Imagine if there were no more recipes. A provincial lifestyle blogger quietly posts a gluten-free iteration of Southern Fried Chicken, accompanied by her Smashed Cucumber Salsa and Rainbow Slaw, and that is it; the last possible combination of edible ingredients with heat, salt and time. There are no more recipes. The deluge of food related content begins to slowly dry up. The first things to go are the words “my”, “new”, “unique”, from headlines, tweets and titles; the writers know there is nothing unique in their oat cookies, their mixed salads and complex braises – not that there ever was. The adjectives of surprise start to disappear, too; as the rabid hunt for the new dies down, cooks realise that they never wanted dinner to amaze, only to fill and to delight.
As professionals and amateurs alike return to the archives, to their heaps of coffee-table cookbooks, to family recipe collections and to the depths of the Good Food website, to revisit old favourites and to finally try that dish they’d always meant to, the food-writing community is thrown at first into a blind panic. What are they to do without their newness? For a while there are no food pages in the supplements, no blog posts, no stop-motion recipe videos; Ottolenghi weeps into his spice cupboard, for there are no more worlds to conquer. Gradually, though, they recover. If they cannot create, at least they can still cook, interpret, curate; days can be spent exploring the possibilities inherent in a few lines of Elizabeth David, Mrs Beeton or Apicius. The fringe elements of cooking, the bakers, brewers, charcutiers, anyone who has spent months or years perfecting a single technique, come to the fore at last; their patience, long appreciated, is finally celebrated as a love of craft overtakes that of creativity.
This new sensibility, transferred to more everyday cooking, to the slow perfection of pasta, crackling, fried fish or salad, has immediate results; palates widened by a thousand flavour combinations become narrow of focus, gradually attuned to more subtle variations, to salt applied half an hour before or five minutes into cooking, to leaves picked in the heat of the day or by wet moonlight, to different ages of wheat. No-one can master all of these things; as specialisation deepens, meals become communal and sprawling, as everyone contributes the element they do best to the table, which might be cultured butter, pork pies, or a croquembouche. All of these things are equals at the feast, and our food has never been better.
Craft turns into cult, as the special knowledge of each technique – of little interest to anyone else, busy as they are with their own trades – is hardened into mystery, to the secrecy of family and guild; experimentation and perfectionism, at first the lifeblood of what has become known as the New Cooking, is discouraged. Adherence to the rules, to the recipes laid down in the ancient texts and websites, becomes a matter of almost religious discipline. There is clearly a best way to make, say, bread, which is that enshrined in the Book; any deviation is, by definition, inferior, and should be rooted out in case it spoils the palates and the hands of future bakers – so the thinking goes. Understandably, many baulk at this; they are suppressed. Finally, after generations of this, someone dares to tinker. Rebellion builds in their heart until they can take it no more. One day, at Stage Two of The Recipe, they swap the vinegar for lemon juice and capers for finely chopped cornichons; they serve it, against all precedence and logic, with salmon. It is disgusting.