Thursday, November 8, 2007

a recipe with a story to tell

There are two kinds of recipes in the world: those that exist to be prepared, and those that exist largely for the pleasure that comes from reading them. One is instructive, and promises that if you do as it tells you, you'll have chicken stew or chocolate torte on the table when you're done. The other makes no promises whatsoever, but does so in a way that tells you a story.

And oh, what a story it is.

The single greatest example of a storytelling recipe is Thompson's Turkey, the legendary mad creation of journalist Mort Thompson. Thompson's Turkey has been written about by everyone from Craig Claibourne to Jeffrey Steingarten. The authors of Hungry in Hogtown have an entry about their experience trying to prepare it. Depending on who you ask, Thompson's Turkey is either a work of culinary genius, or the product of a sadistic mind.

It begins with the instruction to obtain an enormous bird - "one that looks as though it gave the farmer a hard time when he did it in" - and then, to steal an expression from Julie Powell, it continues with an ingredient list longer than most divorce settlements.* Merely assembling everything you need for the stuffing probably takes longer than the cooking time for a normal roast turkey. However you look at it, this is not a recipe attempted by the sane.

Then again, a lot of recipes aren't written for those of sound mind. Therein lies the true genius of Thompson's Turkey. You can't take its hyperbole seriously, and yet you can't quite dismiss it - a turkey tender enough to fall apart when spoken to harshly, and juicy enough to gush waterfalls of liquid when pierced with a fork? It's an incredibly seductive notion.

At some point, while reading the litany of instructions for chopping and mixing and stuffing and basting the monster bird from hell, you will realise that this elaborate preparation is an utterly absurd endeavor. And yet it is this very absurdity that makes it so tempting. Preparing a Thompson's Turkey isn't just cooking - it's an adventure.

Thompson's Turkey is more than just a recipe that sends cooks out on expeditions for water chestnuts and Coleman's mustard and leaves them in tears (pun intended) while trying to figure out how to extract the juice from an onion. At its heart, Thompson's Turkey is a very funny commentary on the reasons why we cook.

*Author of Julie and Julia, but the expression is stolen from her essay, "A Menu Marathon." You can find it in Best Food Writing 2004.


Julie said...

Hi Adele -- what a great blog! I do get what you're saying about two kinds of recipes -- and I'm wondering if there's a third, or maybe a middle ground: the recipe that tells a story, and still you come out with something very good indeed on the table. In fact, I think that's why so many of us started food blogging -- we had wonderful, never-fail recipes that also had stories to tell...

adele said...

Julie, I definitely think that stories are part of recipes. The best food blogs follow that format: a story with a recipe. But generally, if you remove the actual text of the recipe from its greater context, it isn't all that compelling a read. Thompson's Turkey is an example of a story that lies in the text of the recipe itself.