Maybe it is magic after all

When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable.

Pépin was insistent that anyone could do what he was doing; all it took was an understanding of the technique and lots of practice. You’ll struggle, but not forever. In an appearance on one of the network morning shows he minced garlic with his chef’s knife at blinding speed, and the host laughed and said, sarcastically, “Of course we can all do that at home.” Pepin paused, looked at her, and said in the tone of strained patience that his fans will recognize, “But you can.

Last week I taught a friend how to make mayonnaise. She had tried to make mayonnaise at home and failed, breaking the sauce and frustrating herself by trying to salvage it, but I told her not to worry — all it takes is an understanding of the technique and lots of practice. Lacking a proper kitchen we cleared the desk in my office and set out bowls, whisks, eggs, corn oil, dijon mustard, lemons, salt. I made the first batch, working far more slowly than I normally would, explaining the science and art behind every step — thinking of Jacques Pépin in his TV kitchen. Near the end of the process I cranked up to full speed so she could see that, with practice, she could make a one-egg mayonnaise in only a minute or two.

When I had finished we scraped my mayonnaise into a plastic cup and she made her own batch, painstakingly, under my guidance. I helped her estimate how much mustard and lemon juice and salt to add; I used to refer to From Julia Child’s Kitchen but now think in globs and dollops. I told her when she could pour the oil a little faster so her arm wouldn’t fall off. And when she was done, she had made mayonnaise.

I should stop there — she had made mayonnaise. The lesson was a success. But when we tasted the two batches, there was no question that mine was better. We adjusted the seasonings, but it made no difference. Mine was creamier, more richly flavored, and colored a lovely pale gold; by comparison hers looked and tasted wan. She had made perfectly acceptable homemade mayonnaise, but mine was better, and I had no idea why. Everything she did looked right. Too much oil, maybe — I’d forgotten to bring a measuring cup — but the batches appeared similar in volume. Can you overbeat mayonnaise?

Practice, I said. Try it again at home now that you know it will work, and experiment a little. I tried to maintain the faith that now that she understood the technique, all she needed was practice — but it is a little disconcerting to the teacher when the student appears to do everything right and still comes up with an inferior answer. I’ll take the blame as an inferior teacher, I guess, and accept that I’m no Jacques Pépin. I really don’t want to have to think that it is magic after all.

If you were expecting a recipe, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I know when I’m licked. Watch Jacques and read Julia if you want to try this at home.