Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harold McGee

The lesson of salt

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Let’s talk about salt. As every home cook knows, salt is a miraculous substance: it’s cheap, plentiful, and so common that it’s easy to take for granted, but a few grains can make all the difference between a bland, unsatisfying meal and one that drives every flavor home. Harold McGee describes its virtues beautifully in his classic On Food and Cooking:

[Salt is] the only natural source of one of our basic tastes, and we therefore add it to most of our foods to fill out their flavor. Salt is also a taste enhancer and taste modifier: it strengthens the impression of aromas that accompany it, and it suppresses the sensation of bitterness. It’s one of the very few ingredients that we keep in pure form at the table, to be added to individual taste as we eat.

In other words, salt is both an essential seasoning in itself and a vehicle that sustains, enhances, and modifies other ingredients. And when professional cooks refer to a dish as “underseasoned”—at least based on my obsessive viewings of Top Chef—they’re referring less to the absence of other flavorings than to that one crucial component that delivers and balances the rest.

But when you add the salt can be as important as how much you put in. I was reminded of this over the weekend, when my wife and I attended a performance of Alton Brown Live at the Oriental Theater here in Chicago. The show itself was fun, if a little uneven—I enjoyed the performative food science but was less enthralled by Brown’s interminable musical numbers, which, with the host’s obvious delight at the chance to play the guitar in public, reminded me a lot of Conan’s live tour. But the part that stuck with me the most was a short lecture on the proper use of salt, which Brown believes is the single most critical skill that a chef can possess. Brown points out that because we’re warned against having too much sodium in our diet, we tend to underseason our food while cooking it, which is a mistake on at least two levels: if we’re eating too much salt, it’s because of fast food and processed snacks, not home cooking, and when an underseasoned dish is put in front of us, we’re inclined to shake on twice as much salt as we would have used otherwise. That is, a grain of salt in the kitchen is worth two at the table.

Alton Brown

And this reminded me, inevitably, of the writing process. Like cooking a meal, writing a story doesn’t happen all at once: it passes through many distinct steps, from conception to outlining to first draft to revision, and part of the reason we divide up the work in this way is to allow each stage to comment on and correct the one that came before. I’ll often end up with a rough draft that I know is lacking in certain respects, but I’ll push on anyway, reasoning that I can fix things in the rewrite. In itself, this isn’t a bad approach, both because it allows me to finish what I start and because it gives me that residue of unanswered questions that you need at each turn. At other times, I’ll go back to reread a manuscript and find that it’s missing something important: there isn’t enough action in one sequence of chapters, say, or another section leaves certain plot points or character relationships unclear. What I’ll usually do then is figure out what I need to add; insert a new line, paragraph, or scene to clarify or fill out the omission; and then revise the whole thing until any seams are invisible. This is a natural part of the writing process, which resembles an endless feedback loop, with each read informing every rewrite until you’re done.

Yet I keep coming back to the lesson of salt. Just as salting a dish to correct a lack of flavor at the table only haphazardly addresses problems that should have been solved in the kitchen, going back over a story to patch over an implausible moment or poorly conceived character only disguises a flaw that should have been fixed much earlier. This isn’t to say that every aspect of a story needs to be fully worked out before you begin writing—in fact, I gave the opposite advice just last week. What it does mean, however, is that we need to proceed, like good chefs, from basic principles, and do as much of our work as possible as we prepare the dish for the first time. Making sure that a story arises from a series of logical actions by the protagonist in pursuit of a solution to a problem, for instance, is the equivalent of using good ingredients and combining them in the right proportions, and any interest, color, or atmosphere should arise from the narrative itself, rather than being imposed after the fact. Allowing the story to grow in this way requires close attention at every stage, which is why good chefs taste the dish throughout the process. It takes practice and patience, and even the best cooks sometimes end up with a disaster. But when you’re done, if you’ve prepared it all properly, you’ll end up with a story that is just salty enough.

Written by nevalalee

February 11, 2014 at 9:09 am

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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