I once heard someone (and I think it was my brilliant mathematician sister) say that if you can read, you can teach yourself to do anything.   Generally, I believe that to be true but there are exceptions.  For example, you can read a hundred books about the techniques of painting but you can not necessarily teach yourself through reading how to be a great artist.  And you can read a million cookbooks but if you do not possess passion and perserverance you may never become a great chef.  I know I’m not a great chef and I’ll never be.  I’m a home cook who relies on other chefs and cooks who write recipes to teach me how to make something delicious.  Which is why recipes and recipe writers are so important to cooks like me.  

Recipes are individual essays or stories about how someone else made something and how you can do it too.  A good recipe has a comprehensive list of ingredients and perhaps a message about where to source those ingredients.

A recipe is also a story with a plot – first you do this, then you do that!  Like any good novel, the suspense is built in.  If you do all of these things, in the order directed, what will happen?  Your souffle will rise.  Your Bearnaise sauce will emulsify.  Your potatoes will puff.  And your duck skin will crisp!

A great recipe tells a story.  Where did this recipe originate and why?  What is the cultural significance of this dish.  Is it traditionally served at a Chinese New Year Banquet?  Was it a happy accident in the kitchen of a French palace when the chef fried a batch of potatoes and the King showed up to dinner late so the chef fried them again and found out they were better that way?   

Most importantly, a good recipe is a love letter, a gift, a message from one cook to another that says I’m going to tell you how to make something for someone you love.  With Valentine’s Day approaching, isn’t that what cooking is all about?  


Recipes also reflect the times. I have recently been comparing two Chinese cookbooks that are both amazingly informative and fun to cook from. One is Everything you Want to Know About Chinese Cooking (1983) by Pearl Kong Chen. The other is The Woks of Life (2022)by William, Judy, Sarah and Kaitlin Leung. Both of these books discuss Chinese-American cuisine, the more recent book in an intimate familial way: "...we started to document our family's history through recipes -- some from old world Shanghai, others from a Chinese restaurant kitchen in the Catskills." The Leung family's cookbook and their blog document a family tradition, an ongoing journey. Some of their recipes are "all about tradition. Others blend old and new." They list 9 essential Chinese pantry ingredients, and devote less than 10 pages to describing techniques and tools. Yet their recipes are easy to follow with clear instructions. I seem to be cooking my way through this book the way Julie Powell cooked her way through Julia Child's cookbook. So far, I have not been disappointed with the outcome of my efforts.

Contrast that with Ms. Chen's 1983 tome which devotes over 100 pages to ingredients, techniques and the history of Chinese food before the recipes even start! While the Leungs cookbook celebrates Chinese-American cuisine, Ms. Chen seems to suggest that there is no such thing as Chinese-American cuisine, only bad Chinese cooking. She says: "Does Chinese American food define a cuisine? Probably not. It is sound cooking, adopted to the needs of an impatient, uncritical society." Wow. She dissed an entire society as impatient and uncritical. Well, maybe she was on to something. Her book is amazingly thorough, though, almost scientific. While there is MUCH to be learned from her, I think I would rather sit down at a rollicking dinner table with the Leung family. Ms. Chen seems a bit severe.

Recipes also reveal their authors' personalities and life-views. Ms. Chen may have been more professorial than the Leungs but she was no less concerned with helping her reader cook beautiful food. Both of these cookbooks have a special place in my kitchen.

The Soul of a Recipe is What Makes Cooking an Act of Love.

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