The Imperfection of Home Cooking
The other day I was watching Ina Garten on her Barefoot Contessa television program. She is so appealing and I love her approach to cooking. It's straight-forward, she doesn't demand we have lots of fancy tools, and she makes real food that we all can cook and want to eat. I envy her white kitchen with huge windows bringing in sunshine and a view of a garden where she can pick fresh rosemary instead of having to buy it.
What I don't like is her refrigerator. Watch closely when she opens her big Sub-Zero. It's almost empty. Maybe there's a bottle of Champagne, a plastic jug full of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a perfect white ceramic dish holding some lemons. That's it.
What I want to know is where's the half-empty bottle of catsup standing on its neck? Where's the jar of Dijon with a crust of dried mustard on the rim? Where are the leftovers stored in recycled deli containers? Or the paper carton of eggs, half-eaten jars of jam, or plastic bags of aging carrots?
It seems that even Ina, the TV chef who is closest to real life, can't have a real refrigerator. I understand television is about fantasy as much as information. It's same for the glossy magazines we subscribe to -- Food & Wine, Gourmet, Saveur. Their good articles are polished, art directed and scrubbed.
The problem is that cooking is none of these things. Instead, it's messy and imperfect.
When all our how-to sources give us an idealized kitchen, it puts tremendous pressure on us amateurs. We can't help but think we come up short. The reality is that when we cook, we end up with a spray of chopped parsley on the floor, olive oil bottles leaving greasy rings on the counter, and crumbs everywhere. Most of us have to repeatedly stop mid-recipe to wash bowls and knives to re-use them. The phone rings. A child cries. Or we've had a bad day and are having trouble concentrating.
Measuring Up to Unfair Expectations
The set-decorated kitchen is only the start of unfair expectations. In real life, things don't always turn out right. The finished dish looks nothing like the beautiful photo in the magazine. A slice into the single tomato bought for a mozzarella salad reveals a rotten core and we're left to improvise. We forget to add an ingredient or discover we didn't buy it. Or we under-cook the fish and over-cook the potatoes. That's what home cooking is really like.
Home cooks can easily get discouraged because it's just so hard to measure up. Unless we had cooking mothers or fathers, most of us have no idea what our kitchens can be like. Visiting a restaurant kitchen is no help because the pros are making the same dishes over and over again. We amateurs are cooking different meals every night. That's much tougher to do.
I recently read Julia Child's last book, My Life in France, a splendid memoir she wrote with grandnephew Alex Prud'homme. She told how her first television cooking experience was making an omelet on a hot plate and how she taped the first season of The French Chef in a borrowed corporate kitchen in Boston. Sure, she soon got into a real studio. But regardless of the surroundings, she was always a teacher intent on putting serious cooking within our reach and being realistic about the experience. She was famous for dropping a pancake (not a chicken) and confiding, "remember you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you," as she picked it up and kept going. That's because Julia didn't care about lifestyle. She cared about the food, mess and all. I wish FoodTV could, too.
I'll keep watching Ina, but I suspect that once the TV crews leave her homey kitchen, she retrieves a large cooler kept out of sight and restocks her big Sub-Zero. I'm sure she, too, has that nearly empty bottle of catsup and back it goes. On the inside door of the refrigerator, upside-down. Like the rest of us.