greasy greens, circa 1952

I let the dandelions cook until every last vitamin is gone out of them.  Vitamins are for pills and pale people.  I am for rejuvenation, chlorophyll, love, and my lost youth.  I cook the greens until the essence of salt pork and the essence of the sun’s green power have married indissolubly.  It is a matrimony made in heaven and a marriage that is a miracle of sweet harmony.”

–Robert P. Tristram Coffin, “Chlorophyll II Unlimited”, Gourmet, May 1952


Say what you will about R. P. T. Coffin’s food science, but no longer do food writers bejewel their braising greens like this.  To skip sixty-five years ahead in the literature is often to doff the smock and don the lab coat:  modern food science has led to astonishing breakthroughs, like vacuum sealers and thermal circulators, that have trickled down form laboratory to haute cuisine to home cooking.

But looking through longer lens of culinary history, it’s important to remember that the old ways of the country led to the methods of the modern professional kitchen.  Charcuterie, baking, fermentation, butchery–all of these began on farm far from the city.  Some traditions, such as the cork in the cooking liquid that renders octopus tender, have been debunked (but not for Mario Batali).  By and large, however, science has provided affirming backfill as to why the things that we know work, work.  Why bread rises, how meat sears, why to simmer and not boil stocks; the list goes on and on, because we had been cooking long before scientists got around to hypothesizing about sugar + yeast = carbon dioxide + alcohol, and the like.

A note to novice cooks:  knowledge is power.  Acquire the science of food as time and opportunity allow, but wallow in the poetry of it too, the meandering route to a great meal.  R. P. T. Coffin knew how to cook dandelion greens.  If a curious in-law asked him why he cooked them the way he did, I like to imagine that he answered them like I sometimes have to answer a question form an inexperienced cook:  “Because I f______ said so.”  A rude remark justified, one hopes, by the “miracle of sweet harmony” when the greens were labeled out of the cauldron (over a bowl of cheese grits!) and enjoyed.

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