Is It You or The Recipe?

Dear Readers,

I love this manic little chef from Woman's Favorite Cook Book (1902)

I love this manic little chef from Woman's Favorite Cook Book (1902)

You may have heard it said that to become a good cook, you need to cook a lot.  As in, every day.  "Practice makes perfect," these culinary sages say.

Well, I am here to tell you: cooking every day doth not a Julia Child make. After about a decade of daily cooking, I continue to have recipes that stubbornly refuse to cooperate, baked goods that turn out like stone, and listless concoctions that only a man who really loves me would ever even try to eat for dinner.  And all that despite having a head start, with oodles of delicious family recipes handed down from grandmothers on both sides of the family who were darn good cooks.

I liken mastering cooking to mastering the fine art of playing piano.  They share several deeply frustrating similarities (and yes, I took piano lessons for many years, only to realize I would simply never become anything more than a somewhat mediocre pianist).  First, if you don't love cooking (and eating), preparing food will always feel like a chore.  Much of my childhood was spent unwillingly chained to the piano (figuratively, of course!) practicing scales and dying of boredom.  I liked the piano, I just didn't love it, which made all the difference...although several well-meaning teachers probably developed early gray hairs (thanks to me) in their attempts to inspire me to musical greatness.  The same is true with cooking: it can often be very monotonous even if you DO love it (dirty dishes, I'm looking at you). 

Next, reading the music (so to speak) can be very tricky.  You listen to someone very talented effortlessly play that gorgeous Liebestraum by Liszt, for example, and think, "I could do that!  Anyone could do that!"  Ha.  One look at the score's tricky key changes, arpeggiations, and cadenzas will fix that.  And don't even get me started on Chopin. Same goes for recipes of all sorts, even deceptively "easy" ones (I always view any recipe described as "easy" with deep suspicion).  You can look at stunning food photography all day long or watch beautiful videos of a recipe being prepared; sadly this does not guarantee that you will be able to get the same results out of the same recipe. As a beginning cook, it can even be difficult to tell the difference between a "good" recipe (i.e., one that suits your taste, budget, and ability) and a "bad" recipe (such as one that is way too hard to make, has heinously expensive ingredients, and isn't a dish you like to eat, after all). 

Finally, all musicians, like all foodies, have their own quirky tastes and preferences. When giving a musical performance this is usually not a problem, as those who detest Chopin will typically not be found voluntarily attending a Chopin concert.  So if you love playing Chopin and end up giving a concert performance, chances are your audience will adore you and present you with a huge bouquet of roses.  

Giving a culinary performance, whether you are throwing a party or cooking a family dinner, however, presents a truly scary scenario. It is nearly impossible to cook and serve a dish (or two or three) that everyone at your dinner table can agree is, and I quote, "good."  (Actually, anything with chocolate is exempt from that rule). What's more, there are so many dietary restrictions these days, many of them quite necessary for your diners' survival through the meal and beyond, that you may find yourself in tears just trying to plan a menu. The magic solution to this, which every hostess these days seems to have adopted out of sheer frustration, is "BYOFB" (Bring Your Own Food & Beverages), or a potluck held in someone's home. (I bashed this entertainment style--can you call it entertaining?--in a post last year.)  Perhaps the resulting smorgasbord gives everyone indigestion afterwards, and leaves them peckish and hungover...but at least there was something for everyone.  

If, despite all odds, you persevere and cook something for your fickle guests, brava. Just don't have a nervous breakdown if your diners sit there picking at their beet salads instead of throwing roses.  Or complain about the onions.  Or ask for something that suits their dietary restrictions (although it's a good idea to be proactive and ask your guests up-front about this, when you issue the invitations).  All cooks need deeply appreciative eaters, and when you find a good 'un, invite him or her back. Often.  

Yours Truly,

Sarah

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