Writing & Cooking: All the Ingredients


In the Middle East, it is traditional to set out as many as ten (or more) small "salads" on the table at a big meal. Not just the hummus you are imagining, or the tabouleh in the photo above, but carrot salads of two or three kinds (pickled, Moroccan, spicy), cabbage (ditto), creamy eggplant (called baba ghanoush in other places), Israeli salad, Arabic salad, grilled eggplant slices, pickles (of course!) and more - all accompanied by fresh, fragrant pita bread, hot from the basket. It is hard to find room for the main meal when it comes. Savvy diners in the Middle East know that you should order ONE main meal and share.


I make Israeli salad (or salat as it is pronounced here) several times a week. It's a standby. It's diced Persian cucumbers, chopped tomato, salt, lemon juice, and a bit of olive oil. But there are variations. You can add chopped parsley or chopped mint. You can add chopped red onions or even chopped pickles. The variety is endless, but the basics are the same. Recently, Gidon and I dined in a tiny cafe in a very small Arab village in northern Israel. When the salad arrived, it came through a different door, carried by the owner's wife. She was dressed traditionally and seemed very shy. She had made the salad in her own kitchen (next door.) It was a standard chopped cucumber salad, but it was the best I have ever had. Something about it was beyond beyond.


The chemist in me became very interested. How could this one simple dish using the same ingredients everybody uses be SO outstandingly delicious? So, looking for clues, I posted on an Israeli cooking Facebook group, asking everybody to chime in with their recipes for this simple salad.

The replies came fast and furious: The vegetables must be so fresh they have never been refrigerated! The lemon juice must be added only after the olive oil. No! The reverse! The olive oil comes absolutely last! I use only rock salt, one person said. I grind garlic cloves into the salt, said another. The olive oil must be absolutely the most virgin, delicious olive oil available, said another. ONLY use generic vegetable oil, said someone else - the olive oil covers the taste of the vegetables! The knife must be sharp! Only salt the tomatoes, not the cucumber. Salt everything at the same time and let it sit. Never let it sit! You get the picture.


The only thing that everybody agreed on is a sharp knife and very fresh vegetables. Then, finally, one person chimed in something that really struck me: "Everything tastes better when you're out."

Not to be dissuaded from my cooking/chemistry quest, all week I have been chopping and experimenting - salt first, salt last, this olive oil, that olive oil, with onions, without onions, this lemon juice, that lemon juice. I have yet to reproduce that special salad in that tiny village. Maybe it was just because it was a memorable experience.


Let me bring this all back to writing. Stories are made up of the same ingredients. Structure, character, dialogue, pacing, plot points - high points, low points, a climax. Choices, questions, answers, conflict, resolution, shampoo, rinse, repeat. It depends on how you put these ingredients together, whether you wind up with a slow burn Southern Gothic horror story or a historical fiction novel.

But there is that magical, unknown ingredient, too. That special something that makes the writing sing. You know that feeling when you're reading, and you stop and reread a sentence just because it was so beautiful or compelling or arresting? Janet Frame's Towards Another Summer has that effect on me. Or Joan Didion's essays. My copy of Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett is so marked up it's ridiculous, so gorgeous is her writing. Why, just last evening, I was reading a middling book by a great writer, Michael McDowell, and there was a line, not even a line, a description of the sky that was just perfect. "The night-dark sky." I don't know what that struck me so. The way it sounds. The way it is a description that instantly gives me a powerful visual. The night-dark sky.


I am a member of many groups for editors on social media, in which most of the editors are copy editors, those most necessary of excellent editors who correct grammar and mistakes. I often see these editors discussing whether (for example) an expression like "night-dark sky" should STET (left alone in editorese) or whether they should inform the writer that they should say "the sky was dark and it was night." (again: example, only.) when I read these posts, I think noooooo! This is the art of it, though! This is the thing! This putting words together in ways that are new and different and arresting! Don't edit this work to death and work it over so that it loses its very spirit!

I guess this is my way of saying that I am totally, thoroughly in love with the written word. Another way to look at it is that when you work with an editor, be sure that editor can draw the line between your unique voice and what is, strictly speaking, correct.


By the same token, writers, this doesn't mean that you can just go nuts and do whatever. The key is - is the sentence, or thought, or visual working for the reader? Do they get it? Or do they stop reading for a second and think - wait, what? When I edit, one of the comments I often leave is "conscious choice?" What I'm asking the writer there is - head's up - this might confuse some readers. Is this your creative, conscious choice or a mistake?

If writing was easy, every book would be a masterpiece.

Translating scenes and emotions - human beings - onto a page using 26 letters of the alphabet is enormously complex. Much less doing it well. The same ingredients go into good stories - but it's all a matter of the chemistry between those ingredients.


It's like reading a recipe that instructs us:

Olive oil (Maybe the most expensive. Cheap vegetable oil. Crisco. Butter.)

Tomatoes (Fresh. Frozen. Canned. Diced. Sliced. Whole. Your choice.)

Lemon juice (Fresh. Frozen. Preserved. Chopped. Lemonade. Doesn't matter.)

Cucumbers (English. Persian. Big chunks. Tiny squares. Shredded. Take your pick)

Salt (Kosher. Pink. Rock salt. Sea salt. Grey salt. Any salt. Skip salt.)


They say that writing IS rewriting, and I think that's very true. Your first draft is something to take great pride in - okay, you're in the kitchen! But then it's a matter of subtlety and adding and taking away, and seeing how different ingredients react to one another. Not everybody has the same method, but we do have the same tools: Behind in chair. Start typing. Follow the recipe until it doesn't make sense for you. Then get some feedback.


There are still some seats open for the Fiction Intensive I'll be teaching on Zoom, by the way. Class begins on August 1st.