Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines
If you asked someone what they thought that literacy meant, chances are, if they didn’t have a comprehensive literacy course at some point in their life, they would tell you it’s just an English thing—the ability to read and write. But the truth is that it’s so much more than that. If you can read and write, good for you, not being sarcastic even, they’re very important abilities to have. Being able to read and write is only just the tip of the iceberg. Literacy can branch off into so many different fields. Culture, language, arts, business, and the list can go on forever. The truly special thing about literacy is, though, that you can do anything that you want with it. It can be your own personal literacy, in any subject, that can make you unique, define your personality, set you apart from others.
Cooking has been and will always be such an important staple of my life and my family. My Papaw was a professional baker, my dad was a BBQ expert and a what-could-have-been professional chef, who from a young age taught me to put love and dedication into my cooking. Holidays were nothing without Grandma Ruth’s enormous feasts that you would gorge yourself on until you were close to bursting. Hell, even my mother, who was never known to be a cook, pushed so hard and experimented so much that even her dedication to at least try and jazz up a boring meal every now and then made me really appreciate her efforts to the cause as well. One thing that played a part in all their experiences was their culinary literacy. Different levels existed with each one of them, and with me as well, affecting each one of our skills in peculiar ways.
Culinary literacy is everything to aspiring and seasoned cooks. Say what you will about emotions, intuition, trial and error, etc. etc., which don’t get me wrong, play an important part in the process, but they pale in comparison with just learning the basics. Experimentation is a key part of cooking, absolutely, and a fun one, but if you don’t know what those spices that you decided to throw in are going to do to the flavor profile, or how you cut those onions is going to affect the texture of the dish, then you’re really holding yourself back from the true joys of cooking. Getting that favorite dish just right, absolute perfection, is such a gratifying experience. I guess it’s funny to think that all those processes I mentioned before had to be done at some point, by somebody, to establish the rules for culinary literacy, but I believe that by now, a wide portion has been covered.
I don’t believe that cooking is an exact science, it’s a bit more forgiving, unlike baking, which if you even mess up one little measurement, you can completely ruin an entire creation. My dad always taught me growing up that putting time and effort into your food, but also adding your own little flare and personalization to your dishes, can make all the difference. While praising originality and creativity, he was also the one to first teach me the true importance of literacy in the culinary world. It started off with just letting me watch or perform simple tasks, like blanching some green peppers, or cutting up some vegetables, to the much larger tasks, like creating a roux or properly slicing some green onions julienne style. He learned from coffee and food-splattered old recipe cards passed down from my grandmother, and he passed them on to me, and I intend to pass them on to my children, if they’re willing to learn.
Speaking of “forgiving” dishes, I recently made an unforgiving dish where I had to put in a ton of effort to get the flavors right, and with the combined experience of myself, some chefs from the internet, and sound advice from a Thai coworker of my roommate I was able to concoct the perfect Pad Thai, or at least in my eyes it was, or should I say in my belly. I have always been a big fan of Pad Thai since having it in an authentic Thai kitchen years ago. It absolutely blew my mind. It’s been difficult to find authentic Pad Thai around here that came anything close to the first time I had it, so I knew I had to master it myself. Then I would also be able to show off one of my favorite dishes!
Pad Thai is a noodle dish, and like many other Thai cuisine, it aims to hit all those different flavor sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, and even spicy if you prefer it that way, which I do! There are quite a few ingredients, including some that aren’t really used in many dishes other than Thai cuisine, so that’s where the literacy comes in. If you don’t have a firm understanding of what each one of those unique ingredients brings to the table, it can ruin the entire flavor profile of the dish. It seems like it would be straight forward in that aspect, just get the right amounts and it’ll taste right, right? Wrong! If you even mess up one single preparation of an ingredient or what I consider the most important part of the dish, the sauce, it can completely lean towards any single one of those flavor sensations I mentioned before and not reach that harmony of all of them that you want for this meal. It’s prepared in stir fry fashion, in a wok, so once you have everything prepped to go, the pace is quite fast. It can be nerve wrecking trying to keep up with the steps and not to overcook or burn anything, which can also of course lead to the entire flavor being absolutely ruined.
I learned about what every ingredient brought on its own and why the cooking process was how it was through reading from other chefs’ experiences on the internet that had already mastered the art of cooking this delicious dish. I was very intimidated my first try and expected it to go terribly wrong. Despite my own level of culinary literacy, this was a venture into the unknown. I paid delicate attention to my methods and my ingredients though and breezed through the cooking process. I had done it! Much to my surprise, I absolutely nailed it on my first attempt, which blew my mind because I’ve even screwed up the simplest chicken dishes before, and this was one of the most complex dishes I’d ever attempted. My roommate even gave it the seal of approval, which coming from a Pad Thai snob like him, gave me all the assurance that I needed to know I knocked it out of the park.
Culinary literacy, just like any other literacy, needs to be something you must have to help you flourish in your field of choice. If you look at most of the culinary icons of today, they all got their starts in a culinary school or in a French kitchen. As I said before, you can be as creative, as intuitive, as passionate as you want, that’ll help you later, but if you don’t master those basics, then you will never make it as far as you want to in whatever it is that you choose to do. Understanding every aspect of cooking is a big dream of mine, and I’m coming to find that it’s a very fulfilling one as well. I believe the best way to a person’s heart is through their taste buds. Being able to share this wealth of knowledge with everyone who wants to learn, knowledge that I’ve soaked up from watching the cooks in my family master the craft all their lives, from my friends that are chefs, from my culinary icons, makes me truly happy, and I am very grateful to have a passion like this. There are many forms of literacy in the world, and this one is my own. One that makes me feel unique and gives me constant goals to achieve, as there is always more to learn, and pass on to future generations, who can hopefully appreciate this form of literacy as I do and use it well to create delicious dishes and bring smiles and full bellies all around.