THE X FACTOR
Do the Best Cooks Have Supernatural Powers?
Forget molecular gastronomy, our columnists make the case that the best chefs and recipes have a special, almost otherworldly, quality.
“I never took kindly to the idea that you outgrow the magical, and the surreal, and the fairy tale, and I still don’t.”-Marlon James
It seems natural in an era when bunkum and hoaxes are front of mind that American culture would turn to food for its science and certainty, making chefs our technicians and professors. Diners now presume that behind those painterly swirls and splashes on a restaurant dinner plate lies a practice: spices measured in milligrams, the kitchen as stainless and regimented as a surgical suite. The provenance of each ingredient is known, controlled, and, frequently, disclosed.
To be sure, the scientific impulse has been landing in home kitchens, too, for some time now. In the late seventies, “high-tech” style put beakers, test-tubes, and pipettes on Formica countertops, and more recently, cookbooks such as Kenji Lopez-Alt’s 2015 blockbuster The Food Lab, promising “Better Home Cooking Through Science,” strive for precision in their recipes to ensure happy outcomes anywhere. Just last week the makers of Instant Pot raised the ante, releasing a $75 immersion circulator, so expect 40 million homes to be dabbling in sous-vide cooking by January (note to our agent: our proposal for Sous-Vide Southern will be in the mail tomorrow).
We rolled our eyes in 2012 when Nathan Myhrvold’s award-winning Modernist Cuisine series (Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Bread) extolled the immersion circulator’s virtues. Do you have a calibrated kitchen scale? Myhrvold insists on one, as well as a centrifuge if you possibly can. “Frequently bought together” with lab-coat, eye protection, and closed-toed shoes.
Where’s the food world’s punk, surrealist, or romantic counternarrative? We are geeks who believe in science—we lavish attention on recipe-testing when we publish cookbooks—but we can’t help feeling like the quest for scientific clarity in the kitchen is out of sync with the complexity of everyday food experience, and with its history. The vast majority of home-cooked meals human beings make are incomplete, cobbled together, inexpert, repetitive, and naturally—wonderfully—mundane. And some involve an element of fiction.
We’d like to make a case for a remystification of cooking, an elevation of the witchcraft and magic that has always animated the realm of fabled home cooks—those food wizards whose exploits and dishes are inexplicably (even absent of hard evidence) perfect.
You no doubt have a food figure like this in your life. So, it’s time to celebrate that person and those legendary recipes as if there were an Oscar for Best Meringue Pie and a Scepter of The Ma Po Tofu. Don’t be bashful, tell that story—a more exciting food culture depends on it!
In our reporting lives we’ve fallen under the spell of virtuoso cooks from Wakullah Springs to Auckland to Addis to Keokuk. They’re everywhere!
One such person, in Lenoir City, Tennessee, is Katherine Baird, and we can tell you she makes the best goddamn okra pickle! Every Halloween in Charleston we attend her granddaughter Jennifer Waggoner’s excellent monster mash, drink way too much Purple Jesus and then glance longingly at the fridge until Jennifer gifts us a jar of pickled okra.
The stories she tells about her grandmother’s cooking bring the entire costumed chaos to rapt silence. Our fridge is filled with pint jars of Baird’s past vintages with nothing but an inch of brine left in the bottom, because that liquid is so perfectly calibrated in its proportions of tang, salt, garlic, and chile heat it would be a shame to pour it down the drain. Baird lands a Golden Rectangle on your taste receptors—the harmony of flavor and texture is so complete the jar gently vibrates in your hands. We could go on, because a legend this great deserves thousands of words and awards. Of course, she grows her own okra.
“My pickled okra isn’t that good,” Baird told us modestly when we called her up for some testimony. “They just want to brag on Granny.” She noted she blends her brine and pickles her okra laboriously, one-pint jar at a time, to keep it comprehensible and consistent. She prefers “little short green okra, I wouldn’t recommend the red ones. And trim it, but leave some stem so it doesn’t bleed out.” Her method is as simple as pouring hot brine over fresh dill, garlic, and okra in a sterilized jar—but she never “processes” the jars, because that would ruin the texture and flavor. (She keeps them in the fridge.)
In the interest of science, and with some trepidation, we had Jennifer solicit the recipe from Mrs. Baird; in the interest of good food we are reprinting it here verbatim (and untested) as it was submitted, because it’s perfectly genius, and we know you will agree.
The answer to the uncertainty we may feel about the fate of our nation and our planet may be more science, but if you seek solace in food you just might find a dose of fantasy to be the tastiest morsel.
hi jen here is the recipe for the okra wash and pat dry don’t cut all of the top off, use stainless pot
1/2 cup water
1 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
bring to boil & let simmer
put a little dill in bottom of jar the jar will have to be hot
put in garlic head in
smallpod hot pepper
place okra in hot jar add 1/2 tea. alum pour hot solution over okra
heat the lids before placing on jar seal until tight
i will really have to show you how to do this, don't think you can do it alone
will have to talk to you love granny