Friday, October 15, 2010

As Long as You're Not Making Explosives or Household Cleaners No One's Going to Die if You Mess Up the Recipe

Like millions of Americans, I have recipe anxiety. Those numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though mincing garlic were akin to sculpting of David, steps, instructions, and/or techniques, always look to me, like a numbered, bulletted, sometimes lushly described as though browning onions were akin to pitching a perfect game, list of chances to fail. Every instruction is a potential mistake.

Given this, I, like so many people, perhaps even some of your loved ones or those friends whose Facebook statuses you do not hide, too often select my recipe based on the number of possible mistakes. The fewer the better. What if I add the garlic too soon? What if the chopped vegetables aren't all ½ inch cubes? Are translucent onions the same as translucent other things, or do they have some special magical lucency that transforms light into a noxious tear inducing vapor? And what the hell is al dente anyway, I mean, if you're not slurping it through a straw it's pretty much always “to the teeth,” right? The common response, one could almost say, the natural response, to recipe anxiety is to avoid it entirely. No one is at your house with a gun to your head commanding you to stir fry and there aren't that many chances to mess up a microwave dinner.

I was making this fried potato cake recipe from the Silver Spoon (one of the absolute best cookbooks ever in my humble opinion) and the cakes, well, they wouldn't stay together. I'd followed all the instructions in the recipe as best I could but when I tried to form the shredded potatoes into cakes to pan fry, they just wouldn't stay together. In retrospect, I guess I didn't use potatoes with enough starch. I don't remember what potatoes I used, or, now that I'm on the topic, which are the starchy and which are the less starchy potatoes, but that's what the Internet is for. So, in a stroke of what some might call good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity and others might call desperation, the potatoes, I mashed them.

And, because the Silver Spoon is one of the best cookbooks ever, the mashed potatoes were awesome. And that's when I realized that unless you're making explosives or home cleaners no one is going to die if you mess up the recipe. Sure, you might end up with something unpalatable, or perhaps even inedible, but there is still the opportunity to order that pizza you were thinking of ordering in the first place. If we won any truly lasting practical victory for the American people in the Cold War, it was the opportunity to just screw this disaster of a gumbo and get take out. Furthermore, every mistake is a lesson. You make a bad meal once, but you learn about a flavor combination or a technique combination that you can apply for the rest of your life. And sure, if you're cooking meat, you can certainly mess up the recipe in a way that makes you sick (though thanks to modern agribusiness you're more likely to get salmonella from an innocuous looking bag of spinach, but that's another essay) but if you have any doubts you can just keep cooking whatever it is you're cooking. It might not end up tasty, but it'll be safe.

The point is that the benefits of a home cooked meal greatly outweigh the risks of screwing up a home cooked meal. Not only do you have control (and responsibility) of everything that goes into it allowing you to tailor it to both your tastes and your health concerns, and not only will you deepen your connection with one of the most fundamental aspects of whatever culture the recipe comes from, and not only will you get the satisfaction of having made something, even if you don't end up particularly proud of it (I'm compelled to remember a CD “holder” I made in shop class in high school, roll top and everything, that barely held itself together let alone the dozen CDs as promised by the instructions), you'll also avoid eating processed food. Have you ever read the ingredients of those instant dinners? They're like an instruction manual on how to get heart disease and diabetes and probably rickets or gout or one of those other olde timey sounding diseases of affluence.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of 20th century nationhood (I'll make this topical, don't worry) is that fascism, no matter what philosophical superstructure is tossed on top of it, is fundamentally destructive. Whenever you reduce anything complex, and everything in the real world is complex, to unalterable absolutes you set yourself up for some kind of disaster. So don't worry if you give in to recipe anxiety every now and again. I think people should cook from scratch more, but I'm not going to publicly shame you if you eat a Hungry Man Dinner once in a while. (Well, maybe there's a little Hungry Man specific shame, but you get my point.) It's not the occasional microwave dinner that's demolishing the bodily health of our society, but constant microwave dinners. So try to make something tonight. Just remember not to mix the ammonia with the bleach when you clean up.

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