A tablespoon of this, a quart of that, a dash of this, a splash of that – all recipes have certain measurements. Some chefs are less precise, using more subjective quantities such as a handful, two finger-widths, or tennis-ball-sized; others claim no measuring is needed at all, as long as your culinary experience allows you to weigh by feel and look, with your hands and eyes as your only tools. The purpose of a recipe is to be accurate enough to repeat the dish to perfection each time, but sometimes there’s more to it. Not everything that matters most in the kitchen is measurable, nor can it all be transcribed in a recipe.
Measuring spoons and Pyrex cups will always have their time and place, but there are also unquantifiable, even mysterious, qualities that make recipes great. If you use the same ingredients for tomato sauce as your grandmother does, and follow the exact same steps, why does yours never seem to match the taste of hers? There is no reasonable or scientific answer, except to say that the way something is made, along with the person making it, can impact the flavour. Maybe it’s how your grandmother hand-crushed the canned tomatoes. Maybe it’s the hypnotic way she stirred the contents of the pot with an ancient wooden spoon. Maybe it’s the words of prayer she mumbled while putting the finishing spices in the sauce. Maybe it’s none of that, or all of it put together. It’s hard to say.
Italian families know this well from making tomato sauce, as well as fresh pasta. In his memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni writes: “Dried pasta from a box didn’t advertise how long and hard you had labored. Dried pasta from a box didn’t say love. When you ate a bowl of Grandma’s strascinat, covered in the thick red sauce that she and most other Italians simply called ‘gravy,’ you knew that every piece of pasta had the imprint of her flesh, that the curve of each nub matched the curve of her thumb.” He is suggesting that you experience far more than just the flavour of the flour, eggs, and water in the noodles – you taste the hands that made it, you taste the emotion that went into it.
A Korean culinary philosophy makes a similar distinction by proposing that food has both tongue taste and hand taste. As Michael Pollan explains in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation: “Hand taste involves something greater than mere flavour. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it – the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it.” Koreans believe that something beyond the mere ingredients imparts a defining hand taste that transcends the tongue taste of the dish.
This concept also applies to cocktail recipes. In her book, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende reports that Spanish film director Luis Bunuel believes the perfect martini has had a ray of sunlight pass through the gin while it’s still in the bottle before being poured into the glass. It is these intangible things, like a sunbeam touching a martini or the imprint of a thumb in fresh pasta, that can send taste to another level. It is these elements in a recipe that cannot be measured and do not add to the physical creation of the end product, but influence the taste profile, even if only in the imagination of those enjoying it.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.