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.

OR…

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, …

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