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Recipes (Andrew Spragg)


In this essay, Andrew Spragg explores the recipes that make our memory, the traces of tenderness within forms of culinary hauntology. Moving from page to table, from bread sauce to pigs’ heads and parmesan to presence, Spragg puts on a warm simmer the imperative question: what do we mean when we speak of a signature dish?

My royal lord, You do not give the cheer. The feast is sold That is not often vouched, while ’tis a-making, ‘Tis given with welcome. To feed were best at home; From thence, the sauce to meat is ceremony; Meeting were bare without it.

Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4

Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamour. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.

Gertrude Stein ‘Food’ Tender Buttons

> Food is a great reservoir of memory: Proust’s madeleines as the setting off point for lifestyle features on homely food the world over, to the point that the beauty and clarity of the original text has become soggy, much like a small cake stored in the gullet for too long.

> We must all learn to swallow sooner of later. When we do, it is the most intimate of sensations, taboo in some contexts, unpleasant in others. It can also be a great pleasure, the silence it brings about one of deep appreciation. It can be a homely sensation, or heimlich as in Freud’s unheimlich. Heimlich is what is concealed – what we might consider swallowed – our tenderest way of sharing, to imbibe, to take it or be taken in.

> If nothing else, we can enjoy the happy coincide of Dr Heimlich, whose procedure (maneuver) is one that brings what is concealed out into the open, if done properly. Perhaps Dr Freud and Dr Heimlich share more than just a tongue.  

> The first time I cooked a pig’s head, it was for a friend. We have shared many meals, in and out of the home, always happy for the company, if not the food. My main memories of eating together are from our adolescence. A petrol station pasty, bought to sober up after too many drinks in the pub over the road, a craving sated by refrigerated stodge and us laughing with bemused self-disgust. One Christmas we made a bread and butter pudding, improvised with  guessed at proportions. This was prior to any recipe you can imagine being a few keystrokes away, and we assumed it was an unfuckupable dish. It was terrible, though our friends were gracious enough to swallow it.

> Now I am older, I eat better. I still crave salt and fat when I’ve had too much to drink. It  tends to be pieces of parmesan sliced from the block, something I discovered during a meal with another friend, this time at Ciao Bella on Lamb’s Conduit Street. This place is associated with so many happy meals, with friends, partners, and one thing I have enjoyed the most is the large olives and chunks of parmesan they bring to the table as an opening snack.

> The pig’s head, or the recipe for it, came from another place of happy memories, St John’s in Smithfield. I first heard of the restaurant when a newspaper ran a series of articles marking its twentieth anniversary. Something about the picture of the affable, kind looking Fergus Henderson piqued my interest. My parents took me for my thirtieth birthday and I’ve been back many times since. The bone marrow and parsley salad, Henderson’s signature dish, is something I think about a lot, the trace of it, the contentment and comfort it has become associated with. I have found myself there on occasion when I’ve needed to think, or just soak up those melancholy feelings that slosh about.

> My parents gave me the Nose to Tail cookbook. The half pig’s head recipe is in there, alongside a picture of Fergus Henderson standing outside a restaurant called Rubis in Paris. Again, he looks affable and kind. The restaurant is one I visited with my partner when we were in Paris last year. We had an amazing, and simple, meal, in the small bistro restaurant. The waiters all looked like my friend Joe, or some variation of Joe, like a Joe tribute act. I ordered a bottle of wine, instead of a glass, by accident. I drank half and then gave the rest to the two men sat next to us when we left. Despite the lack of a proficient common tongue, we shared a friendly moment of companionship, four people enjoying good meals in good company. I went back with my parents a few months later, and ate there again. It was crowded and bustling. I have a picture of the two of them, a little overwhelmed by the lack of space, indifferent patrons and waiters, a menu that refused to share its secrets until the food arrived on the table. They both ended up with dishes of boiled meat, and I had a steak. I felt sorry that their memories of that place would be different from mine.

> Since I moved to Wood Street this year, I discovered a butcher that sold pig’s heads pre-packed and cheap. Matt, the friend with whom I had attempted the bread and butter pudding, volunteered himself as diner. The recipe was simple: vegetables, stock, wine and a slow cooking time. It filled the flat with comfortable piggy smells, like a hog roast at a craft fair. I’d been to plenty with my parents. Small memories atop one another, and a little peaceful ahhh moment, the anticipation of something being cooked and time being shared.

Some statements:

A recipe is repeatable. A recipe will create something consistent if followed closely. A recipe is unique. A recipe is shared. A recipe marks the passage of something that is not present that becomes present.

> Let us consider recipes and memory – there’s a trace in the taste of things, though it can be deceptive as well. It is not enough to say a particular taste is associated with a particular foodstuff, it is also the way it influences our memory.

> There was a moment this Christmas when we talked about making Grandma’s bread sauce. I had volunteered to make it, and was surprised to discover that the recipe (rather than typically recorded in handwritten blue ballpoint, the letters having fringed and bled into the discoloured paper from having been damp and later dried at some unspecified hour) was actually in a Delia Smith cookbook. It was no more Grandma’s than anyone else who possessed the cookbook. However, it was enough of Grandma’s bread sauce that three different people referred to it by that name.

> No one referred to it as Delia’s recipe, despite the fact that in copyright law, and to the majority of people, that is what it is. It doesn’t matter though. When we taste the bread sauce, it is the absence of Grandma we feel keenly, not the absence of Delia. However, in order to taste something consistent with our memory of Grandma’s bread sauce, we are turning to Delia. That is the joy of a recipe. A good one will not remind you of its origins, but of where it became present for you. I don’t remember the pig’s head because it came from a St John’s book, I remember it for the adventure of assembling the ingredients, preparing them and cooking it. I remember the smell, yet another absence that becomes, or is becoming of, presence.

> Derrida in his essay ‘Signature Event Context’ is preoccupied by written communication and its absences: 

It is first of all the absence of the addressee. One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the sender, of the receiver [destinateur], from the mark that he abandons, and which cuts itself off from him and continues to produce effects independently of his presence and of the present actuality of his intentions [vouloir-dire], indeed even after his death, his absence, which moreover belongs to the structure of all writing-and I shall add further on, of all language in general… 

> Think about recipes. Long after the chef has finished with them, finishing writing them, finished cooking them, we can still taste the results. The recipe that is older than us is easy to conceive, and through its sharing we are linked back to something, some collective sensation, something as simple as taste. Can there be an effect more immediately present and yet independent of the presence of the sender? And look what Derrida has to say elsewhere:

My communication must be repeatable-iterable-in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers. Such iterability […] structures the mark of writing itself, no matter what particular type of writing is involved (whether pictographical, hieroglyphic, ideographic, phonetiC, alphabetiC, to cite the old categories). A writing that is not structurally readable-iterable-beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.

> For a recipe to be a recipe it must be repeatable. All of which raises another question: is a recipe a genre of writing, or a type of writing? Recipes are instructional writing, orientated towards producing something, but also a good recipe book commonly tells us something of its author. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is as much about Child’s experience as an American migrant in France, her desire to master and share the food she loves, as it is about making a few dishes. The thing must be repeatable, but it is also a work of autobiography, a unique event reinscribed through instruction.

> Going further and thinking about Derrida’s words regarding the signature:

By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be claimed, the signature also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now or present [maintenant] which will remain a future now or present [maintenant], thus in a general maintenant, in the transcendental form of presentness [maintenance]. That general maintenance is in some way inscribed, pinpointed in the always evident and singular present punctuality of the form of the signature. Such is the enigmatic originality of every paraph. In order for the tethering to the source to occur, what must be retained is the absolute singularity of a signature-event and a signature-form: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.

> What do we mean when we refer to someone’s signature dish? The very thing Derrida has described – the absolute singularity of a signature-event and a signature-form.

> Belshazzar’s feast in the Book of Daniel can be reframed through Derrida’s analysis, and some of the ideas we have touched upon: the great meal is interrupted by a finger that writes an unintelligible message on the wall:

Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein. Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone. In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. 

> It the fingers of a man’s hand, not a man, or even his hand, but these fingers that come forth. It is the presence, the ‘part of the hand that wrote’, that the king sees, and it is the act of writing that takes the centre ground. In the same way we can think of our recipes, that is the act of making that we see, that slippery transformation of ingredients that are neither presence nor non-presence, the bread sauce that extends into memories. We see the hands of the absent, the part of the hand that wrote, in our recipe work. What should we make of the fact that the vessels were originally taken by Belshazzar’s father, who is troubled by his own unreadable and prophetic dream earlier in the Book of Daniel? Is this the echo of that earlier time, the memory recalled as we have suggested that recipes, the ceremonies of eating, are capable of?

> Note that the removal of the items from the temple is not provocation for the divine writing, but the act of drinking the wine from them, the praising of material gods. The unintelligible message, the one Daniel interprets as one of judgement, is something we can see at another banquet, another instance of taste and ceremony that prompts a spectral presence, a signature of sorts. In Macbeth, the ghost manifests at the feast each time Macbeth raises his glass for a toast, the taste or at least its anticipation associated with the spectre. Both these scenes share common ground: a moment of judgement, a message that comes as mysterious and unintelligible, and both are the source for common idioms (‘the ghost at the feast’, ‘the writing on the wall’, ‘to be weighed and found wanting’). An idiom, a recipe, something passed through into common usage through repetition, something that was unique at the time of conception. There is an ambiguity as well, for these are not happy occasions, though there is something powerful in the way the act of consumption prompts the arrival of someone the two protagonists would rather forget.


> We do not expect Fergus to arrive at our door on every occasion we prepare his pig’s head recipe, nor do we expect Grandma to materialise corporeally when we make up the bread sauce. There is, however, something of the memory, the trace as Derrida might have it, in bringing the recipe from the page to the table.

> We return to the same restaurants and hope to share something of an experience we have had before, the pleasure of being in company, the affection of common things like food. We scribe and reinscribe our signatures. We eat and drink as an act of remembrance, or as a celebration. We manifest what we have shared, those times we have come together, and there is something of a presence manifested in each taste. In this way we remember ourselves and others through food, we commit our signature, and mark our time. Our food makes ghosts.

Works Cited

Child, Julia et al, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume One, Penguin Books, 2010

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Signature Event Context’, Limited Inc, Northwestern University Press, 1988.

The Holy Bible, King James Version, Bible Gateway, Accessed 22 January 2019

Henderson, Fergus et al, The Complete Nose to Tail, Bloomsbury, 1999

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, 22 January 2019

Stein, Getrude, Tender Buttons, City Lights Books, 2014

Text & Image: Andrew Spragg


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