by John Ryan
Probably the least-reported pleasure of professional cooking is the conversation.
Despite the patina of glamour and sophistication that food magazines and cookbooks strive for, the fact is, cooking is a pretty tedious chore. But it's one thing to chop an onion and mince a few cloves of garlic for dinner at home. It's quite another to set up for a crowd.
Everyday, professional cooks punch in several hours before serving time and start slicing, dicing, pounding...and talking with anyone in earshot. These conversations are sometimes as stupid and juvenile as any drive-time radio talk show. But not always. First dates, politics, books, hobbies, vacations...they're great conversational ingredients. And over the weeks, months, and even years that a staff works together, these conversations become an almost tangible mosaic.
Day to day cooking at home leaves very little room to start these kinds of conversations. Too often the object is to get dinner on the table as fast as possible. Or perhaps you can't talk because you are trying a new recipe and need to concentrate.
But another problem is our century's incredibly successful war on chores. The ideal situation for conversation to bloom is to have a long, tedious chore in front of you, such as making ravioli, picking basil leaves for pesto, or rolling tamales. When such chores are done for us, idle talk doesn't even get started.
A true tamale story. Last year I was getting ready to teach a class on tamales. A week or so before the class I went to the butcher a couple blocks away and picked up a pork butt to test my recipe. I wasn't quite happy with the results, so a few days later I got another butt to test some changes. And then, a day or two after that, I went in to pick up two butts for the class.
This time the butcher couldn't resist: "What are you doing with these?" and his buddy chimed in: "Yeah, anyone who buys more than one butt a week... we have to report them to a federal agency."
So I told them about the class. I didn't expect that they'd be interested, but the clerk who'd asked lit up and told me about his aunts who got together every year around Christmas and made tamales. He said that it was a tradition with them. They would spend the day in the kitchen making tamales, talking, and laughing.
And how he'd always go home with a dozen fresh tamales.
Normally I don't write about something as labor-intensive as tamales, but they've become an annual tradition with Margaret and me. Instead of throwing a dress up Christmas party, we'll invite a few friends over, tell them to wear something that'll go with cornmeal, then spend the afternoon and evening making tamales, drinking beers, and talking.
John & Margaret
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created December 1998
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