I’m at my cooking best when I’m closest to fifth-grade me making myself soup for lunch.
I’d dissolve a bouillon cube in water, rifle through the fridge for vegetables, search the pantry for a starch or two, hit the spice cabinet for good measure and cook up a soup.
I always sought to up my game, to make it better than the last time. Yet I was only cooking for myself, so I never worried if it didn’t turn out. It was usually edible, or I could keep fiddling with it until it was.
I taught myself to cook making those soups. I learned through trial and error to leave the cover on while dumplings cook, to trust my taste and not the timer for doneness, to know that more isn’t always better (even when garlic salt tastes so good) and to dress things up (even freeze-dried chives out of a jar improve the wallpaper-paste appearance of cauliflower-potato soup). I learned with nothing but my own enjoyment and lunch at stake, so the lessons were easy to absorb.
Once in awhile something would go truly astray. The pot would boil over. I’d add too much rice and all the liquid would get absorbed and the rice would scorch while my back was turned. No amount of added potato would soak up the salt I didn’t realized I’d added with the extra bouillon cube. When that happened I cleaned up the mess and made something else. I was a lucky kid and there was always more food in the house.
The worst-case scenario was a tempting one: hightailing it to Patty Evers’s house across the street, where Mrs. Evers served grilled cheese made with white bread and potato chips for lunch. Conditions were perfect for cooking with ease and nonchalance.
Leaving the Soup Behind
I took that love of playing in the kitchen and creating tasty things that I captured in the fifth grade and became ever more serious about it. I cooked my way through a history class in high school by bringing in a Russian feast as my final project. I found housemates in college as willing to slave over coursed dinner parties as I was. Cooking became my reward at the end of the day in graduate school: Once I had read or written or graded whatever number of pages I needed to tackle for the day, I allowed myself to hit the cookbooks and bring out the pots.
The abstract nature of my work at the time meant that the concrete results of cooking seemed like the only thing I had to show for myself at the end of the day. I might wrestle all day figuring out a problem in a paper I was writing and there it would still be, waiting for me the next morning as unresolved as I had left it. Cooking, though, was over when it was over. The results were eaten up or thrown away. And when I shared them with other people they were reliably greeted with enthusiasm. Plus, I’m human. All those compliments about how tasty the food was? I liked those.
Marcella Hazan taught me how to make homemade pasta. Penelope Casas showed me the way to perfectly done paella. James Beard outlined the craft of canapés. Jacques Pépin challenged me to de-bone a chicken. Well-thumbed cookbooks and pored-over food magazines lured me towards ever more complicated and elaborate concoctions.
I became the kind of cook who made everything from scratch. Who mysteriously deboned things just because I could. Who took great pride in serving Thanksgiving dinner to 14 singlehandedly. Who spent a large portion of winter break assembling a cassoulet, starting with rendering the fat with which to then make the duck confit.
In short, I went over the edge. And I loved it.
I liked the results I got to eat, I liked the compliments and I sometimes liked the execution. But I soon found myself in a pattern where food and cooking, which had been my escape from a relentless perfectionism at work, became a place where I felt increasingly productive and worthwhile, at which point the perfectionism from which they had let me escape seeped in.
It’s easy to take cooking too seriously. To care too much about whether a dish turns out. Time, effort and money all go into preparing a meal. Ego, pride and vanity tend to work their way in there too. Since we have to eat everyday, everyone and their uncle has a valid opinion about food—it’s a universal and so can impress universally. Yet to gain that flattery, first the cook must submit to being judged, and that’s the rub.
My husband once came home to find me weeping on the kitchen floor, surrounded by shrimp and spiral pasta, dripping frying pan in hand. I had flagged a recipe from Food & Wine, driven across town to fetch the special true corkscrew pasta and spent over an hour cutting and mincing the various aromatics and vegetables. I had then turned to grab the pepper grinder on the opposite counter, knocked the handle of the pan, and splattered the slaved-over contents all over the cupboards and floor of our galley kitchen.
“Honey,” he said, pulling me up off the floor, somewhat dumbfounded at my sobs, “it’s not a big deal. It’s just dinner. I’ll clean this up and we’ll go out.”
I was too dejected in the moment to argue that it was, in fact, a big deal. That my time and effort were—actually, Mister—a huge deal. I was too grateful that he was going to clean it all up and I was allowed to slink away from the mess and shame of it all. The 20/20 of hindsight tells me that despite my legitimate claim to immense disappointment, sobbing on the floor covered in pasta was an overreaction. He may not have judged the results of that misadventure harshly, but I sure did.
After a few years, I morphed my hobby into my job, left academia and turned food writer and cooking instructor. The more I cooked, the more I saw that food tastes best when prepared with love and enthusiasm; the stress of a freaked out cook comes through in the dish; sad cooks make flat-tasting food; a joyful effort is remarkably palpable on the palate.
I taught cooking classes and saw how paralyzed by fear of failure so many people were. They were convinced they would ruin a dish because they didn’t know some secret or lacked a special skill. I assured them that people far less educated and clever than they had been cooking perfectly tasty food since the dawn of time, but in so explaining I realized that my job was as much to get them to relax—both to care a bit less whether something turned out and to enjoy the process of making the food—as it was to teach them how to cut an onion.
Knowing how to cook relaxed, like knife skills and willingness to season in layers, is a marked difference between amateurs and pros. Thanks to Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey, we have an image of chefs spending a lot of their time yelling, but they are the outliers. The best restaurant kitchens are places of harmonious efficiency, where people stay calm as orders rush through or a piece of fish gets scorched. Yelling and pitching a fit doesn’t fix the problem, and only backs up the system. The best chefs know that the more they can get their staff to a place of Zen-like calm, the better the food will taste, the smoother the operation will run.
Once I was interviewing Paul Canales back when he was still at Oliveto. A young extern waved him over to examine a huge pan of baby leeks. She had trimmed them beautifully, but then cooked them wrong. The pan was chock full of a tremendous amount of leeks and labor. All ruined. He didn’t curse or even raise his voice, he didn’t knock the leeks onto the floor. He calmly and good-humoredly explained how he wanted them prepared, what had gone wrong and how she could fix it the next time.
It was the response of a decent human being, but also of a smart chef; it seemed to me that the chances of that next pan of leeks (and every pan forever after) turning out perfectly was pretty high. There was no anger or bile or shame lingering in the kitchen to spoil them.
The Cake Test
After a few twists and turns in publishing, I found myself sitting in a meeting in Menlo Park, brainstorming the December issue of Sunset magazine. We needed a dessert. A cake. Something people could pull out and impress everyone at Christmas. But it needed to be easy.
A shot of my favorite cake as a kid flashed in my head: angel food cake frosted with whipped cream and sprinkled all over with crushed Heath Bars.
My mom learned to make it from her mom, who got the idea from someone who made it at a church potluck on the East Side of St. Paul in the 1950s, who herself most likely picked up the tip from a ladies’ magazine, as they were then called. My mom would make it a bit ahead of time and stick it in the extra fridge we had in the basement. I loved it so much I would brave the fright of that creepy underworld—the narrow steps and dark corners and strange noises from the furnace—to peak at the towering cake for which the top shelf of the fridge had been cleared. I turned the plate it sat on, looking for spots where a bit of missing Heath Bar, delicately removed from its snug nest of sweetened whipped cream to be popped in my mouth, wouldn’t be noticed.
Why not, I posited, do the Heath Bar cake with crushed candy canes in place of the Heath Bar? I thought I was reinventing the wheel (as most recipe development is), but it was one of those rare cases in which I’d built a better mousetrap. The peppermint melting into the whipped cream covering the light-as-air angel food cake was even better than the toffee version. Plus, it looked like Christmas.
The cake was on the cover and was a big hit. Dozens of colleagues—editors, test kitchen cooks, art directors—could hardly wait to make the cake for their friends and families over the holidays, and they made sure I knew how excited they were. My family took great delight in this, of course, and I promised to bake the cake for Christmas Eve.
With snow falling gently outside, I whipped up the batter, poured it into a tube pan and set the pan in the preheated 325° oven. Then, I turned my attention to the rest of the dinner.
I chopped and grated and set things on platters. I settled into the solitude and relished my busy hands. Maybe it was being in the winter coziness of my parents’ house, maybe it was having a kitchen to myself after cooking at work surrounded by the bustling of recipe testers, but I was feeling the groove of my fifth-grade self, just having fun making some food. At one point I thought I heard an odd popping hissing sound, but figured it was from the steam-heat radiator in the dining room and kept chopping.
Then I smelled something burning.
Here’s an important side note: If you ever think you smell something burning, you do. Find it.
I opened the oven and found the source of the acrid smell.
My famously smashing cake had exploded, coating the inside of my parents’ oven with a sticky sweet batter most of which was slowly but surely getting baked on to the walls, the heating element and the racks and the rest of which was dripping out of the corner of the oven onto the tile floor.
This was no pot-of-soup-for-one-boiled-over. As I stood looking at the walls of my parents’ oven almost completely covered with baking-on angel food cake batter on Christmas Eve afternoon, I knew it was a test. After spouting off at work that “There are no emergencies in food writing,” this mess of batter was quizzing me: “Aren’t there?” After years of telling my own students “It’s only a cake,” this disaster of a Christmas dessert was taunting: “Am I?”
I sighed, pulled the pan out of the oven, turned the oven off, left it open to cool, and I wished my husband weren’t off buying wine (and, let’s face it, last-minute Christmas gifts) with my dad. He would have said “It’s only a cake” out loud, handed me a drink and insisted on cleaning it up on my behalf. Instead, as I started to scrape the hot goo out of the oven and off of the tile floor, I told myself it was only a cake and was grateful that in Minnesota people still bake and exchange Christmas treats with an impressive fervor.
The Everses no longer lived across the street, but friends and neighbors had littered the counter with homemade cookies and candies. Once all the batter was in the trash, I assembled a festive tiered cookie platter for dessert. Less grand, perhaps, than the cover-gracing cake, but just as sweet.
Cooking and food are extremely important to me. I have built a career around them. But I know, deep in my soul, that once people have enough healthy food to eat, everything else is gravy (sometimes literally). People can think a dinner or a cake or a Thanksgiving turkey is important, but once starvation or malnourishment isn’t an issue, they’re not.
Whatever power or symbolism you’ve given food, you can take it away. You can turn those burnt brownies that prove what a horrible cook and person and parent you are back into a batch of burnt flour and sugar and eggs and chocolate that are simply so much compost to never think of again. The cake meant to prove your professional accomplishment to your family can explode without your ego ending up on the kitchen floor along with the batter. An overcooked pasta salad is an unpleasant thing, to be sure, but it’s not going to ruin the potluck block party, at least not as much as a sad sack walking around obsessively wringing their hands over the pasta salad will.
Relax. Know that food doesn’t need to turn out perfectly, that mistakes can be delicious, or at least edible, and when they aren’t they tend to be funny if you have the right attitude. Play. Try new things. Cook old things with joy and excitement. Know that even a pro ruins Christmas sometimes. It really is only a cake. I promise.
SIDEBAR: How to Make Soup
Soup is remarkably forgiving and the perfect place to start improvising as a cook. If you like to work from a recipe, start by switching out one ingredient. Try parsnips instead of carrots; use mussels in lieu of shrimp. Then next time substitute another; or add cream or garlic or red pepper or whatever sounds tasty or interesting to you. If, however, you’re as adventurous as fifth-grade me, just put a bunch of stuff in a pot. Sauté any aromatics like onions or garlic first, add stock and longer cooking items like root vegetables next, add tender vegetables towards the end. Know that starches like rice and pasta will thicken the broth if cooked in the soup. Add herbs at the end to harness all their flavor. Taste as you cook. Play around.