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The Unnatural Cook

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

Tag Archives: memorize

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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I cooked Chicken Indienne using the recipe in a  different way than I usually do. Usually, I take plastic sleeve with the recipe out of my recipe notebook, (see: Meal Plan 101) prop it up on the toaster and follow it, line by line, while I’m cooking.

This time, I read the recipe before I cooked it and closed the notebook. My intention was to learn how to make it without having to refer to the recipe. It’s a recipe of my mother-in-law’s and I really like certain things about it. For instance, she gives nice proportions for flour, salt & pepper when dredging and browning the chicken. Reading it to memorize it made me read the recipe differently. It allowed me to make a mental note of the order in which she does the obvious stuff (brown chicken, saute onions, add spices, chicken stock & cream), and to focus on memorizing the few measurements I wanted to get right: salt, pepper, curry, candied ginger. I’m pretty sure I could make the whole recipe next time without looking.

By all accounts this was my best batch ever of Chicken Indienne. I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think I have finally learned to pay attention while cooking in a way that takes advantage of all my senses and does not rely solely on sight: ie, my ability to see a recipe.

Now the pilaf recipe, on the other hand, came out of the notebook while I was cooking. This is a Cooks Illustrated Rice Pilaf recipe that is so delicious and so absolutely reliable that I wasn’t going to do any guessing. However, I think I could memorize it too and I did, at least, perform the multi-step process with more ease than is customary.

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