Just Good Food

The Decline of Cooking?

by John Ryan


Every year I hear reports that people are reading about cooking more and doing it less.

Since starting a newsletter with recipes I'd like people to try, I've done a lot of thinking about this trend. Lots of reasons are put forward to explain why cooking is on the decline, but I think a fundamental reason is the way recipes are presented. Though nobody talks about it, the foundation of the food biz is that recipes must be followed to the letter, that approaching the stove without a recipe is as crazy as setting out on a trip without a map.

For instance, consider this peevish observation by Patricia Wells from her book Simply French: "If a well-written recipe fails, it's usually for one of two reasons: The cook failed to read the recipe carefully, or he chose to carelessly substitute ingredients, a not so mild form of cheating.... with that approach to cooking, the dish could not possibly resemble the original, so why bother with a recipe from the beginning?"

With that approach to life, going to the beach or taking a walk in the park without a guidebook would be foolishness.

Such crankiness seems especially out of place in that particular book because it presents the cuisine of Joel Robuchon, one of France's great chefs. I think it's safe to assume that anyone buying the book knows Mr. Robuchon's reputation and wants the inside dope on the great chef's techniques. A similar, but gentler admonishment is found in the Joy of Cooking: "...the cook who prides herself on using nothing but her intuition as a guide to quantity...gets more than her share of lucky breaks. Like as not, too, she doesn't mind variations in her product."

Heaven forbid that spontaneity be part of cooking. with that, cooking might occasionally rise above being a chore and be satisfying.

Both these books, and many like them, advance the notion that a dish is a kit and that a recipe is a list of parts and assembly instructions. While I don't entirely disagree (after all, if a cook plays fast and loose with baking powder or cayenne pepper, the results can be disappointing or inedible), I like to think of recipes as tunes: you carry them around in your head, humming them differently every time. I think a lot more cooking would be going on if writers remembered that making something to eat isn't like a music lesson with a ticking metronome and a teacher ready to smack your knuckles.


John Ryan

Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.

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This page created 1997. Modified August 2007.