Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Overcoming fear: Lessons from the kitchen

I read an article about the trendiness of using foam in food this morning. What popped out at me was writer Andreas Viestad's shock at hearing comments about making his own whipped cream during a promotional tour a few years' back. He quotes a television host proudly saying, "Did you really whip the cream yourself? Well, my grandmother did that, too!"

As a fellow Scandinavian, I fully understand his amazement at such surprise. I encounter it too: People who speak of bread-making in hushed and reverent tones, as though the skill were some esoteric, magical knowledge bestowed in dark temples by the High Priest of Yeast and the Demiurges of Flour. Or people who are terrified at the thought of cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, when getting the chance to cook something that big and impressive is so much fun! I can quickly think of a half-dozen items that are easy to make from scratch that many seem to be unable to accomplish without a ready-made product from the store, such as pancakes, biscuits, vinaigrette, marinade, stock, gravy, cookies, etc. Cooking is not rocket science, and yet many seem to approach it with the fear I reserve for trying to do calculus or talking to people on the phone.

Thankfully, I have never been afraid of cooking. Its familiarity to me and the long line of successes that I have had overcome the occasional disaster. But I have other fears and weaknesses. I have messes around the house that I strategically avoid including in the food photographs. I frequently cringe at things I have written. At times, picking up the charcoal and the paintbrush is a real struggle: What am I going to make? Will it be any good? Am I just being stupid to even try? Are my ideas pathetic, weak, derivative, shallow? I get anxious about not being as well organized as I'd like to be or struggling with debt. I feel embarrassed when I haul my heavy body out the door to go for a slow, painful run and imagine how stupid I must look.

In other words, I drag a chain of anxieties, fears, embarrassments, and shames around with me that can make movement difficult, if not downright impossible. I try to rely on little mantras sometimes, like Ted Kennedy's idea of not letting perfection stand in the way of accomplishing something good, or the idea that a long journey starts with a single step, but they don't always work for me.

But here's another idea. I am not afraid of cooking because I am so familiar with it. I have seen it done around me all my life. I have done it myself for years, and I have tried all kinds of things. Know the saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt"? Well, in this circumstance, that's not as bad as it sounds. All that familiarity I have in the kitchen gives me the history to try and fail without too much embarrassment because I know I have succeeded in the past and that I will succeed again soon. All the familiarity and knowledge I have picked up lets me analyze my mistakes and figure out where I went wrong.

So how do I apply this to my fears and anxieties? I breed contempt through practice and familiarity. I try and fail and then I try again. I put embarrassment and fear in a room, and I lock the door. I know they are still there, hooting and hollering away, trying to get out, but I work on ignoring them until they shut up. I drag my floppy belly out the door and run, and I look with empathy at those who run more slowly than I do (and with envy at those who fly by). I make myself write and move on when it's done. I practice drawing, paying little attention to what I draw because I know the ideas will come as I continue to practice. I trick myself into doing the things that scare me or embarrass me or make me feel shame as often as I can with the hope that eventually the shame and fear will go away.

So if you're afraid of cooking, here's what to do. Pick a recipe, any recipe, something you think you might like and try it. Make a mess in the kitchen. If you don't know what something means, look it up. Don't be afraid not to know something and look stupid. The smartest, most talented people in the world got that way because they didn't care if they looked stupid and asked a lot of questions. Maybe your food won't be great the first time, maybe it will. Either way, do it again. Do it until you can do it perfectly and take pride in it. Then try something else and do the same. Build your ability and your familiarity step by step. Know that practice will make you better. And in the meantime, I will try and do the same.        


  1. What I like the most about Tora's Real Food is that it humanizes cooking and makes it ok for me to play and experiment when I'm in the kitchen. I'll admit that I often just hustle through cooking so I can eat and get back to my work, but when I actually take the time to experiment in the kitchen, without worrying about whether the results are perfect, I get tremendous artistic satisfaction--and I wind up with something good to eat as well.

  2. Thanks Steven! I really appreciate your comment, and I am so glad to have inspired you to experiment in the kitchen. I don't think anyone is ever perfect in the kitchen, but if you take some fun, have some fun, and avoid worrying too much about perfection, you are a lot more likely to end up with something tasty and better for you than industrial food, as well as a sense of pride in making something of your own.