My father loved to order salad in restaurants though he didn’t much like salad or restaurants. What he did love, however, was to be asked what kind of dressing he wanted: French, Italian, or Russian. “Irish, of course,” he’d reply. In response to the look of confusion and stuttering from the waiter, he’d repeat himself. One of us would explain: “That means no dressing at all. Plain. Irish. Get it?” And he’d laugh wildly as the waiter heh-heh-heh-ed politely.
My father was no cook and he had no imagination when it came to food. His palate was thoroughly Irish, he’d claim proudly—give him root vegetables, fish, soup and ice cream. Lots of ice cream. Honest, plain food needs no French-a-fying, he’d say. It drove my mother crazy. An imaginative cook, she slipped in garlic and sometimes resorted to cooking a bland version just for him, adding fennel sausage or chile pepper to ours. She said he had no capacity for complex flavorings because his mother had murdered the beautiful vegetables that tumbled from her garden and into her unfortunate pot. My grandmother’s cooking bordered on the criminal, according to my mother, except when it came to sweets. Then she was a wizard, conjuring up the most extraordinary lemon meringue pies, deep chocolate-y fudge and luscious layer cakes.
As a good Irish cook, she also made amazing fruitcake. No one, of course, actually likes fruitcake, but hers, after months and months of basting in Irish whiskey, was divine, like chewing a fine, fruity cognac (which it was essentially). A loaf lasted forever, my brother snorted, because the thing was embalmed.
Last year I decided to try my hand at it. My mother whispered good luck when she handed me the yellowed index card written in my grandmother’s slanted hand—it included no measurements, no timing, just a list of ingredients and “mix until a good consistency” and “cook in a slow oven until done.” Several old cookbooks and preserving guides on my shelves give similarly vague recipes. I used to think those writers were teasing me, safeguarding their secrets. Now they’re my favorites as they not only give me room to find my own balance of flavors, they insist on it.
Only when I departed from strict recipes did I learn how to cook. I love to read cookbooks but rarely follow recipes. When my husband reorganizes the spice shelves alphabetically, I promptly mess them up, clustering things according to how I use them (chervil has no business being next to cinnamon). I rarely know what I’ll cook until I’ve rooted around in the garden or the pantry. My shelves carry a trail of my cooking history and guide me in my next adventure. If I see something local at the grocery store—this week it was spinach–I’ll bring it home. Then I’ll consult a pile of cookbooks—ah, the Italians like spinach stuffed into pasta, the Indians sear and spice it, the Moroccans fold it into seasoned yogurt. And my spice shelf will help me to recall whether mixing cinnamon with coriander and allspice worked with garlicky spinach.
Sometimes I have glorious failures. Like my attempt at my grandmother’s recipe which turned out to be the stuff of bad fruitcake dreams. Inedible. Criminal. I’m not quite sure what went awry apart from not enough or the wrong whiskey. Letting taste and look guide me means I have to be okay with the occasional disaster. I have to try again. And again. I’ve learned to pay attention to the ingredients. Dried herbs from the grocer, for instance, are usually much paler in taste than the ones I grow and dry, and so I have to adjust amounts accordingly. How can I squeeze a half lemon into a salad dressing if I have not tasted that lemon for tartness and flavor? One lemon might be juicy and sweet, the one next to it dry and with more pith than flesh. When people ask me for a recipe I usually shrug and say I don’t exactly have one.
I’ve learned a lot from the tension between my mother’s kitchen exuberance and the Irish terseness — to understand spicing as enhancement not as frill or main act. I let the primary ingredients speak. Maybe that’s why I failed with the fruitcake—too much fruit, too little whiskey. Maybe if my grandmother had just called it whiskey cake, I would have done better.
I draw the line at Irish salad dressing though. That’s going too far. Nope. I head straight to my mother’s little bit of French heritage for this one–all lemony and bright and flavorful.