Sunday, January 19, 2014

"The careful overcoming all existing troubles," or -- original recipes (plus Beer Cream Pie)

I'm perplexed. What makes an "original" recipe? To contribute to food and wine websites, one must provide original recipes, even if one enjoys cooking and writing about previously published, "retro" fare because it's often so tasty and because rescuing it from obscurity is great fun. When was the last time someone made Mexican oatmeal soup from Yvonne Young Tarr's New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook (1973)? It's not original, but in a real way, it is completely new.  

Alas. Online foodie platforms need freshly thought-up content. I surmise the reason is that they are making money from ad revenue and so reprinting other publications' material, even if it is decades old and fully acknowledged, leads to copyright and royalty difficulties. Very well. I'd still be pleased to have some legal eagle absolutely define originality in food and drink.

Because really, how different can any food be from whatever else has gone before? Some comestibles, and some potables, are so ancient they must dwell like the Bible and Shakespeare beyond copyright. They are simply human possessions. Chicken soup. Pot roast. Apple pie. The martini. But even if you venture into less-charted spaces in mankind's great kitchen, even if you venture into what should be the newest and shiniest and freshest-swept corners of it, you'll find originality is not quite what it seems.

Pick at random from an issue of wonderful Bon Appetit. For May 2011, we can prepare Grilled salmon with Indian spices and raita (a yogurt and cucumber sauce). Different and original. But at, we may learn to prepare poached salmon with various spices (not Indian) and raita. If I were a food editor having fully internalized warnings about company policy on originality, I would have rejected one or other of these recipes on obvious grounds.

The same is true for wonderful Bon Appetit's bacon and cashew caramel corn (September, 2010), bar food from the Denver hot spot Colt & Gray. Caramel corn may belong in mankind's kitchen, but this sumptuous improvement on it is surely unique. Surely; but google the keywords, and you will find spicy bacon, almond, and maple popcorn, as devised in the test kitchens of Diamond Foods by chef Tina Salter in September 2009. Again, if I were a food editor and had internalized the vital policy, I would have raised an eyebrow at the idea of publishing the Denver restaurant's version of this snack, how delicious soever it is.

Which leads me to suspect something. Does food publishing originality consist in a sort of agreed-upon sleight of hand, the substitution of this herb for that, this technique for that? When legally does an "adapted" recipe become one's own? Do some people keep mum about raiding an incredibly obscure source -- say, Chinese Snacks by Huang Su-Huei, 1976 -- and hope no one notices?

Even if a recipe is so exuberantly weird that I am happy to believe all claims about its utter freshness, it seems that very exuberance is a drawback. One such popped into my inbox this very hour: braised pork belly with watermelon mint salad and Ponzu saucce, from Wine Enthusiast. I congratulate the chef who created it, while I respectfully pronounce that I have no intention of ever making it myself. The trouble with gems like these is, while the dish may be fine, time is short and there are far too many good, traditional, and yes, obscure but satisfying retro recipes to cook, to warrant devoting an afternoon to what looks like a bizarrerie designed to satisfy the chef's artistic calling, impress the restaurant-weary, or pass editorial muster first -- and feed a family second. I would rather (gulp and) try Pepsi-cola chicken, from the New and Improved Potluck for 33,000 (1993, published -- complete with comb binding -- by the Dayton's, Hudson's, and Marshall Field's cookoff), or Glenn Quilty's plum duff (Food for Men, 1954). Or Mrs. Beeton's apple soup, 1861. Or "Eve's toast," from The How to Keep Him (After You've Caught Him) Cookbook (1968). And so on....

Still. Even I had an original recipe idea not long ago. In The Best of Shaker Cooking (1970) I discovered Sister Lizzie's Sugar Pie, which is nothing but butter, sugar, and cream baked in "your best pastry" shell. (How on earth do these ingredients solidify without an egg binding?) Enjoying a Duchesse de Bourgogne at the time, I had a brain wave and thought, why couldn't beer serve as the liquid in a pie like this? "Beer pie." How new. How different.

It's been done. And most deliciously, I would think. Nearly two years ago, Jasmine at Beer at Joe's created a porter cream pie, the beer custard ladled into a buttery pre-baked crust lined with melted, cooled chocolate. Do go there.

I suppose one could argue that every recipe, beginning with bread, was once a newfangled bizarrerie not to be compared with things Mother used to forage, but I do think the explosion of cookery publishing platforms nowadays has forced the mania for editorial novelty into skillets and cakepans where it becomes a distinctly one-off ingredient. Someone once summed up by saying if I want to create an original recipe, I should just add a banana to every ingredients list, and then assure my readers that if they don't like bananas, they can omit it. I must find out if the joke is original with him.

An aside: Chinese Snacks really is the most obscure cookbook in my collection. I admit to not having raided its complexities yet. (These are snacks? It's no wonder even the French say that Chinese cooking picks up where the French leaves off.) But I love the preface, by authoress Miss Huang Su-Huei. Her readers, she says, have insisted she produce this revision of her Chinese Cuisine first published in 1972.

In reciprocating the readers' such warm kindness, I have decided, after detailed researches and careful overcoming all existing troubles, to put out Chinese-English bilingual edition available for the readers' practical purposes. 

And she warns us against knockoffs, even 35 years ago.

By the way, as some pirated editions from old ones with poor printing but in the same title of this edition are recently found out, your careful attention is important and shall be appreciated. 

Oh, I appreciate it all.

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