How to roast chicken, several ways, and the fundamentals of recipes

Of late, cooks have attended to many a kitchen fundamental, for example, the pantry as the go-to for sequestration cuisine or the comfort of back-to-basics baking.

But to my mind, the most fundamental of all things culinary — the foundation of the fundament, as it were — is the recipe. Without it, cooking doesn’t occur. Oh, some cooks will (grandly) state that they “don’t use recipes,” but it’s like trying to talk without air; it cannot be done. Even their slap-dash or mish-mosh, a little of this and some of that? There’s their recipe.

As such, recipes are worth attending to, too. So much about them is interesting to follow: how they came to be in the course of history; the evolution of the term; and the manners in which they have been passed on or written or preserved.

None of this matters to dinner tonight except to illustrate that the entire history of the recipe is about the meaning of process and that is its great lesson.

Recipes are stories about food. In the modern versions, they have beginnings (ingredients), middles (directions) and endings (dinners tonight).

That way wasn’t always so.

In the Latin declension of the verb “recipere” (here meaning “to take” or “to receive”), “recipe” is the second person singular, imperative form. It commands you to “take,” hence the first word of countless recipes, “Take … .”  But the original recipe-makers were what we call pharmacists who fashioned what were called (back to Chaucer’s English of the 1300s) “receipts,” or formulas or mixtures of various medicaments in aim of healing. (“Receipt” didn’t come to mean a confirmation of goods sold until the 1700s.)

When you see the “Rx” outside of a CVS or Walgreens, you’re seeing shorthand for the word “receipts” (or the first “recipes”).

Recipes for cooking as we know them, such as today’s (“Take the chicken … “) are a modern phenomenon, from only the mid-1800s.

Before then, recipes were short stories, in fact, narratives aimed at those who both already knew cooking and were familiar with the dish described.

Take even this simple recipe for “a buttered apple pie” from Amelia Simmon’s “American Cookery,” our country’s first cookbook, published in 1796. It reads like a wee story: “Pare, quarter and core tart apples, lay in paste, cover in same; bake half an hour, when drawn, gently raise the top crust, add sugar, butter, cinnamon, mace, wine or rose-water.”