Discover more from Fine Kettle Of Fish
Food For Thought: Recipe Remix
Is there really anything "new"?
The creative process is never tidy. Ideas and designs rarely appear full-formed and often come from other ideas on the periphery, from concepts and images that may not appear to be directly related to the work at hand.
So it will probably come as no shock to you, my readers, that I get a lot of my ideas from places other than food and cooking media. I have lots of interests from music and cultural studies to politics and literature. There is so much great writing out there (especially on Substack!) and if you can can say “Hey Google” there are endless topics to explore.
One of the newsletters I have been enjoying of late is The Groove by Maria Brito. Maria writes about the creative process as illustrated by the work of artists and entrepreneurs. Recently she wrote about creative remixes and how much we think of as “new” is really built on top of prior work. Now there’s a thought I can chew on.
If you turn on the radio (or click on YouTube or TikTok) you’ll quickly note the popularity of remixes. The ABBA/Britney Spears mash up is everywhere. Think about the stories in literature, tv, and movies and they are almost all “remixes” of stories told in Greek drama, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the classical literature of all the world’s ancient cultures. Everything is influenced by something that came before it and things become popular in part because of their familiarity.
But it got me thinking: does any of this apply to food? You bet it does.
There is really nothing new in the culinary world, or at least hasn’t been for a while. I wracked my brain on and off for a few weeks, but I’m damned if I can come up with much.
Just because something is trendy does not mean that it is new. North American food media continuously acts as if they are discovering new flavours and ingredients, but they are hardly news to the cultures that have been enjoying them for centuries if not millennia. The molecular gastronomy trend of a decade ago was the cheffy/artistic application of compounds long familiar to food processors. There are shiny new appliances coming out every year but none have been secrets to the commercial and institutional food business - they are now just cheaper and more practical for the home cook. Seriously, your air fryer is simply a convection oven.
The closest to “new” I can come up with is the advent of the microwave oven. The microwave heats food by creating thermal energy using electromagnetic radiation, a concept that wasn’t possible before the 20th century. The microwave moved relatively quickly from concept into practical use and most people can easily see that it’s changed not only what we eat, but how we eat. But even then, that patent dropped in 1955, making it hardly “new” by most peoples’ standards.
So we are back to the remix - the building on and recombination of previous ideas into an new expression.
How can you use the remix to express your creativity in the kitchen?
Consider the cronut. Nearly a decade ago pastry chef Dominique Ansel created a stir with his mash-up of a croissant and donut. It captured the zeitgeist of “comfort food meets the extreme” and people went crazy for them. They weren’t “new” per se, but it certainly seemed that way. Ansel took two things both beloved and familiar and asked “what’s the same, or what’s different?” Both are pastries, both have similar ingredients, but what if you treated one like the other? A star was born.
What if you took a recipe like this watermelon salad? There is nothing really new in the flavour combinations, but what if you asked “what’s the same, or what’s different?” To me, the ingredients look awfully similar to those of a not-especially-traditional gazpacho. The same ingredients could easily become a salsa too. There might be some tuning to do, but you know you’re starting on a solid base.
Or consider how you can draw two or more ingredients together with a common partner. Potatoes and leeks are a well-known match, and tarragon goes with potatoes, and fennel with leeks. You know what’s a lot like both tarragon and fennel? That dusty bottle of Pernod in your cupboard. Try a little splash in your potato leek soup and let me know how it goes.
Learning to be great cook and not just a recipe-maker involves taking a certain amount of risk - trying something you’ve never done and being willing to learn from mistakes. Not every dish you make will be a winner, but when they are you’ll have something uniquely yours, and that’s something for any cook to be proud of. Remixes are a great way to get that process started - you’re starting on a foundation that someone built before you run as far (or as little) as you dare. You don’t have to start from scratch to be creative.
You can find inspiration for a kitchen remix anywhere you’d find a creative muse for any other activity: in music, in nature, in literature, or anywhere else in life you slow down long enough to ask the “what if?” and “why not?” questions. Consider your cookbooks a starting point and get mixing.