Cooking Fear? Part 2

Yesterday’s post raised the topic of cooking fears and whether Olympic-inspired perfectionism, complexity and audience intolerance were at least partly at fault. Let me connect some dots to make sense of that claim.

There’s good evidence that the food world is spiraling into the stratosphere of perfectionism and complexity: Consider the sheer amount of cooking information we’re exposed to: dozens of food shows and entire food networks, hundreds of internet sites devoted to cooking and recipes, food sections in practically every newspapers and scores of magazines, cooking videos all over YouTube, live cooking classes available in dozens of venues, huge cooking stores and cooking catalogues, and of course, thousands upon thousands of cookbooks.

Each week, in cooking shows and classes, chefs (me included!) excitedly share hundreds of new recipes, all manner of exotic new foods, unique spice combinations, ever-better knives and pans and the latest must-have gadgets.

Meanwhile, we’re all exposed regularly to professionally prepared restaurant foods and to pictures of perfectly styled foods on TV and the internet, in magazines and newspapers and all over food packaging.

Not that all this is all bad! On the one hand, it has fueled a wonderful interest in food and cooking and has undoubtedly eased a lot of cooking fears. After all, if we suffer from a lack of fundamental cooking skills, there’s no better remedy than attending a cooking class. Seeing fish properly prepared goes a long way towards easing the fear of cooking fish.

On the other hand, courtesy of the law of tradeoffs, everything—even good things—come with both helpful and not-so-helpful consequences. In this case, there has been almost too much of a good thing. There has come to be so much cooking stuff, that is so perfect and fairly complex, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations–and fear of not living up to those expectations. Think about it:

  • With magazine covers graced by picture-perfect entrees, the un-garnished, un-styled plates we rush to the table at 6:30 or 7:00 after a full day of work undoubtedly do look a little dumpy.
  • Did you know that multinational chains spend millions of dollars over many years to develop the artificial flavors that go in their food products? Once our taste buds are warped by these test-tube flavors, how can we possibly compete with just the simple, unadorned flavors of real foods?
  • Do you ever see a TV chef subject their creations to the critical eye of a picky child or spouse—and then have to endure that most defeating phrase of all: “Yuck!”
  • When professional TV chefs prepare meals of perfection in just 25 minutes, what’s wrong with us that it takes more like 45 minutes or an hour?
  • Speaking of perfection, how can we poor, multi-tasking home cooks possibly make meals that compare to the ones slaved over by a professionally trained, full-time chef in a fancy restaurant?
  • What about those Iron Chefs, creating fabulous concoctions on the fly—when it’s such a struggle to just follow one of the “quick and easy,” 29-minute recipes from the newspaper?
  • For those intimidated by deep-frying or immersion blenders, it’s understandable when every shopping season brings a new must-have appliance or gadget to buy and master: Besides the standard food processors, microwaves and blenders we have yet to figure out, there are multi-tasking stand mixers, clay pots, cast iron skillets, panani presses, flip waffle-makers, rocket blenders, mini-slow cookers, electric grills and sandwich makers.
  • And to prove that I may be as guilty as anyone: where once it was just great to make a potato and carrot beef stew, now it takes a Beef Stew with Mediterranean Spices (see my blog of last week!), containing eggplant that has to be salted for 30 minutes for some reason I can’t quite remember and with exotic spices I’m not sure I have and am less certain I’ll like.

So all in all, maybe it’s not hard to see why we’re feeling just a little intimidated in the kitchen.

What do you think? What’s behind our cooking fears? More importantly, what should we do about it?

Tomorrow’s Post:  Prescription for Perfectionism


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