WOK PRESENCE OR CULINARY ALCHEMY*

For maybe over five years I have been searching for a quote – a particular food quote.

I searched high and low and far and wide, somewhat under the impression that it was something that perhaps M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David had written. Needless to say I didn’t find it in either of their books that I have on my shelves. I searched through three books of food related quotes and did an extensive search on Google without having any success.

What the quote related to is the name of that “thing” – the subtle changes that occur when cooks trained in the same kitchen making the same dish, following the same recipe–end up with different results. Also got to thinking the other day as I was watching “Chopped” on the Food Network – that what they are doing is a take-off on this quote I am searching for. On Chopped, the contestants are given 3 or 4 of the same ingredients and in a specific amount of time, have to create a dish–appetizer or an entrée or a dessert.

They present their dish to the judges who decide which dish is the best and one contestant at a time is “chopped” or eliminated from the competition until finally one chef is declared the winner. You all are probably familiar with this show so perhaps I am unnecessarily digressing.

I accidentally found a quote recently while searching for something else. It was something Karen Hess wrote about in her outstanding book “THE CAROLINA RICE KITCHEN….THE AFRICAN CONNECTION”. Ms. Hess was referring specifically to African American women who, during the times of slavery, left their thumbprint on everything they cooked. They were a part of the south but they brought with them African influences which eventually changed the palate of southerners. Ms. Hess writes that the Chinese have a name for this, those subtle changes, and they call it Wok Presence. (*I wrote an article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange years ago, titled “OUR AFRICAN HERITAGE” which appeared in the Feb/March 1996 issue of the CCE – which was how I was led to The Carolina Rice Connection by Ms. Hess).

Another cookbook author, Rosa Lewis, had a somewhat different take on the same concept and wrote, “Some people’s food always tastes better than others, even if they are cooking the same dish at the same dinner. Now I will tell you why–because one person has more life in them–more fire, more vitality, more guts–than others. A person without these things can never make food taste right, no matter what materials you give them, it is not use Turn in the whole cow full of cream instead of milk, and all the fresh butter and ingredients in the world, and still the cooking will taste dull and flabby–just because they have nothing in themselves to give. You have got to throw feeling into cooking.” – and no, this is not the quote I have been looking for.

I have been aware of these subtle changes for most of my adult life. It’s why a recipe can be published in a cookbook with exact directions and measurements and my results may not be the same as your results. And there may be a dozen reasons why not.

In the early 1980s, when I was living in Florida, I became even more acutely aware of this difference as I tried to share some favorite recipes with my next door neighbor. She would come crying to me “My cookies burn! They don’t turn out like yours!” – I was baffled – after all, it was the famous Toll House cookie recipe on the back of every package of Nestle’s semi sweet morsels. How could it be different? I went over to her house to watch her bake the cookies and discovered that she would put two cookie trays, side by side – wedged in really, on a rack. The air couldn’t flow; the bottoms of the cookies burned.

I have been a great proponent, ever since, for baking two trays of cookies on two separate racks and switching them, top to bottom, bottom to top half way through baking to assure even baking, so the hot air circulates.

But “Wok Presence” can affect us in many other different ways. For instance – a girlfriend of mine says my ranch dressing tastes better than hers. I discovered she uses Kraft Miracle Whip salad dressing. I use Best Foods Mayonnaise (Hellman’s if you are East of the Mississippi). Another time I discovered that a friend used a Polish Kolbasz for the Hungarian Layered potato recipe. You really need Hungarian Kolbasz to make an authentic Hungarian Layered potato casserole. That’s not to say that your dish won’t taste good. It just won’t taste AS good. It’s like – the difference you will get if you use margarine instead of real butter in a recipe. It will be ok. It just won’t be great.

Wok presence can be affected by the type of baking pans you use and the length of time something, such as a drop cookie, remains in the oven. I had this girlfriend at work who made such wonderful chocolate chip cookies. I asked her what the secret was. She replied that she under baked the cookies; she would take them out of the oven a few minutes early and let them stand on the cookie sheet on a counter until they were cool enough to remove.

Such a small change but it made the difference between soft and chewy – and crisp.

I adopted her under baking rule with most butter cut out cookies that I make – when they are brown around the edges yet firm enough – I take them out and let them stand on the cookie sheets for a while before transferring to wire racks to finish cooling. And cookie sheets! The kind of cookie sheets you use can make all the difference in the world with your finished product. Now I replace cookie sheets every few years – and I use parchment paper on all of them, all of the time. It works better than the aluminum foil I used on the cookie sheets for years.

Now I have two grandchildren who are learning how to make cut out cookies, how to bake them – and the “funnest” part, how to decorate them. They are learning hands on with grammy giving them a wide berth but at the same time, often tossing in a suggestion that will produce a better cookie. It’s a math lesson at the same time, as my nine year old grandson learns how to use measuring cups and measuring spoons and why the measurements need to be exact. But I digress.

The more I think about this – the more certain I am that someone else, a famous cookbook author (and I am still leaning heavily towards Elizabeth David) said that the FRENCH have a name for it, those subtle differences that take place when two chefs – cook the same recipe, with the same ingredients – but each will turn out differently. There is a NAME for this and I am going crazy trying to pin it down.

If anyone knows what that something else is, please write!

Happy Cooking!
Sandy

*WOK PRESENCE appeared originally in July, 2009, on my blog.

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11 responses to “WOK PRESENCE OR CULINARY ALCHEMY*

  1. I wish I knew the answer to question of what the French phrase for “wok presence” is but, alas, I do not.

    Still, just the other day, I was thinking about the chef Charles Saunders and something he had told me that is applicable.

    He had owned the East Side Oyster Bar & Grill in Sonoma, California. In the early 1990s, he was poised for greatness in the same manner as Emeril or Todd English.

    Then, he disappeared. The last mention I can find of him on Google is dated 1994. Does anyone know what happened to him?

    A few years earlier, back in the early 1990s, he and I — and several others — had shared a long, chummy, wine-fueled dinner at THE JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION.

    He told me that he had a personal expression for that special, unique something that a truly good cook — not necessarily a professional chef — does to take a commonplace dish out of the ordinary and move it into the extraordinary.

    The best illustration I can provide is adding anchovies to a traditional Italian tomato sauce, which is a trick that I learned from a friend who had been born in Sicily. Mind you, the sauce does not taste of anchovies … and most people cannot successfully guess at what the subtle and mysterious ingredient may be … but this addition definitely turns something that, these days, is considered quite ordinary into something which unquestionably is extraordinary.

    Charles had called this a FLAVORSNAP. And, ever since that dinner, so have I.

    • What is it that the French call “Wok Presence” or “Culinary Alchemy?” I think I’ve got it … well, maybe. Could it be “La Touche Francaise?” (The “c” in “Francaise” should have an accent below it, but my keyboard does not offer one.)

  2. Thanks, Judy – I like both of these – flavorsnap and La Touche Francaise but I dont think either of them is the one I’ve been looking for. But I find it really interesting that your chef friend Charles Saunders knew what it was. . And I suppose its something that almost all good cooks and chefs are familiar with – I guess I will keep looking and stick to wok presence or flavorsnap.

  3. Not knowing anything about this wonderful website, my cousin — who is a wonderful cook herself — emailed me a comment last week. (August 20, 2011.) She wrote about UMAMI, which is a Japanese term for a food with a delicious and pleasing taste. I’d never before heard it. It’s not “Wok Presence” or “Culinary Alchemy,” but it’s a similar concept from another culture. (I am going to tell her about this website!)

  4. Dear Judy, I am delighted to learn the Japanese word “Umami” (can you give me a pronunciation–is it spoken the way it’s written?) Wonderful! My son Steve has a Japanese-American friend he’s had since kindergarten (may long years ago) & I will have to tell Steve to ask Eric about the word. Yes, it’s not Wok presence but it’s definitely similar. And thank you for writing and for telling your cousin about my blog! I am thrilled whenever anyone (like you) writes to say something positive about sandychatter.
    Many thanks – Sandy

  5. I don’t know how to pronounce “umami;” I only first heard the word last week. Yet I do have a very dear friend who is Japanese-American. Though she was born in California, she probably will know the pronunciation. I will ask her.

  6. Oh, DUH, my bad – I ALSO have a Japanese American girlfriend who was born here – here parents were in the west coast concentration camps. We are more penpals than in-person girlfriends altho the last time I saw her, she came to spend a week with me and I took her to the Getty museum. She now lives in Portland (a city I love because of Powell’s book stores. Well, this has been an interesting dialogue. And I am still searching for the word, which I am about 90% certain is French, that I read about somewhere – maybe Elizabeth David? I dont remember but I always go back to my collection of HER books when I am trying again to find that elusive word. I have also searched through my collection of food quotes (such as the Quotable Cook) & can’t understand why it isn’t in one of them. Well, meantime this provides some interesting dialogue with foodie people like myself.

  7. Sandy, I hope that you’re coming to some peace in dealing with your loss.

    I am writing to tell you that I just finished a memoir called ALMOST FRENCH by a young Australian woman who married a Frenchman and moved to Paris. She is a journalist and, at one point, she had the treat of eating at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant and interviewing him after the meal. He gave her a thorough explication of the concept of “la touche francaise,” which he said applied to couture fashion as well as to fine food. It pertains to finding only the finest materials and having a certain know-how as to the way to best use them.

    Sandy, I am not too well myself, and I read your blog with great enjoyment. I do think that I remember my mother’s Hungarian-born family refer to green bell peppers as “mangoes.” Another mystery you’ve solved! (They were in New York City, but we did have family in Ohio.)

    And in our way of ships that cross in the night, I, too had lived in the San Fernando Valley as well as in Brentwood, just a half-block from the Dutton’s on San Vicente.

  8. Nancy Williams

    Sandy,
    While it involves neither Elizabeth David (one of my favorite food writers) or M. F. K. Fisher, and while it is not French, I wonder if you could be thinking of the concept of Wok Spirit, or, the “Breath of a Wok”. . . ?
    If this is not the thing you are on the trail of, you will, nonetheless I believe,
    find some not-unrelated concepts when you Google this. Your concept of the individual thumbprint of the cook on a recipe only ties in tangentially with the broadest interpretations of the Breath of a Wok (Wok Hay or Wok Hei–Wok Chi–(Google these as well), yet methinks there could be some cousinship here. Will love to hear your thoughts.

  9. Oh, thanks Nancy–I have written down all of these (to add to my little piles of paper that I accummulate in the course of a week or two) – but I will give this a try. It really makes complete sense to me that the Chinese would know what this is, perhaps far better than any culture. A culture that goes back thousands of years while we poor peasants in the USA only have a 200 year old history. I think I have most of MFK Fisher and Elizaveth David’s books–what I wouldnt have given to spend a few hours with Mary Francis–or Elizabeth David (when she writes about clutter of books and recipes I feel right at home. I RECOGNIZE myself in these writers. Thanks for the input. Sandy

  10. ps – Nancy; I googled Breath of a Wok and did a double-take – I was sure I recognized the author’s name (Grace Young) & went directly to my foreign cookbook shelves (one entire shelf plus half of another are Chinese cookbooks) & found the Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. I am getting too sidetracked so I will have to pursue this line of thought when I get back from Florida. I haven’t even made an attempt to get packed yet. Then before I could hit send, I thought of a list I had come across the other day, of all the cookbooks I reviewed from 1994 to 2004; checked the date of publication and it was 1999 – sure enough I reviewed THIS cookbook by Young in 1999. somewhere I must still have a hard copy of the article. Its not in this computer. Am thinking all roads lead to rome. Thanks again. I feel the stirrings of yet another wok presence being created. lol. – Sandy

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