Just as musical scores bring the thoughts of composers down through the years and centuries, recipes bring us the knowledge of cooks. The recipes and techniques of the great chefs were treated as trade secrets - still are, to some extent. I am thinking of the chefs of the home kitchen - the (traditionally) mother to daughter to granddaughter chain. I didn't learn to cook this way; I didn't apprentice at my mother's elbow. In fact, when I moved into my first apartment, I really had no idea how to cook.
What saved the day for me was "Joy of Cooking". Of course there was a lot to learn the hard way, such as learning that a capon is not just a big, big chicken. It can't be barbecued, as I found out - the result was a charred, raw-inside disaster of a meal. Capons are for slow, moist cooking. I have tried to convey this idea about cooking various cuts of meats in different ways to my older son, David, who is just starting out in his own place. I told him, "Ask the butcher." At my little neighborhood store (blog of Nov. 11), one may ask how to prepare that weird-looking vegetable, or what is the difference between bacon and pancetta. He didn't learn to cook by my side either, except for his few "party" dishes. We gave him his own copy of Mark Bittman's book when he moved away.
I am still learning every time I cook. Tim is more of an intuitive cook than I - he is in favor of adding more ingredients and tasting a lot. I rely a lot on recipes, and smell. For reasons I can't explain, I don't do much tasting. Recent ventures into "The Art of French Cooking" have taught me a lot about intensifying flavors. I have learned to ask myself "why" as I read recipes, rather than simply following steps. What is often missing from the recipes is the part that would be learned at the mother's elbow. The better recipes put me in that place, learning from masters.