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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Making the beans tonight and thinking about the corn avocado and mango salsa I was going to make up myself, got me thinking about memorizing. I basically know how to make the beans because I’ve memorized the steps. Lately I’ve begun trying to memorize recipes because it dawned on me when I memorize a recipe it teaches me not only how to make that dish, but how to cook. Memorization is a form of internalizing knowledge so that it becomes part of you in a way that you don’t really realize until, say, you go to grad school and someone points it out.

Last week in my literature seminar, the instructor was horrified to learn how few of us (myself absolutely included) had any prose at all memorized. When forced, I could come up only with the opening lines to Dante’s Inferno, in italian, which I misquoted horribly. The correct lines would have been: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, or, In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood. We won’t go into what I actually said, we will settle for the fact that it was a fitting two lines of poetry for a middle-aged woman feeling out of her depth.

But my instructor was not appeased. “What will you do if you’re thrown in jail?” he inquired of us with genuine concern. He was right. What would I do? But more importantly, how could any self-respecting grad student such as myself not have made it a point to internalize the very best of the language I purported to write in? And so he set us the task of memorizing an entire page of prose which is much harder than it sounds. Easier, were the two lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay I’d wished I’d remembered in class: Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand / come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.

I am still working on the prose, the opening to Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch. “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread…” I am hooked now, on memorizing prose, hoping that it will do for me creatively on the page what memorizing recipes is doing for me creatively in the kitchen.


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