Why lads (and lasses) don’t cook

(Oh dear, an explanatory listicle. I’m sorry for the cliche.)

I’ve written about cooking on here before. It’s something I do about 1/7 days of the week, but on that one day, I find cooking easy, welcoming, and insignificant. When talking to friends, however, I’ve noticed that some of them find cooking to be difficult, intimidating, or heroic, and this causes them to not cook.

Before I discuss why I think people find cooking to be those things, I want to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong about not cooking. I don’t cook, 6/7 days. I’m not making this a class, race, gender, … issue: my one person cooks on Sunday and might not approach the stove the other six. Small kitchen, neighbors who don’t like the smell, too many restaurants to try; these are all valid reasons. My personal one is that I have a small apartment, and in my failure of adulthood, have bought only two chairs: I can serve a sit-down meal to one other person, and this, to me, is a fairly intimate act (FEWER THAN SIX SERVED [in my apartment][including minimal breakfasts for friends who crash on the couch]).

So this analysis is really of people who don’t prepare meals for themselves very often, wished they could do so more, and don’t understand why. As with everything I write, it may be nonsense; you are welcome to let me know in the comments.

1. Treating it like surgery

My god, no one is going to die. This is what I tell myself when I write something and the tests tell me I’ve introduced a regression — it’s just bits of 0’s and 1’s and of carrots and onions: no one is going to die if you let the soup simmer for 22 minutes and not 20, if it’s a dice and not a chop, if you don’t actually own tarragon.

Following recipes and having mise en place is nice, but at some point, I really think it becomes a hindrance to knowing the food. It’s a bit like having a routine, vs. social dancing: a routine looks great and can be flashier than something you improvise since you’ve planned it ahead of time, but you have to practice it with a specific partner. You’ll know it so well that you don’t even need her, yet you won’t be able to use the routine with anyone BUT her. Social dancing, on the other hand, can be satisfying to watch as well with spontaneous flair, and is a conversation of lead and follow with your partner. Since it’s built on common principles, you can dance with any other dancer.

In this case, the partner is the ingredients. Do the tomatoes suck more than usual this week? Better caramelize some sugar to give them a boost. Is this onion really big? Maybe use half instead of the “one onion” that the recipe originally stated. Instead of blindly cooking the fish for 3 minutes on each side, maybe just watch for the proteins to denature and for the surface to release off the pan.

2. Not using the key ingredient

Salt, sugar, and fat — I guess this is the trinity of taste, whereas salt, heat, and water are the trinity of cooking. Notice that salt is in both. Salt is like the first viola in Mozart’s viola quintets! It simultaneously leads two trios and is a rockstar. Restaurants use a lot of salt (and fat). I think you can skip the fat, but you need to add the salt.

This brings us to…

3. Not tasting

If you’re undergoing invisalgn, ugh, god bless, and don’t bother. Not tasting while cooking is like painting blindfolded. Some people can do it, and maybe you can paint a wall beige perfectly well, but why wouldn’t you take charge of your meal’s destiny while you still have the chance? Once the pan is off the flame, you’re done, because you no longer have heat.

Should I use a software analogy? It’s like writing your entire application, deploying it, and having its first run be in production. Like, maybe if you’re Steve Reiss, or making white rice; otherwise, for mortals and food with any complexity, cook, season, and taste incrementally.

4. Not understanding the art of not really cooking

You could make chicken and waffles by acquiring chicken thighs, trimming the skin, dredging in a well-seasoned mix of flour and cornmeal, heat some crisco in a cast iron skillet, fry the coated chicken, drain and cool on a rack WHILE interleaving this with mixing flour, water, baking powder, egg, butter, heating the waffle iron, cooking the waffle; you now have a messy hand, one contaminated plate, one dish of contaminated flour, a dirty battery bowl, a skillet, whisk, tongs, measuring tools to clean, and a waffle that might not even come off the iron. Your apartment smells like chicken and it’s 9 o’clock. You probably didn’t actually interleave it well, so the waffle or the chicken is cold. God, cooking is such a pain.


you can heat a frozen chicken patty, pop a frozen waffle in the toaster, drench in maple syrup (this is the most important component), and call it a day. #lazykitchen

I don’t know. “Having standards” is a blessing and a curse. Maybe my standards for food are blessedly low.

(Less extreme of an example is how my parents split dinner duties: on weekends, my mother would cook meat; on weekdays, my father would use the meat as quick flavor components in the primarily-vegetable dishes we ate.)

Ok I have to go but — for an actionable starting point — take salt and heat and one other thing. Really taste the one other thing. Then add salt so you can taste that other thing better. Use heat so that the one other thing has a pleasing texture and aroma. Add more things. combinatorial explosion, taste explosion, cliches, …

sunday morning cooking thoughts

How do you reduce the roundness of a bell pepper to square slices without experiencing its futile defensive spray of hard, scattering seed?

By remembering that it, too, was once a flower, to be disassembled petal by petal with softly murmured uncertainties — he loves me, he loves me not.

[All metaphor aside, it seems that slicing a pepper by its lobes does help minimize spatter.]

chopped bell peppers


Do kitchen apprentices have to wash their hands in salt water? Disinfectant, and as reminder to nick themselves less next time.

Similar: https://luzeng.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/in-the-mind-of-god/

women in

One of my friends from high school posted this on Facebook:


It sought to answer, “why aren’t there more women in music production?” And a lot of the answers were like, “people at the top tend to boost others like themselves; it’d be nice if we could get out of the loop of the same 10 (men) and let some new talent rise to the top” “I think our culture has systematically engrained this idea that technology is more of a man’s thing. Men were ones that fixed the VCR, women were the ones that watched the VHS of Titanic on the VCR” “Getting more girls exposed to introductory production workshops at a young age before they get into that teenage headspace of learning that they can’t.”

Gosh, doesn’t this sound familiar?

Yeah, in the discussions of why there aren’t more women in STEM / computer science, I’m always the one harping on about how it’s not maximally productive to ask people who have made it through, and are in STEM / CS — you should ask the people who were on the fence and decided to go for some other field, and ask why they chose that other field!

So here’s an opportunity: I can ask myself why I didn’t go into music production. It’s not an especially fruitful path because music production and computer science are not the same, with respect to my family’s socioeconomic status, but the comparison still reveals some insight.

I was taught about Phil Spector, the Beatles, the “wall of sound,” the recording of a piano and then recording it backwards to create that pseudo-harpsichord sound in “In My Life”, in 8th grade. Before that course, I’d never listened to the Beatles, and I was annoyed that that music appreciation class didn’t cover the classical composers that I already knew very well, but instead forced me to listen to Jelly Roll Morton, hot jazz, cool jazz, prog rock, ska, grunge, … All I wanted was some Scarlatti and Clementi and the smug feeling of ‘already knowing’ that I had in my other high school classes.

But no, listening to all this new music was very good.

And then in high school, I was in language classes where we’d have to submit recordings of our pronunciations and spontaneous speech; I was in orchestra and had to submit excerpts of our parts; in all of these, I was better at Audacity than I was at language or music, and, eh, did a lot of strategic editing. I’m sure it fooled no one.

My viola teacher told me that he wanted to write an audio processor that would give his recordings the same golden, warm sheen that old recordings had. In senior year, I got really pretentious and did an entire “linguistics” project on how people pronounced “cone”, cepstra and lifters and all — I didn’t really know what I was talking about and don’t even remember my conclusion from that project, except that I downloaded something to Audacity to help me get the spectrograms.

By all accounts, I had plenty of exposure to audio. Similarly, young women probably have plenty of exposure to technology. However, I had no idea that there was a job in editing audio, and maybe young women have no idea that they could be the creators as well as the users of their daily utilities / distractions. On the other hand, neither of my parents were computer people in China, but in order to secure a middle-class upbringing for me, they got the credentials to be computer people in the USA, so I always latently knew about computers as a profession.

Ultimately, I think the kicker was that being a music producer is more risky: if you’re a middling music producer, you’re waiting tables. (actually I don’t know, but I assume Hollywood is very competitive, like any of the arts.) Whereas if you’re a middling econ student, you’ll get a middling banking / consulting job, and if you’re a middling developer, you’ll still make enough to be free of student loans in 10 years.

Class trumped gender in my “decision” not to go into music production (or maybe more accurately, my decision to go into something that wasn’t music production). Making class irrelevant, it seems that we need to make it known (to girls) that computers / music production is an actual career.