Cooking Fear? Blame It on the Olympics

Do you have any cooking fears? Maybe cooking fish? Making yeast work? What about canning vegetables—isn’t there something about botulism you’re supposed to watch for?

As a kitchen coach, I’ve certainly seen cooking fear at work, our best eating intentions waylaid by fear of failure at the stove top. And in my mind, anything that keeps us from the pleasures and riches of the kitchen is something worth exploring.

To begin with, here is some reassuring news for mere cooking mortals: even the experts suffer from cooking fears! Former Denver Post food editor Kristen Browning-Blas canvassed her fellow food reporters and, in a recent article, revealed cooking fears ranging from deep-frying and pressure cooking to immersion blenders and shellfish.

Browning-Blas concluded her article with a call to tackle our fears. As she reasoned, fear governs too much of daily life, we owe it to ourselves to eliminate a little, and the kitchen is an easy place to start. Excellent advice, yet maybe we need to understand where those pesky fears come from.

I say the Olympics are to blame, but before we get to that theory let’s back up and mention a couple more obvious culprits. These came up over lunch with some friends yesterday:

1. Lack of Skills and Knowledge. That makes perfect sense. Of course a task can be unnerving if we don’t know what we’re doing or supposed to be doing.

2. Expense. Food is costly. Who wants to risk precious food dollars on dishes that have to be sent down the garbage disposal?

Although less obvious, here are a couple more culprits that I’ve observed from my years in the field, which may well underlie the previous two causes. This is where the Olympics business comes in.

I’m not talking about the actual athletic competition in the Olympic arena. I’m talking about the culture that gives rise to and, in turn, is encouraged by the Olympics. In particular, three aspects of this culture come to mind: hyper-perfectionism, complexity and highly demanding spectators. Against this kind of backdrop, are we poor home cooks practically assured of an unnerving experience in the kitchen?

See what I have to say, chew on it a little, and tell me what you think:

First up: Hyper-perfectionism: Watching the coverage of the mammoth Beijing Olympics a couple months ago, what struck me most was the Olympic-sized display of perfectionism. From the prowess of the athletes to the magnificence of the structures to the precision of the Chinese hosts, everything was so perfect. Did anybody, anywhere trip over their shoelaces, stumble climbing up to the winners’ stage or otherwise screw up? Granted, a couple gymnastic bumbles made their way onto our TV screens, but those were easily overlooked given that the athletes were attempting something that is actually beyond human capability.

What also struck me, watching the Olympics, was the overwhelming degree of complexity involved in something that started out pretty simply. In the swimming pool, millisecond victories are dependent on high-tech swimming tights and full body suits. A highly engineered fast track is necessary for the world’s fastest man to do his thing. A few carefully executed flips and spins on the gym mat are no longer enough to elicit our oohs and ahhs. It’s got to be a quadruple aerial loop-de-loop. And the stakes just keep getting higher and higher. In the near future, I fully expect gymnasts to incorporate flying segments into their routines.

These two aspects of modern Olympic culture give rise to a third: overly demanding spectators. Audiences are so accustomed to seeing perfection that they are intolerant of anything less. It’s surprising to see how personally offended and disappointed announcers and viewers can be when an athlete fails to meet the perfectionist ideal.

Unfortunately, these cultural characteristics aren’t confined to the narrow, quadrennial world of the Olympics. They’ve seeped down into every nook and cranny of the athletic world. Susie on the summer swim team must now have swimming longjohns, even if her struggling parents can’t afford them. Johnny trains on the vaulting horse everyday, threatening the proper development of his young muscles and bones. On the teen soccer fields, parents yell at coaches, referees and players for perceived errors, despite a level of play that is far more advanced than even just a few years ago.

It’s not too great a stretch to wonder: Does the perfectionism and complexity celebrated by the Olympics seep even further a field than athletics? Has it invaded the kitchen, forcing us to engage in an Olympian trial competition each night just to get our daily dinner on the table? How many home cooks suffer from “audience intolerance” at the dinner table?

Tomorrow: There’s good evidence that the food world is spiraling into the stratosphere of perfectionism and complexity. . . .

What do you think? About kitchen fears? What’s fueling them?

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One Response

  1. […] Read the rest of Mary’s blog “Kitchen Fear?  Blame It On the Olympics!“ […]

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