I was very recently tasked with baking a tourtiere, a French-Canadian meat pie. (And by very recently, I mean like, it’s in the oven as I am typing.) It’s been 20 years since I’ve tasted meat and cooking it always involves a lesson in trust. Because it’s been so long since I’ve eaten meat, I’ve learned to rely on my sense of smell to be a judge of how things should taste.
Enter R, my partner, who grew up in French-Canadian Montreal with a Lebanese grandmother. His memories of food are steeped in the smells and tastes of food that predates recipes – the kind of recipes that are handed down with a list of ingredients with no measurements. Whose recipes include “Add sage, not too much. Taste until right.” When you don’t (or can’t) taste the food, this isn’t an easy ask.
These recipes call into fact that I’m a cooking contradiction. I dislike baking specifically because it doesn’t allow that moment of “this. is. perfect” without relying on measurements. But I dislike cooking without recipes when I can’t (won’t) taste the food because I’m relying on a sense that I haven’t fully committed to trusting. (Hello, nose.) What happens when I have a natural dislike of baking for its scientific precision but also dislike having a list of ingredients which need to be combined in a specific manner or order with no guidance?
So, back to the tourtiere. How is it that things like this can be an uncomfortable experience that I think I secretly adore?
I do dislike not having a set recipe or expectation or taste I’m aiming for. Google tourtiere and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, all with their own spices, their own recipes, their own secrets. What is a girl to do with no information other than “Need. tourtiere.” ???
In general, I try to look at multiple recipes and look for the common denominators. I read through recipes, find general processes and form a plan from there. And you know what else? I use my gut, that beautiful piece of equipment that hasn’t tasted or digested a piece of meat since 1997. I start, I improvise. I have that “Oh, shit” moment and I move on.
And that is what I love about cooking. I think recipes like the tourtiere aren’t about precision. They are entropic moments of ecstasy that randomly bring back memories of Christmas when you were 10. They are about the smells and tastes of times you can’t bring back, except for those tastes and smells of food you remember from times past. It’s the smell of coffee Christmas morning, the crispness of the crust breaking from the meat pie fresh from the oven. It’s the bite of sage in your grandma’s stuffing. It’s the smell of that simmering mixture of beef, pork and cinnamon on the stovetop and remembering that at that moment, you were blissfully happy. It’s that realization that life is remembered with smells and those tiny details you always think will be taken for granted.
So, ask me to make your meat pies, your poutine, your grandma’s stuffing. I’ll both be secretly scared-to-death but in love with trying to capture that moment when you remember that life was good. Xo.