I adore Elizabeth David. For so many reasons. Her attitude. Her wit. Her unshakable common sense. The way she writes about the food she loves. And I especially love her human approach to measurement.
Pictured above is a page from French Provincial Cooking. It’s the opening paragraph for the chapter on Weights and Measurement. Her words were a breath of fresh air to this American ear raised to measure with cups and spoons according to the rigid methodology of sifting, spooning, and leveling developed by Fanny Farmer and in her Boston School of Cooking Cookbook. I have paraphrased Elizabeth David’s text as follows:
The dangerous person in the kitchen is the one who goes rigidly by weigh, measurements, thermometers, and scales … The tradition of French cookery writers, with a few notable exceptions, is to give only rather vague directions as to quantities, oven temperatures and timing. American cookery writers are inclined to err in the other direction, specifying to the last drop and the ultimate grain the quantities so salt, sugar, powdered herbs, spices, and so on, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination or discretion of the cook … Seasonings and flavoring are surely a question of taste; they are the elements which give individual character to each person’s cookery. And then there is always a question of what happens to be available. One cook will trudge for miles to buy a sprig of thyme because the directions for the stew tell her to include ‘a bouquet of thyme, parsley, and bay leaf’. Another will cheerfully leave it out. A third will substitute some other herb, a fourth will abandon the whole project as being too much worry and trouble, a fifth will be careful always to have a small supply of at least common herbs and spices in her store cupboard. It is not for me or anyone else to say which one is acting correctly. It is a question of temperament …
The really good cooks I know seem to have one thing in common. They tend to ignore recipes. Well I don’t mean completely ignore, but the really good cooks I know are more likely to do things their own way and less likely to follow the measurements and ingredients with dogmatic precision.
More than once I have been asked by one of the not so good cooks I know to salvage a situation using my culinary instinct. Like the time my sister was preparing a crab dish. She was carefully measuring out the required 1/2 teaspoon salt, her hand slipped, and a lot of salt went in before she could steady the container. She was expecting company that night and panicked. So I just rinsed off the crab, did a second béchamel, and no one was any the wiser.
When I look at a recipe, I see a framework for creativity. And if I make a mistake, so what? That is called human error and it happens to the best of us. Maybe I have created a new masterpiece. Much to my surprise and delight I have discovered that as long as you don’t broadcast the mistake, most people sitting at the table never know the difference. Like the time I found the sour cream for the beef stroganoff still sitting on the counter after dinner.
I do expect some things from a recipe. A listing of ingredients. Basic proportions. A sensible set of guidelines to help me out along the way. I don’t care if the ingredients are listed in order of use. Or how they are listed although my preference is by weight in grams. What I do not expect is guaranteed success. That will depend more on my culinary judgment than on my ability to execute a series of steps in the right order.
Now the dietitian in me is beginning to speculate … What role would culinary judgment have to play in nutrition / healthy eating? Hummmmmmm … I will have to give that one some serious thought.