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Spoon What Thou Wilt....

Hadn’t seen this before, but it’s far too bizarre to pass up. Dangerous Minds posts a recipe for rice “to be eaten with curry” by infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. It’s not a terribly difficult or unique recipe, although at the time, it was likely the kind of thing well-to-do “Orientalists” would have found de rigueur. To his credit, Crowley was well enough travelled that he probably did learn the recipe overseas (though his views on other “races” were as odious as the usual early 20th Century Brit).

Rather than repost the PDF, I think it’s worthwhile to transcribe it, because of what I find the most intriguing aspect of the recipe. Prior to Fanny Farmer’s standardization of the recipe format, instructions for the cook could come in any variety of forms, from the vague and measurement-less paragraphs of the Roman Apicius (“Put pieces of kid or lamb in the stew pot with chopped onion and coriander. Crush pepper, lovage, cumin, and cook with broth oil and wine. Put in a dish and tie with roux”), to the verbosity of the medieval A Book of Cookrye, the enterprising home cook could count on very little other than (maybe) a list of ingredients and (perhaps) the order in which they were to be cooked. In other words, prior to using many of these recipes, the curious cook had to know… er… how to cook.

Although precision and measurement had already begun to sneak into many texts prior to its 1896 publication, Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book changed all of that. Although still not quite in the format familiar to most modern recipe readers (list of ingredients, step-by-step instructions), the Boston gave background information about each main ingredient, including its “composition,” and included fairly standard measurements within the text of each recipe:

Select potatoes of uniform size. Wash, pare, and drop at once in cold water to prevent discoloration; soak one-half hour in the fall, and one to two hours in winter and spring. Cook in boiling salted water until soft, which is easily determined by piercing with a skewer. For seven potatoes allow one tablespoon salt, and boiling water to cover. Drain from water, and keep uncovered in warm place until serving time. Avoid sending to table in a covered vegetable dish. In boiling large potatoes, it often happens that outside is soft, while centre is underdone. To finish cooking without potatoes breaking apart, add one pint cold water, which drives heat to centre, thus accomplishing the cooking.

This is an obvious improvement, for obvious reasons. When we look at Crowley’s recipe (or the recipe from Apicius above, for example), we find that Farmer’s is clearest, likely easiest to use for the home cook, and certainly most reproducible. Applying what was generally considered a “scientific approach” to recipes was essentially a revelation (measurements, wow!).

Still, and this is the point I’ve been trying to get to, I personally tend to think that what we gained in accuracy via the standardization of recipes, we may have lost in creative narrative value. Crowley’s recipe is a perfect example, so here it is, in full:

RIZ ALEISTER CROWLEY

(to be eaten with curry)

Use pilaff rice (best 5-7 years old).

A.

Throw into quite boiling water, with a little salt in it. Stir with wooden spoon or fork.

After 8 minutes test it by taking a grain, and pressing between finger and thumb. It must be easily crushed, but not sodden or sloppy. Test again, if not right, every two minutes.

When quite right, pour a lot of very cold water into the saucepan.

Empty the rice into a cullender [sic], and wash well under cold tap.

Put cullender on a rack above the flames (gas) and let it dry.

Stir continuously with a fork, using a lifting motion, never pressing down. During this process remove carefully any black specks or hard discoloured grains.

Shake the cullender every minute or so until the rice moves freely, almost as if it had not been cooked at all.

Empty cullender into saucepan B. (see next page).

Stir until all is uniform, a clear golden colour, with the green pistachio nuts making it a Poem of Spring.

B.

Take Sultanas
Jordan Almonds
Pistachio Nuts
Cloves
Cardamoms (very few)
Turmeric powder (enough to colour the rice to a clear golden tint).

Stir all well together, in an ample amount of butter, in a large saucepan, and warm gently.

Keep warm until the rice is ready to add.

ALEISTER CROWLEY


I don’t doubt that this rice “pilaff” dish is likely quite tasty, though your average beginning modern home cook would be hard-pressed to sort through the dish exactly as Crowley describes (for one thing, he or she would have to figure out that “Sultanas” are white grapes, or the raisins thereof). That said, what interests me the most is the line, “Stir until all is uniform, a clear golden colour, with the green pistachio nuts making it a Poem of Spring.” Reading through the recipe, it really smacks into you– a nice surprise indeed (if a bit heavy-handed from the standpoint of poetry).

Although one can certainly appreciate the accuracy of a Farmer, it’s rather pleasant to come across a little creative narrative in an otherwise mundane instruction. I rather think it’s missing from a lot of modern food instruction. We who cook know from experience that there’s more to sweating onions than, “heat to medium low, add the onions, stir occasionally until droplets begin to form.” Why not, “stir occasionally until the onion cries fragrant tears, becomes the softness that lives beneath its pale skin”? Okay, not my best work, but you get the idea.

Obviously, not every writer of recipes is interested in creative writing, which is fine, but I think it would be nifty if we started playing a little more, making recipes more descriptive, more creative, more interesting to read. Of course, I’m whole-footedly in the “cooking is art” camp, so I’m biased. The “cooking is skill” crowd can soundly argue for the reliability of standardization. But surely we can maintain accuracy while acknowledging the music of the recipe, or at least toss in the sometime surprise, like Crowley’s “Poem of Spring.”