Who knows what puts these thoughts into your head, the “You know what’d be great for dinner tonight that we haven’t had in ages?” thoughts. But there’s no such thing as “I’ll just stop at the market on my way home for those six or seven ingredients we don’t have on hand” because it’s the middle of a pandemic and you’re recovering from heart surgery and they don’t sell lemongrass at the snack counter in the lobby of the hospital where you go for cardiac rehab. (Well, maybe they do, but you’ve never gone to the snack counter.)
Sure, you could order take-out from that place you hardly ever go even when there’s not a pandemic, but the last time you did that was the night of “How about a thick-crust pizza?” when you called to order from a new place and then you got there and you could see it was wildly overcrowded and the guy behind the counter had a mask around his chin! and you drove home furious without the pizza and made peanut-butter sandwiches—so, yeah, ordering take-out on a whim from a new place is not going to happen any time soon. But, hey, the astronauts on the International Space Station can’t exactly go to Five Guys whenever they feel like it, either.
But you are resourceful. After all, did your mother not teach you to cook with lessons like “What do you do if you don’t have tomato paste? Reduce some ketchup”? And have you not been enjoying Mr. Jamie Oliver’s kitchen-flexibility instructions? (Have you not been enjoying them unto the point of parody? “Today we’re going to make a hamburger. But if you don’t have proper rolls, you can use slicing bread, and if you don’t have ground beef you can use peanut butter, and if you don’t have ketchup you can use grape jelly! Fill your boots, lovely people!”)
So, yes, you could add scallions and lemongrass and tofu and mung bean sprouts to the shopping list and wait for the double-masked-6AM-once-a-fortnight grocery run your family is allowing itself, but by then the urge for Pad Thai will probably have passed. But a little red onion is as crunchy as a scallion and every bit as colorful. And who really knows what lemongrass is, anyway? And let’s be truthful: you wouldn’t have added tofu to the shopping list in the first place. And—best of all!—your beautiful, intelligent, and eminently resourceful spouse has been sprouting broccoli seeds in a mason jar.
So you gather the ingredients, such as you are able: that tamarind paste and those dried shrimp that have been in the bottom of the crisper for ages because they keep forever; a chicken breast from the fridge, a few shrimp from the freezer; a lime, though you would not have been above using bottled lime juice if there hadn’t been one; some peanuts; a handful of snow peas she found at the market on the last trip; soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic; No palm sugar? Who cares? Brown sugar will be fine. Angel hair, because honestly at this point noodles are noodles. What’s that, dear? Yes, of course, I can serve yours over rice instead.
Would you call this authentic Pad Thai? Of course you wouldn’t. Would you say it was good? Why, yes. Yes, you would. And as you eat it, think of mom. And Chef Jamie. And your resourceful wife and her Mason-jar sprouts. And raise a glass to those astronauts on the International Space Station who only get grocery deliveries every six months. And know that one day you will stop at the market on a whim. But until then you’ll be fine.
Where Credit Is Due
I’ve been doing some work for a company that is building a virtual holiday community. Not a community for virtual holidays, but a virtual community where folks might enjoy some of the social aspects of the winter holidays that they’d otherwise miss during Covidtide. It’s not just for Christmas; the site opened with a celebration of Diwali, with Indian dance lessons, meditation sessions, and fireworks. There are virtual restaurants—”bring your own everything”!—where friends might gather around a virtual table, with backgrounds simulating the restaurant’s decor, and pages of recipes from the cultures whose holidays are being celebrated.
My job has been to edit the text in the various sections—and, since I have some experience in writing them here, in editing the recipes that were contributed by the writers of each section. This isn’t cookbook-level editing; I’m not making and taste-testing each dish. I’m looking for spelling errors, making the format consistent from dish to dish, and reading with the eye of an average home cook to check for ambiguous or missing instructions. Call me crazy, but in a pastry recipe, I think there should be some indication of what to do with the dough after it’s prepared. Like, say, put it in the oven. And maybe tell me how long to leave it there, or how I should know when it’s time to take it out. I sent a lot of them back to the site-runners with notes like, “Ask for clarification…” or “Don’t put this up until we get the oven temperature!”
In one section, many of the recipes seemed extremely vague—the sort that might have been found on a tattered, grease-stained piece of paper handed down from somebody’s great-great-grandmother. And then, all of a sudden, there were several that were really detailed. Down to a listing of Nutrition Facts: how many calories per serving, how much sodium, and so on. The sort of thing virtually no home cook would include in a recipe, even if they had access to the information. The hairs on the back of my neck would have raised, if they weren’t too long for that sort of thing since I’m so overdue for a haircut.
I did some quick web searching and, sure enough, found the exact recipe on a well-respected cookery-instruction site. (I won’t say which one, but it rhymes with “Snood Let Jerk Plot Bomb.”) I did some searching on the next recipe, and it showed up on another site, too.
I sent the site-runner—my employer and friend—a heads-up that those couple of recipes should be pulled, and why. I kept searching. It turned out that every single one of the recipes in that section was found on another site. Even the vague ones. I was heartsick, and so was my friend.
So, of course, we’ve had all the recipes pulled, at least until we can check their contributors, and provide proper links to their sources. It’s sad, but it’s necessary, and it’s only right.
It’s not that I think recipes shouldn’t be shared. Heaven knows most recipe sites offer a way to save and print the ingredients and instructions. But if you end up sharing such a recipe, don’t do it without proper attribution. That’s just not cool. Food isn’t intellectual property, but the compilation of ingredient lists and instructions is. Even if the recipe was originally typed up from a tattered, grease-stained piece of paper handed down from somebody’s great-great-grandmother. Nana and Aunt Sylvia and the test cooks at ATK—they all deserve to be recognized. Credit where credit is due.
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