side, maybe we’ll subscribe to Cooks Illustrated, or read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, or even venture into the enticing labyrinth of Modernist Cuisine. And more often than not, we’ll find that we’ve been doing everything wrong.

Hot Potato, Cold Potato at Alinea

Of course, it’s one thing to tinker in the kitchen for your own pleasure, and quite another to become a professional. Here, too, there are many possible paths. You can attend a culinary academy—or an MFA program—or you can start out as a dishwasher and work your way up. Once you’ve started to cook for a living, you can focus on turning out simple dishes perfectly prepared, or you can push the entire art form into new directions, like Grant Achatz of Alinea, the David Foster Wallace of cuisine. You read reviews, listen to customers, and revise the menu accordingly, either by changing an entree here and there or throwing out the whole thing and starting from scratch. At the same time, you remain very interested in what other professionals in your field are doing, and if you feel a stab of jealousy when a friend wins a James Beard award, you use this to figure out what you could be doing better. And in the end, it all comes down to the experience you can offer a diner who sits down to eat something you’ve prepared for the first time.

If anything, I wish novelists were as open about their technique as chefs tend to be. Every celebrity chef ends up publishing a cookbook, and even the glossiest and least practical have some useful ideas. Very few writers have done the same, and it’s a great loss: The Paris Review interviews and a handful of decent books on writing fill some of the gap, but for the most part, writers seem content to stay in the kitchen. Personally, though, I’d love to see a big, fat coffee table book by, say, Ian McEwan—a novelist who serves up some of our best and bitterest dishes—with discarded drafts, failed recipes, and accounts of how he found the ingredients that worked. Because as clean and tight as a good novel can look, when you peek through the kitchen door, you’re bound to find a cutting board loaded with peelings and rinds, a sink full of dirty dishes, and a burned sauce or two, all for the sake of that one perfect plate. And as messy as the process can be, we’re all trying to achieve something like good taste.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2013 at 9:01 am

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