Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reason 812 Why cooking is extremely theraputic for me but also might be making me crazy.

As outdoor drinking season is in full swing I've found my calendar filling up quickly.  It seems like every weekend is chock full of events, most of them fairly casual, outdoor affairs, promising good beer and better company, and requesting a dish to share. 

Being a single woman with no children nor roommates, I love to cook but rarely go to the effort for a dinner for 1.  So, I use entertaining as my venue for getting my cook on.  I used to be able to bring simple dishes and use mostly prepared items and feel good about it.  But not anymore.

My father unknowingly told me this story not knowing it was false, but in my research I found the history of cake mix itself to be quite fascinating:

I learned to appreciate from scratch cooking while I was dating a farm boy.  They didn't live in the middle of nowhere, but just far enough away that most of his mother's cooking started with a jar of flour and a recipe known by heart.  During that time I started to stock my home pantry with staple goods and learned a few recipes I knew I could always pull off with ingredients on hand at a moment's notice.  This lasted until I went on a Jenny Craig diet and spent about a year and a half eating freezer meals or going out.  Being that far out of my element, cooking a full meal involved an in depth trip to the grocery store and frequently resulted in something being on fire.

Somewhere between my trying to embrace a somewhat homesteading/self sufficient lifestyle and a Russian themed party I threw almost a year and a half ago, I started cooking from scratch again.  Like, herbs and veg from my garden if possible, no mixes, no heat & serve, no canned or frozen goods (except for veg or basic ingredients - i.e., I'm not going to make an entire pot of cream of mushroom soup from scratch just because I need a cup for a recipe.  I'm willing to cut corners there).  And I loved it.  But again, it started with special events - themed parties and birthday dinners - where I'd take the extra pains to cook everything from scratch, which included rolling my own pasta. 

What I didn't anticipate was that this newfound joy in being able to present a dish made from the most basic ingredients was the guilt that I would be subject to every time I did cut a corner.  Little things like buying pre-shredded cheese rather than shredding my own started to creep up on me.  Then things like using jarred sauces instead of making my own.  Like it made me feel like less of a woman to rely on shortcuts and prepared foods.  Like, I can do better than this, I can do IT ALL. 

But that's just not reasonable for me.  I work full time, I have numerous hobbies, a healthy social life, plus gym, family, and household chores and obligations.  When I'm planning out my 5th consecutive weekend that involves at least half of my Saturday being spent in just food prep for a single dish or two, I start to question my need to do EVERYTHING completely from scratch.  This week I'm making a mustard sauce using prepared mustards sauteed together with beer and spices.  There's another version of the recipe that involves grinding my own mustard seed and making the mustard itself from scratch too.  After careful contemplation I realized that this was for a weeknight affair and between time limitations and the likelihood of recipe failure, I should choose the simpler sauce option.  And I feel guilty for it.  So, I've decided to delve into my psyche and explore the multiple facets of this need for perfection.

1. Pro - I used to be a fat chick. 

Like, not morbidly obese, but I was obese.  I'm still overweight now, but no where near where I used to be.  A lot of that weight came from the fact that high calorie foods are easily available, both as fast food, freezer food, and simple meals.  The more fat, salt, and sugar I eat; the more fat, salt, and sugar I crave.  When I cook I'm in the driver's seat - I can adjust the flavors so the actual FLAVOR of the food shines through, and relearn how to taste food instead of just tasting salt and sweet. 

This also cuts the desire to bounce from one type of junk food to another - if I have a fast food burger & fries or a pizza, I get so overwhelmed I usually want something extremely sweet to follow, like a milkshake or cookies.  When I'm having quinoa with veggies, I'm usually happy to follow up with a piece of fruit.  By breaking the need to go out to get food I also reduce my exposure to advertising and unintentional eating - ordering things I hadn't originally factored into my diet or being influenced to higher calorie options. 

I try to keep my fridge and pantry well stocked with healthy options.  I don't keep cookies on hand (I'm a damn cookiemonster) and if I do keep ice cream it's small amounts of something not too terrible on the calories.  If it is something fully indulgent I try to keep it in a super small quantity.  I only keep tortilla chips and pretzels on hand, and usually avoid those unless I'm entertaining.  Candy has to be individually wrapped (not just bagged) and stashed somewhere out of sight/out of mind. 

It's also good exercise.  With ingredient acquisition, setup, cooking, presentation, and cleanup; I'm on my feet for a while.  I like the idea that I'm burning off part of my meal before I even consume it. 

2. Pro - The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and other girlfriendy things. 

A couple of years ago my friends and I started to turn the threshold where we no longer lived with our parents, we had enough money to go out to eat regularly, and did.  So, a good, home cooked meal became something to be sought after and appreciated, rather than being a typical week night.  So I started cooking for my guy friends for their birthdays - it was a nice alternative to going out to dinner and usually involved leftovers.  But chicken and rice didn't cut it - I'd want to cook their favorite recipe, and I'd want to do it really, really well.  It shows the love.

This turned into a great "getting to know you" date.  Like, after we've had a couple of dates, I'd like to cook for a guy.   Shows off my culinary prowess.  Cook him something spectacular and he'll not find you easily replaceable.  There's also a level of comfort and security in having a partner that can cook.

The best is when you cook a meal together - it can help to create bonding if you two work well together in the kitchen, and can highlight issues that may need to be addressed later if you don't.  Kinda like ballroom dancing. 

3. Pro - It's culture, it's art, it's a hobby.  And it's dying.

As expressed in the Snopes article, as women became better educated and began spending more time on hobbies, jobs, and activities outside the home, they were spending less time in the kitchen.  Many family recipes were forgotten and the days of spending hours slaving away over a hot stove were replaced with one dish meals and heat & eat foods.  Much of this I do totally understand and can fully appreciate - especially with the modern household having a myriad of activities per child and often both parents working, it's a miracle if a family can even sit down to a meal together.  Macaroni & cheese is great and nothing to be scoffed at.  But there were many times growing up that I recall the the disappointment I'd feel sitting down to tuna noodle casserole again. I understand that it was a quick meal made with shelf-stable ingredients, and even Nigella Lawson (my chef-crush) points out that her children eat pasta & pesto for dinner far more often than she'd like to admit. So, quick, simple prep meals definitely have their place, but there's something in the anticipation and excitement that grows from smelling something simmering away that just can't be beat.

I wish I had Papa's potato pancake recipe.  And Grandma's Hungarian Goulash & Chop Suey recipes.  I learned to cook amazing scrambled eggs by being Papa's "counter sitter" - he'd sit me up on the counter every Saturday morning and I'd help him prepare breakfast.  Those were some of my favorite memories and they taught me skills I've used ever since.

4. Mixed - The Hunt

Finding the right recipe is as exhilarating as it is infuriating.  You can read ingredients and instructions, you can look at photos, but sometimes it can still be hard to imagine the final product.  Simply trying to decide on what to cook can end up being a rather frustrating affair.  But sometimes it can be extremely gratifying - spending hours pouring through cookbooks or perusing pinterest in order to find the perfect recipe. 

Then comes ingredient acquisition - this part I don't much care for.  It can get expensive and frustrating, especially when you're counting on the store to carry something and it isn't there.  I still have some hangups about ordering ingredients through the internet, like they won't be as fresh as things I procure locally.  Or the cut of meat I'm looking for isn't available.  We have a pretty good local grocery selection with amazing grocery stores only a half an hour or so away, but fitting in a trip to the store seems to be a major issue for me. 

Also, sometimes by the time I get back from the store and get all my groceries put away I'm too tired and hungry to cook.  And that suuucks. 

5. Con - The Perfection

As aforementioned I am a perfectionist.  But I'm not a chef.  I don't cook every day.  My knife skills are learned from The Food Network.  Sometimes I misunderstand a recipe or technique, or despite my best efforts I screw something up, like mixing in the whites instead of the yolks, or forgetting an ingredient altogether.  As most of the dishes I currently make need to travel, finer points of flavor and texture can be lost in transit.  I usually end up apologizing for why my cooking isn't better, even if I know it's just fine as it is.  Or even if I know it could possibly be better.

A few days ago I started looking for recipes for lobster bisque, as that's one of my boyfriend's favorite foods.  When reading a clone recipe for a NYC hotel lobster bisque that was proclaimed to be amazing, I found that the recipe it was meant to emulate had a stock that took 7 days to prepare through careful seasoning and reduction.  7 days.  Seriously.  I then found myself thinking "wow, if I want this to be REALLY good, that's what I need to do."  I seriously considered spending 7 days making my house smell like a dock just in order to serve one bowl of soup to my boyfriend.  That's when I realized my OCD was getting a bit out of hand.  I also realized this when he declared the salty and vaguely lobster flavored pink goop served by Joe's Crab Shack to be superior to the bisque served by Mitchell's Fish Market, which was infused with wine, had visible lobster, and I thought was rather lovely. 

Moral of the story - most people aren't chefs.  I shouldn't feel threatened by that.  But yet, somehow, I do. And I will go to great lengths to prove to everyone that I can create a perfect dish. 

6. Con - My sense of self worth.

Tied into #5, is my fear of judgement.  Again with the feeling like less of a woman for bringing in a less than perfect dish.  Or from cutting a corner.  Or because people on pinterest seem like they're perpetually cranking out hand decorated hordes of delightful foodstuffs, expertly styled, and greedily gobbled up by their guests.  I feel like I need to compete on that level, like it's something that will score me invitations to additional events or make me friends.

There's also an element of a need to be different.  Not just because I can safely assume that someone else will be bringing buffalo chicken dip so I'd like for there to be a non-dip option, or something with a very different flavor or texture profile to bring variety, but because I want to be the person that has the dish that everybody wants to try.  Like, going home with no leftovers because it was all scooped up success.  I don't want to be cheese-based dip #3 person.  I don't want to be the person that shows up with something they clearly purchased on the way there.  I want to be the Martha Freaking Stewart of the party.  I don't often feel that my company is enough, so I like to supplement that.  That need is currently manifesting through food.

7. Pro - Self Sufficiency

I kinda like the idea of making things from scratch.  I like the idea that I'm not 100% dependent on the local grocery should something happen.  I grow some things myself, but I like the idea that I can put together meals without a recipe or without some brand name box.  Flour, salt, sugar, pepper, eggs, water, milk, and oil; some kind of protein, and some kind of veg and I can create something magnificent. 

You'll see desire to avoid going to the store as a common item on this list, but if I can make something at home rather than going out to purchase it, that'll win me over 90% of the time.  Like, oh, sriracha is being taken off the market?  That's fine I'll just make my own.

8.  Pro - I live in a foodie black hole.

My hometown is pretty much down to just a handful of non-chain restaurants, and they almost all serve typical American fare.  If I want anything ethnic I either have to drive a minimum of half an hour or make it myself.  So if I want to try something different, I usually have to make it myself.

I threw a Russian themed party once that required trips to 3 different stores, weeks of menu planning, filleting & pickling my own herring, and two days of cooking to create a myriad of traditional Russian fare.  Both my Russian and American guests alike loved it and the sense of accomplishment I gained from that experience were fantastic (not just the food, but the party as a while was a wild success).  I live for those moments. 

Reason 812 - It's how I show my love.

As we've established, I put a lot of who I am into what I make.  So I want it to be perfect.  I want everybody to love it because I want everyone to love me.  I feel victorious when I perfectly bake and frost two completely different cakes from scratch and load them into their special carriers and imagine their unveiling later.  I feel appreciated when my dishes get a crowd around them and people begin asking me for my recipe. 

I'm not always good at telling people that I care about them and want them to be happy.  I think actions speak louder than words.  I show my love through gifts, time spent together, and acts of service.  Cooking encompasses all three.  So it's gotten out of hand to the point where I feel if whatever I present isn't overly ornate and time consuming I'm selling everyone short.  And it's making me snobbish too.  Like, 'oh, you made cinnamon rolls too?  I made cinnamon rolls.  Yes, I hand ground my own cinnamon with bark I imported directly from Vietnam so the oils would be fresh.  Yes, fie on you and your plebeian cinnamon.' I feel like I'm not too far from becoming "that chick" if I'm not already. 

So, I think that's a pretty well rounded look at why I love and sometimes hate cooking.  I make it way too hard on myself but I love the fact that I do hold myself to high standards. I know people will still like me if I'm not a super chef, but I feel like it definitely makes me more likeable.  It helps me curb my desire to binge eat by still spending time obsessing over food, but more with the art of it all than the consumption.  I get carried away with it.  It's a hobby, but not one that ends up taking up space in the closet.  I don't know and I've probably rambled on too much at this point. 

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