By Marina Wolf
I WAS PUTTING together a menu the other day, trying to decide which preparation of roast pork loin would be best, when it hit me, as cold and blunt as a marble rolling pin: I am not a fluent cook, and may never be. Yes, I can follow just about any recipe, and most of my friends are glad to eat at my house. But I'm just not a native speaker of food. It will always be a second language, and an imperfectly learned one at that.
Like many people's, my first cooking "sentence" was simple, like "can opener" + "pan" + "one can of water" + "heat." Later came such semantic subtleties as "medium-low heat" or "milk instead of water" or "stir with wooden spoon, not metal, to avoid scraping the nonstick coating." Some people never progress further than this, or they regress to microwave dinners, whose instructions are paradoxically the crudest, most rudimentary food phrases possible: "heat" + "eat." It's the equivalent of "Where is the bathroom?" or some other essential but inelegant phrase.
Others people pick up a bigger vocabulary and move into longer conversations, dinner parties and homemade spaghetti sauce, banana bread, and maybe even some fancy deep-fried dish. For us, food magazines offer a sort of abbreviated course, the Berlitz school of cooking. Just as learners of second languages have flash cards and videotapes, so do we speakers of food have brightly illustrated recipe cards and Saturday morning cooking shows.
We can put on a coherent culinary event. But it is an effort, and it's also usually a closed system, where the parameters are clearly defined. The depth of our knowledge is revealed in our response to sudden changes in those parameters. What if there is no pork loin available, only ham? I stutter, I skim the cookbooks, and my apparent ease vanishes. It's like trying to buy boots in a foreign language, without knowing that in this language there are six distinct words for boots. You might eventually get the boots you want, but it'll take longer and your reliance on the little pocket dictionary will peg you instantly as a non-native speaker.
So what makes one a fluent speaker of food? It's the ability to improvise, to respond to the unique parameters of an interaction. And that, I suspect, is picked up in much the same way that people pick up languages: through constant exposure at a relatively young age, or through an intense immersion program in college (otherwise known as cooking school). One way requires merely a family interest in food, the other a commitment to starting over from the alphabet, relearning how to hold a knife and peel potatoes.
Like a second language, cooking skills fade when not used. During my time in Russia, I found myself both conversing and cooking with ease. But the skills never really took root. My understanding of the language has lapsed into passive knowledge (I could eavesdrop, but wouldn't be able to gracefully recover if somebody caught me at it). And nine years later, I can only vaguely recall dishes we ate and how I made them.
Even in English, my food abilities tend to be more passive than active. I can taste a dish at a restaurant and really appreciate it, but I would have a hard time explaining why it works, and an even harder time producing it myself. And did I mention that I have a really hard time choosing between five kinds of roast pork?
Sigh. If only my parents had cooked around me more.
From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.