Recipes Without Roadmaps

Poetic stew, sans recipes and rules.

There’s a poem by Simon Ortiz, of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, called “How to make a good chili stew — this one on July 16, a Saturday, Indian 1971.” I like this poem, because it is at once a recipe and a meditation upon the many interconnected stories that come together behind a simple meal.

Like most recipes, the poem begins with a list of ingredients. But you quickly realize that this is no ordinary list. The poet in Ortiz demands a more in-depth exploration.

For example, the ingredient “beef” is more than just beef. It’s “Beef (in this case, beef which someone who works at a restaurant in Durango brought this morning, leftovers, trim fat off and give some to the dog because he’s a good guy. His name is Rex.)”

The directions likewise read less like a recipe and more like a poem: “And then put it on to barely boiling, cover and smell it once in a while with good thoughts in your mind, and don’t worry too much about it except, of course, keep water in it so it doesn’t burn, okay.”

This poem hits its mark with me for reasons beyond the facts that I’m a big Ortiz fan and I dig chili. It provides temporarily release from a dilemma that’s plagued me since college.

Once upon a time I was a biochemistry major, before deciding that science was not the path for me. And while I made it through endless laboratory protocols by telling myself, “it’s just like following a recipe,” when I got out of the lab that comparison backfired. Suddenly, it was the exacting details of cookbook recipes that reminded me of the lab I had escaped, and I rejected recipes as square and unnecessary for my intuitive path.

Since then, my relationship with recipes has been turbulent at best.

A detailed recipe is like a roadmap to a particular dish. Follow the directions precisely and you should arrive at an exact outcome. But since I don’t require results that are exactly replicable, subject to peer review, or that prove anything new, I’m usually content to use the force.

But without a map of my exploits, writing this column can be problematic, since I’m supposed to tell you, the dear reader, how to do what I did.  

If I don’t draw you a map, I try to at least leave a trail of crumbs for readers to follow — more like the directions you get when you pull over to the side of the road and ask a stranger how to get there. And my notes don’t say things like “use three medium-sized cloves of garlic,” or “cook for 37.576 minutes at 230 degrees.” Instead, you’ll get instructions like “add lots of garlic,” or “cook on low until it’s falling-apart tender.”

Still, I understand there are some dishes that you can’t simply grope toward in the dark. I’ve followed plenty of recipes in my time, and I almost always learn something when I do. But I think we all could learn more if recipes were written like poems.

I’ve made Simon Ortiz chili, or something like it, several times — each time different, each time with what I had on hand, and each time it turned out delicious. What I’ve been making lately has diverged so much from the original that it hardly seems right to call it Simon Ortiz chili anymore, and that’s OK. That’s evolution. Last Monday, for example, I took one of the final hunks of last year’s deer out of the freezer. Since I was in a hurry (sorry Simon, I know that’s against the rules) I put the frozen meat in a cast-iron pot with a heavy lid and about an inch of water with cooking oil. I cooked it on high to thaw the meat. When the water cooked off, I added a bit more. When the meat was thawed, I cut it into little pieces, put it back in the pot and let it cook until the water cooked off again, at which point it began to fry in the oil. I fried it on medium heat until it browned nicely, and then I added cumin, Herbs de Provence, salt, pepper, and red wine. Whenever the red wine cooked off I added more.

When the meat was delectably browned I added carrots, onion, garlic, crushed dried chili peppers, cubed potatoes, turnip, rutabaga, and frozen cauliflower. I added water to fill the pot and let it cook on medium heat until the potatoes began to fall apart.

As it cooked, I adjusted the seasonings, added some soy sauce, vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers, more red wine. I don’t have a dog named Rex, or any dog for that matter, but my housemate’s dog Keelie stepped up to the plate for scraps.

As the water cooked off I added more, because I like a lot of broth with my stew, which I recommend serving with a nice dollop of mayonnaise.

I’d found my way to dinner again, with the help of my experience, my nose, my book of poems, and the finest ingredients I could find. Thanks for the help, Simon Ortiz.

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