But there was, as always, a salutary comeuppance, one time when my father and mother went away for a Sunday and I was appointed to have a nice little supper ready for their return, I read a recipe in one of the smudged kitchen stand-bys. “Hindu Eggs,” it said, and it was not the exotic title but the fact that curry powder came into the ingredients that decided me. The procedure was simple, quite within my skills, and as I boiled eggs and made a cream sauce I thought happily of that half teaspoon of curry, and of all the other delicious curried dishes of lamb and chicken that we had sneaked when Grandmother was, as she was that very day, in Long Beach or Asbury Park.
The eggs peeled miraculously smooth. The sauce was a bland velvet cream. The casserole was buttered. And then I chose destruction. In a voluptuous maze of wanting to see again upon my parents’ faces the pleasure they always showed when we sneaked a curry, and in my own sensual need for more spice, more excitement than Grandmother would allow us in our daily food, I put in three tablespoons of the nice yellowish-brownish powder.
The rest of the story is obvious to any cook, no matter how amateur, but it conditioned at least four people, including me, to look up and murmur “Hindu Eggs!” whenever ignorance or stupidity shows in the seasoning of a dish.
It is fortunate that an obedience to the laws of nature is quite often an inherent thing in a good cook. I know at least one woman who could not possibly say why she adds ice-water rather than tap-water to her superlative pastry. She can neither read nor write and indeed can hardly talk, and if she is asked, will say grudgingly, “Kinda makes it set right…” She knows what all good cooks do, but not why.
Anyone, though, who wants to make pastry, or any other prerequisite of gourmandism, can comfort himself with the certainty that if he is not born with this inarticulate knowledge, he can acquire it. He can read, try, observe, think. He can, after a period of trial and inevitable error somewhat like learning to skate, turn out a pie as good as my dumb friend’s…or maybe better. He may be like another chef I know, a dentist, who for his own amusement has translated every one of his heavenly recipes into purely chemical terms and formulae, a form of occupational whimsy far beyond most people, or he may be content, as am I, to leave them “1 c. milk, 3 t. flour” and so on. But if he is honest, he will not tamper with the basic rules.
Myself, I have read so many recipes in the past thirty years or so, for both love and hunger, that I can and usually do recognize the good ones from the bad at a glance. What is more, I have followed so many of them, both actually and in my culinary brain, that I unconsciously reword and reorganize most of them, and am rebuffed and made suspicious by anything clumsy in them.
And one thing I do, always and every time, is to wonder about the pepper in a new recipe. Me, I like pepper. Me, I find that almost every professional rule puts in about one half the pepper I want. On the other hand, most amateur recipes call for too much. Always and every time, therefore, my pepper-conscious mind (or palate?) questions the seasoning of what I want to make, and with one eye on what I already know about cooking and the other on what I think I know about the people who will eat my food, I alter the indicated proportions…as far as pepper goes, that is.
Much further than that I do not stray, at least in the basic amounts of fat and flour, flour and liquid, liquid and temperature, and so on. I have learned in my own laborious workshop the culinary laws of nature, and by now can fairly well adjust them to the stove at my command, the weather and passions at whose command I am…
I know enough, in other words, not to double the lemon juice in a hollandaise sauce—it will be too sour and it will probably curdle and it will , in short, be a flop. I know it won’t help at all to make a custard of whipping cream instead of milk—it will flop. I know a salad won’t be twice as good if I put in two tins of anchovy filets instead of one. It, and the salt-killed lettuce in it, will flop, and dismally.