Last week, a post about the bluesman Furry Lewis, included this:
“By now there must be in the world a million guitar virtuosos; but there are very few real blues players. The reason for this is that the blues–not the form but the blues–demands such dedication. This dedication lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill–competence–is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible.”–Stanley Booth, 1968
It got me to think about something the late Marcella Hazan wrote in her second cookbook:
The Good Italian Cook
by Marcella Hazan
I know young people now who play the piano as … one can't … can't play it better. But then, when I hear them play it that way, I have my little questions for them. I ask them, when will you start to make music?
—From an interview given by Arthur Rubinstein on his ninetieth birthday
Music and cooking are so much alike. There are people who, simply by working hard at it, become technically quite accomplished at either art. But it isn't until one connects technique to feeling, turning it into the outward thrust of that feeling, that one becomes a musician, or a cook.
The good Italian cook is an improviser, whose performance is each time a fresh response to the suggestions of an inner beat.
Those who set out to become accomplished Italian cooks have at least one advantage over others—there are no acrobatic movements to execute, no intricate arabesques to master. Italian cooking produces some of the most delectable food in the world, with astonishingly simple means. Except for rolling out pasta by hand, an Italian cook does not need to command special skills. There are none of the elaborate preliminaries one may find in other cuisines. La buona cucina is not an exercise in dexterity. It is an act of taste.
Taste, like rhythm, may be described, but it does not exist until it is experienced. Carefully annotated recipes are useful because they lead to the re-creation of an experience, they demonstrate what can be accomplished. But one must bear in mind that a recipe is only the congealed record of a once fluid and spontaneous act. It is this spontaneity that the good cook must recover. To attempt to reproduce any dish, time after time, through plodding duplication of a recipe's every step, is futile and tedious, like memorizing a ditty in some foreign tongue.
As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, no one ever steps into the same river twice. One does not need to be a philosopher, only a cook, to know that no dish ever turns out again exactly the same. Cooking, like life itself, flows out of the experienced past, but belongs to the unique moment in which it takes place. From one occasion to the next, you will not find vegetables at the identical stage of ripeness or freshness. No two cloves of garlic, no two bunches of celery, no two peppers in a basket have exactly the same flavor, no cuts of meat duplicate precisely the texture and tenderness of those of another day. Each time you bring your ingredients together, your own hand falls with a difference cadence. The objective in good Italian cooking is not to achieve uniformity, or even absolute predictability of result. It is to express the values of the materials at hand, and the unrepeatable intuitions of the moment of execution.
All this does not mean there are no rules. Of course, there are rules. There is structure to Italian cooking just as there is structure to the music of a dance. The brief suggestions that follow here and the recipes of the book will succeed, I hope, in making you aware of how Italian cooking is achieved. Even more, I hope that eventually the recipes will release you from their grasp, and allow you to cook through the unfettered exercise of your own taste. Once you have understood technique you must stop paying attention to it. You must stop counting teaspoons and begin to cook.
[Photo via: Food 52]