The Myth of the Secret Recipe

The English food writer Elizabeth David once described La Mère Poulard, a woman famous in France in the mid-20th century for her omelets. Food writers of the time made pilgrimages to La Mère Poulard’s restaurant, talked up the omelets, and speculated about her kitchen’s secret. Did they add cream to the eggs? Use special pans? Raise a special breed of chickens that laid delicious eggs?

Finally, someone wrote to La Mère Poulard, begging for her special recipe. "I break some good eggs into a bowl,” she wrote back. “I beat them well, I put in a good piece of butter in the pan. I throw the eggs into it and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you." The myth of the secret recipe was in flames.

That’s usually the case with simple foods like omelets, roasted chicken, or even bread. Deliciousness does not depend on formula, but on the practice of following a series of simple steps, using a few well-chosen ingredients, over and over again. Usually it’s not genius, but diligence that results in good food.

Last week I wrote about one of my favorite cooks in my hometown of Oakland, California. For eight years I’ve been eating Ana Maria Campos’s Jalisco-style goat birria, posole, and menudo blanco (pictured, top). Every time, I’m amazed at how delicious they are—rich, never watery or poorly made—and how consistent. Four days a week Señora Campos cooks them in the same way, with the same results.

“There are no secrets to that way I cook,” Campos told me in Spanish. “I do nothing special, I just do it right.” It was an echo of La Mère Poulard, and a near-infinity of cooks before and since. That’s both a comforting and a depressing notion—comforting because it means that most of us can cook well if we apply ourselves and practice a lot; depressing because, well, it’s hard work, not magic. It’s about choosing ingredients carefully and making the same thing over and over again until you feel it in your hands.

Actually, there was one secret Ana Maria Campos kept from me: the kind of chiles she uses for her birria. When I asked, through a translator, she pursed her lips, shook her head, and wagged a forefinger at me. There are some things you just have to find out for yourself.

Menudo photo by John Birdsall; Campos photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, Staff Photographer / The Chronicle

Follow John Birdsall on Twitter.

See more articles
Share this article: