I, Me, Mine

I got really annoyed at something I saw on Instagram earlier. (Not the most auspicious start to a blog post, I know). Someone I follow – who shall remain nameless – was preparing dishes from her cookbook, and posting a picture of each with the caption “my” salad or stew or whatever. I’ve always found this particular construction (often used on food programs) annoying, but I’ve never really thought about it before. Here, though, as the cook in question is mainly known for iterations of traditional Persian and Turkish food, it was particularly grating. When she posted a picture of “her” Turkish Gavurdagi salad, I wanted to shout at my screen. “It’s not YOURS! It belongs to a centuries-old tradition which you aren’t even part of, and you haven’t altered it in any way!”

Instead of shouting at my iPhone, or posting abusive comments, I thought I’d write about it here. The whole idea of ownership of recipes is a vexed question. You can’t copyright anything except the exact form of words used in a cookbook or whatever, and even innovative processes, which I guess could be patented, never seem to be. The result of this is that any any gastropub that fancies it can do Heston’s triple-cooked chips – surely a good thing – while this same hypothetical eatery can also make a hash of Adria’s foams. Swings and roundabouts. Recipes move around, are handed down to acolytes who then open their own place, they are altered and watered down and commercialised – good techniques and flavour combinations stick around because they work, and may have been ‘invented’ more or less simultaneously by a few different people. Accusing someone of stealing your idea for salmon and licquorice is like saying “this combination is so disgusting you would never have thought of it yourself”. It’s not polite to rip off a whole dish, but apart from that it’s pretty much a free-for-all. Everyone’ll know if menu items aren’t original anyhow.

The odd thing, in the light of all of this, is that people are so obsessed with the idea of personal creativity, the Romantic conception of the inspired artist, and of the chef as a creator in that tradition. It’s not that long ago that being a great cook would have simply involved a careful mastery of Escoffier, with maybe a couple of daring creations that became your signature dishes. Now every ‘food personality’ (with a few venerable exceptions like Locatelli and Roden, who deal in tradition) is expected to churn out book after book of new, exciting recipes; every bloody pub has to have its own take on the burger, or on sausage and mash… Of course, this is maybe preferable to total stagnation, but it’s ridiculous that everyone who wants to cook must become an artiste; there’s nothing wrong with following a tradition with the great skill of a craftsman. That’s why French bistros are so good. You can just get a steak tartare or some onion soup that hasn’t been dicked around with by someone who thinks he’s better than hundreds of years of tradition.

That’s the point really. No-one, except maybe people like Blumenthal, Adria, Redzepi, is creating genuinely original food. There are only so many preparations, so many ways of combining ingredients with heat and making them edible. Pretty much any dish you can make is just a version of something else. Someone like Ottolenghi, who personifies daring originality to the boho middle classes, pretty much just takes a traditional recipe, whacks on a cheese you’ve never heard of and a couple of garish spices, and makes it new. And there’s NOTHING WRONG with that. His food is delicious, respectful but fresh, interesting. So, second-rung supper-club chefs, stop banging on about “my” this and that. Be proud of the generations of cooks who have made your dish before.

I’m not going to give quantities. I don’t know how much salad you want to eat.

cucumber, quartered lengthways and then chopped
tomatoes, cut in the same size chunks as your cucumber
red onion, sliced in thin half-moons
dried oregano, none of that fresh stuff
feta and olives are optional as far as I’m concerned. The latter kalamata, halved and pitted, if you want, the former cut in a slab and stuck on top rather than crumbled into the salad.
Maldon salt
red wine vinegar
good olive oil.

Put the tomato and onion into a bowl, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Mix gently with your hands, and leave for ten minutes or so. This will soften and mellow the onion, and draw out some of the juices of the tomato, which will form part of the dressing, and is my sole original contribution to this recipe.

Add the cucumber (and the olives, if using), a pinch of oregano and pepper, a splash of vinegar and a slosh of oil (a slosh is larger than a splash). Stick the optional feta on top. Sprinkle with more oregano.