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The Hollow Knock and Other Sounds in Recipes ... Heston Blumenthal, who argues that hearing is the most undervalued sense in terms of food, uses sounds to enhance the taste of his

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  • The Hollow Knock and Other Sounds in Recipes

    WHEN WERE YOU LAST INSTRUCTED to listen to your cooking? Recipes are filled with sensory directions related to taste,

    appearance, texture, and smell. “Always taste as you cook,” the celebrity chefs proclaim. Sauté onions until translucent; bake a cake until golden on top. Rub flour and butter through your fingers until they feel like breadcrumbs. A pie is ready when you can smell it. But what about the sound of food cooking?

    We certainly have an ear out when we prepare meals, whether it is waiting for the pasta water to boil, a popping toaster (or better still, champagne cork), or heaven forbid, the microwave beep. In her sensory memoir Aphrodite, the novel- ist Isabel Allende (1999: 110) contends that the sounds of cook- ing and eating can be incredibly aphrodisiac: the hissing of onions browning, the syncopated rhythm of vegetable chop- ping, the crrracking of nuts, “the liquid notes” of wine being decanted, and so on, stirring luscious thoughts.

    For the professional cook, listening to cooking sounds can be life-saving. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain (2001: 224) describes the daily cacophony of restaurant kitch- ens, including “the loud, yelping noise—almost a shriek—as a glowing sizzle-platter is dropped into a full pot sink, the pounding of the meat mallet on a côte du boeuf, the smack as finished plates hit the ‘window’.” In the professional kitchen, sounds help staff to know what is going on around them, with- out having to always look up from their chopping board.

    Sounds are important when serving restaurant meals front of house too. Heston Blumenthal, who argues that hearing is the most undervalued sense in terms of food, uses sounds to enhance the taste of his restaurant dish “Sounds of the Sea.” The dish is an edible reenactment of a sandy shore, made of,

    among other ingredients, ground ice-cream cones, abalone, seaweed, and shellfish foam. The tasty beach is served with an iPod in a conch shell. As they eat, diners listen to lapping waves and the occasional squawk of a seagull, sounds which Blumenthal suggests enhance the enjoyment of the dish. In the introduction to his cookbook Heston Blumenthal at Home (Blumenthal 2011), the chef advocates for making food that ap- peals to the senses, and describes some of the ways in which the amateur cook can use sound to enhance the flavors of their lovingly prepared meal: a crackling fire to accompany Christmassy dishes for example, or recordings of the sounds of cicadas to enhance a BBQ.

    Although sounds are certainly part of the everyday and pro- fessional cooking and eating experience, they largely disappear once all of these noisy dishes are written up in recipe books. While cookery shows on television may use sounds in order to substitute for olfactory, tactile, and gustatory experiences in evoking the deliciousness of their dishes (Mak 2006), very few cookbook instructions appeal for listening in. Just as in recipes, the academic literature on sensory education focuses on learn- ing to see (e.g., Grasseni 2004), learning to do manual tasks (e.g., Sennett 2008), learning to smell (e.g., Latour 2004), learning to taste (e.g., Shapin 2012), but much less often on learning to listen (an excellent exception being Tom Rice’s [2013] work about English medical students learning to listen to heart sounds).

    The research group I belonged to at Maastricht University aimed to address this gap by looking at how sonic skills are taught and used in different professions and domains of prac- tice, such as by car mechanics, doctors, and scientists. Our

    Abstract: Recipes are filled with sensory directions related to taste, appearance, texture, and smell, but less often to the sounds of food cook- ing. While cooking and eating, whether at home or in a restaurant, are recognized as sonic experiences, we are rarely specifically instructed to “listen in.” Some scholars argue that such skills cannot be written into recipes, but rather must be passed on in practice. While I largely agree with this claim, I was challenged to find exceptions in cookbooks. In this

    essay, I discuss some of the few but delightful examples of sonic instruc- tion in recipes. I conclude that while sounds are rare in cookbooks, as these examples show, listening is a skill that provides valuable informa- tion in the kitchen.

    Keywords: sound, recipes, cookbooks, senses, skills

    RESEARCH BRIEF | Anna Harris


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  • ethnographic and historical research showed that skills are passed on in an apprenticeship-style fashion, where experts teach novices, the novices learning through repeated practice in their occupational settings. The anthropologist Tim Ingold (2000) writes theoretically about this process when he de- scribes learning a skill as a process of guided rediscovery.

    Ingold’s (2010) work is highly relevant for these musings on sound and food, for he also talks about listening while cooking to show how skills can only be passed on through practice. He uses the example of cracking an egg, no easy task he states, for it is difficult to obtain that clean crack, of sufficient extent to enable you to split the shell into two halves, and thus release the contents neatly in the bowl. The force cannot be too light or too great; either will mean an eggy mess. What adds difficulty is that no two eggs are alike. How do you know the thickness of an egg’s shell, to know how hard to hit it? There is a trick Ingold (2010) tells us during a lecture in London, that we often use without being aware: “First tap the egg lightly against the edge of the bowl. Listen for the sound. This will tell you how hard to strike next time, so as to achieve a clean crack. Bum bum. Thin shells and thick shells sound differently when they are tapped.” Ingold argues that such skills cannot be learned from cookbooks, but rather through learning by doing, through guided instru- ction by experts, with sensory awareness of one’s material environment.

    While I largely agree with Ingold’s theorization of enskill- ment, as my historian colleague and I have argued elsewhere (Harris and van Drie, forthcoming), novices can also learn how to listen by using books. Upon hearing Ingold’s egg example, I felt challenged to find instances where the skill of listening may be evident in recipes. After some research I found

    a few delightful exceptions to the otherwise sensory dominance of taste, sight, touch, and smell in cookbook instructions.

    Let’s start with a Madhur Jaffrey recipe, in any one of her Indian cookbooks. Before you know it you are waiting for a pop! as mustard seeds are heated in oil. Until they pop, mus- tard seeds give away nothing but bitterness, the pop releasing all their nutty goodness into the oil, just as a corn kernel is only a broken tooth waiting to happen until it pops into flower.

    Sichuan and Cantonese cooking also rely on the chef at- tending to sounds connecting hot oil and fresh ingredients, this time with a sizzle. Sizzles infuse Fuchsia Dunlop’s (2013: 159) Every Grain of Rice, as hot oil is poured over dishes of blanched choy sum or chopped ginger and chili. She advises to ladle only a few drops at first: once you hear that the sizzle is “vigorous” the rest of the oil can be poured over.

    In The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whitting- stall (2004: 330-331) dedicates a few paragraphs to the difference between the “merry sizzle” and the “gentle sizzle,” sounds that can be used not only to test the temperature of a pan but also to determine how long a steak has been cooking. In the same carnivorous volume, Fearnley-Whittingstall (2004: 246) shares techniques for roasting duck, one of which involves (following Stephen Bull) turning the duck breast-side down on a board and pressing “hard on the middle of the backbone until you hear a crack.” Cracks and crackles can be heard in various rec- ipes, although perhaps the crackliest of all, crackling, does not rely on the cook actually testing its sound qualities but rather looking to see if the pig fat is roasted adequately to cause some further dental destruction.

    Similarly, recipes that instruct to cook vegetables so that they remain crunchy rely on a visual assessment of the sound, rather than the cook actually putting a boiling hot carrot into their mouth and listening in. Words such as “sizzle” and “crunch” are interesting to think about, for they defy easy cat- egorization as sounds, also including elements of touch and sight in their informative nature. This observation is congruent with the arguments of phenomenologists such as philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2008 [1945]) who posit that all sen- sory experience is intertwined. Rather than consider eyes or ears as “separate keyboards for the registration of sensation” (Ingold 2000: 268), they regard them as organs of the body as a whole. Phenomenologists argue that the lived body does not have senses but rather is sensible.

    Making bread is a good example of the multisensorality and sensibility required in cooking and baking. Starting from scratch involves skills in smelling yeast mixtures, kneading dough, watching for rise, and of course, the soun

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