It seems, basically, that there are two ways of approaching cooking.
Firstly, there’s the way J does it. You open a recipe book, pick a recipe, and you do exactly what it says; you measure quantities, set temperatures, time times.
Secondly, there’s the way I do it. You open the cupboard, select some stuff, mix it up in a ratio that looks about right, and cook it until it’s done.
Based on the anecdotal evidence of people I know, first-method cooks and second-method cooks tend to be completely baffled by one another. It’s a case of “How can you do that?” being met with an equally confused “How come you can’t?” and is liable to lead to friction when a type one and a type two cook are collaborating.
Further enquiry has established what looks like a promising correlation: the second-method cooks (Rhiannon and I) learnt to cook by example, at a parent’s elbow; the first-method cooks (Graham and J) didn’t. I don’t think the neat gender divide there is entirely a coincidence, but that’s irrelevant to the main thrust of the point, which is this: you have to have a reference point for ‘looks right’, ‘about the right amount’, ‘looks done’, and you only acquire that reference point by being able to look at (smell, taste, poke) a satisfactory example. That point of reference, that context, is crucial.
Computers are thick. This is nowadays much obscured by the mind-boggling number-crunching power of the best ones and by individual incidents (like Deep Blue beating Kasparov) that seem to show computer intellect as superior to that of humans. But computers are ignorant. If you say to an English-speaking human “Make me a sandwich” they may not actually do it, but they probably can.
Whereas the computer will say “What’s a sandwich?” And then, when you explain what a sandwich is, “What’s bread? What constitutes a filling? Cut how, exactly? Where do you put the butter when you butter it? What does ‘edible’ mean?” And so on. Before you can reliably get a computer to make you a sandwich, you have to give it every last bit of contextual knowledge necessary to even understand the concept of ‘sandwich’, let alone how to make one, starting from the ground up, and that’s after you’ve made it capable of conversation, understanding and fluent English (none of which have yet been done).
A human cook will have learnt most of the necessary contextual knowledge (like what’s edible) simply in the course of growing up and learning to talk. But too often cookbooks assume a level of cooking-specific contextual knowledge that their readers don’t necessarily have. When your cookbook says ‘simmer gently’ or ‘boil until soft’, you’re skipping a step: what does ‘simmer’ mean? How soft? Does not compute.
So firstly there’s that: context.
Learning to cook by watching it happen also makes obvious what is camouflaged in recipes, which is that cooking is modular. The basic unit of cookery is not the recipe, or the dish; it’s the process, and a recipe is just a certain number of processes carried out in a particular order.
Boiling pasta is a process. Steaming rice is a process. Frying onions is a process. Making batter (or dough, etc.) is a process. Making sauce is a process. And so on.
It’s ridiculous and time-consuming to teach a computer an entirely new program every time you want it to do something, so you teach it processes – add, subtract, multiply, divide – and then stack those processes in the right order to get more complicated processes. Then you stack those. Et voilà, you have a program. Or a meal.
This is where most cookbooks can be supremely unhelpful: they list individual recipes as if they’re each a separate, unique, irreducibly complex monolith when in fact they’re made out of interchangeable building blocks. To switch metaphors for a moment: Lego. The same set of bricks can build you a spaceship, a pirate ship, a hospital, a prison, a castle, or a giant robot. You do not, whatever the Lego Group would like you to think, have to buy a brand new set every time you want to build something new.
The same is with cooking. With a basic set of cooking modules available (as it were) you can turn out any number of dishes, thanks to the magic of combinatorics. Even if you do what I tend to do and not deviate much from the (form of carbohydrate)+(form of protein)+(some vegetables) formula, that’s still many, many options given the sheer number of things available in each category.
Obviously all of this doesn’t address the very real physical and practical obstacles (it tends to require a lot of time and standing up, neither of which is necessarily as straightforward for everyone as they typically are for the able middle class) to cooking from scratch, but there’s also this mysterious perception floating around that cooking is tricky, as distinct from tiring or time-consuming. It’s exacerbated by recipe books that blithely assume you already have all the background knowledge: when something’s full of jargon you don’t understand, it’s too easy to slip into thinking “… and therefore it must be extremely difficult.”
Surely there’s room for a book that, rather than listing recipes, lists processes – just tells you one or two ways to cook as many common ingredients as possible, with some pointers as to which ones stack well. Maybe there could be a flowchart. Something that exploits the flexible and re-combinable nature of cooking rather than concealing it with a focus on specific, set-piece dishes. I think it’d find a niche.