Cooking with Garp

I tried making summer rolls for the first time tonight–I love them, and once I looked at a recipe, it didn’t seem so hard. I’d say it was a success. There’s something really satisfying about soaking and arranging and rolling up the rice paper.  It’s as much like an art project as it is a meal, especially the little thrill of dipping the stiff sheet of rice into water and having it melt into a flimsy skin.

It got me thinking about The World According to Garp. When he’s thinking about the menu for dinner, Garp writes, “If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don’t take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good…With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing.”

For me, there’s more overlap between cooking and writing. It’s not a question of one being predictable and the other being erratic. With both, part of the fun is tinkering. You can follow a recipe exactly as written, and chances are that the result will be somewhere between fine and fantastic. But the real appeal comes when you shift things around, add this and that, and create something new.

When I was little and I was trying to get my grandmother to teach me how to cook, I always wondered why she never went exactly by the recipe. She inevitably decided that the recipe was wrong about the amount of milk or that shortening would work better than butter or that cinnamon would be better than nutmeg. Maybe some of that was having decades of cooking behind her and knowing more than most of the cookbooks she was using. But I suspect some of it was that it’s just more fun to create than it is to blindly follow. Sometimes you add two eggs instead of one and you wind up with something inedible. But sometimes you decide red peppers will work better than tomatoes, and when you take that first, revelatory bite, it  feels like you just painted Starry Night or discovered the polio vaccine. 

And it’s the same with writing. Sometimes you screw up and your day’s work is good for nothing but the garbage disposal. Sometimes it’s a sentence so good that you can’t believe you wrote it. But throwing in a bit of this and that, pushing yourself to find something new–that’s where the joy is.

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