Chapter 5.Culture: Food


On Not Being Able To Cook Very Well

In so many areas of life, it’s easy to feel desperate that we have failed to live up to our own expectations.

We are evidently not beautiful enough, rich enough, intelligent enough, kind enough or clever enough. And, of course, in this context, nor are we anything like the sort of cooks we should be. We’ve seen the lovely illustrations in the glossy books, we may have equipped our kitchens with the right implements and crockery sets; we know a lot of people with hugely impressive culinary skills: we know how it all ought to be. And yet, our own efforts quite markedly fail to rise up to the requisite standards. We feel ashamed and sorrowful about just how bad we are at cooking.

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This sort of tragic gap between how we want to be and how we are was of great interest to the pioneering child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He was struck by the way that many very well-intentioned, sincere and decent parents would come to his consulting room in distress. They were paralysed by the fear that they were doing so many things wrong in bringing up their children. They felt disgusted with themselves and as a result, were unable to enjoy their roles or make even modest improvements to their techniques. To help these parents, Winnicott developed a concept that he called the ‘good enough’ parent.

Of course, parents would make mistakes, he reassured, but these were almost always far from serious. A child – he argued – doesn’t need a perfect parent anyway, they just need an often kind, sometimes muddled, generally well-meaning and real human being, in other words, a good enough parent.

A similar attack on vicious perfectionism needs to happen around food. We have been tortured for too long by images of ideal meals. We have come to hate our efforts, despise ourselves and refuse to let other people taste what we make – because we are haunted by glossy ideals. The desire to cook very well indeed has fatefully undermined our capacity to take pride in the quite decent, sometimes charming and at other points really quite wonky results we are capable of.

And yet, despite all our insecurities and occasional kitchen fiascos, as Winnicott would surely have told us, we are ‘good enough’ cooks already. In the greater scheme, it doesn’t matter at all that our meat is often over-cooked, our pasta is seldom al-dente and our cakes look nothing like they should.

This section is a guide to, and celebration of something that almost never makes it into cookbooks but is infinitely more important than the visions of manicured perfection they tease us with: flawed but good enough cooking and eating.

1. I just can’t cook!

It can’t be true.

A self-described inability to cook is always relative to some internal vision of what ‘cooking’ means. A real cook, we tell ourselves, makes their own mayonnaise, they have a special way of washing and drying lettuce, they are obsessive about the quality of the knives they use; they always follow recipes precisely or they have invented their own wonderful variations; they have a store cupboard full of things they prepared; they know how to break bread, they can make a souffle rise; they know a great deal about the quality of ingredients, and go to special shops to find exactly the right things; they don’t get stressed in the kitchen; when they cook a chicken, the breast meat never goes dry.

By this standard, of course we can’t cook.

But we can. We can cook all sorts of things that are absolutely lovely to eat – even if we don’t get them perfectly right. A fried egg is still delicious, even if it goes a little crisp around the edges or if the yoke gets a bit over-cooked. We can still enjoy eating our pesto-pasta even if we did forget to salt the boiling water before putting in the pasta (and some of it stuck to the bottom of the pan when we drained it). These dishes, and thousands more like it, are hugely tolerant of a bit of erroneous handling. Like a good friend, they won’t hold our slight mistakes against us. The ultimate goal is simply that we enjoy our meal.

What we’re doing here isn’t just about cooking. We’re telling ourselves a more universal truth, via our modest adventures in the kitchen. The idea of being good enough is one that can be helpfully invoked in so many areas: there’s the good enough marriage; the good enough job or the good enough holiday. A demanding vision of perfection isn’t an avenue to great results or a better life: it is, on the contrary, pretty much a guarantee that we’ll be and feel like failures. Our imperfectly seared, slightly unevenly cooked and in places plain charred piece of chicken is a grand symbol of a big idea: a wise accommodation with the imperfect nature of reality.

2. Am I allowed to order in?

To go by most cookbooks, the idea of ordering in simply doesn’t exist, not even as a concept. This is what barbarians and infidels might do after sacking a city.

But of course, ordering in has a hugely legitimate and noble place within the repertoire of the ordinary good enough home cook. Knowing when not to cook is a skill requiring as much self-belief and emotional maturity as cooking itself.

For a start, in order to order in, we need to learn to like ourselves – and accept that sometimes, we deserve to let others help us. We have to come to terms with the concept of dependence – and the legitimacy of our own feelings of exhaustion. Perhaps we’ve simply done enough for now and need to let the Star of India or the Jade Garden do the work for a while. Asking for help, realising that one can’t cope alone, is at times a genuinely wise piece of self-knowledge. We’re admitting to ourselves – and a lot in our past might have made it this very hard – that we can be tired, or fed up, or depleted and that these needn’t be signs that we’re shirking or lazy. Perhaps we’ve had a reversal in our love life, perhaps work has been extremely taxing, perhaps we couldn’t sleep last night… When we go to the door and take a bag from a helmeted bike-delivery person, we’re inducted to a general idea: we’re entitled sometimes to be looked after. We can from time to time skip on certain duties and still be acceptable, honourable human beings.

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We should feel no less ashamed to admit our weaknesses to others. Imagine that some old friends are coming round and – theoretically – we’d love to prepare something wonderful to charm and impress them. But we are exhausted and weepy. We want nothing more than to curl up in bed and be held. What should we do? We’re operating under the punishing idea that our friends will like us only if we perform at our very best, which here might mean unveiling a home cooked pie or roast lemon and thyme chicken with triumph and composure. But we’re forgetting something crucial to friendship. Our friends like us despite, and in fact almost because of our failings, weakness, incapacities and imperfections. Being flawless would only serve to threaten and intimidate them. They would far rather connect with our vulnerability than be awed by our superiority. Being impressive can win one admiration; being it’s revealing our broken ordinary selves that is the only way to create proper friendships. We should dare to take our friends into our darkened kitchen, dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, with tear stains around our eyes (we’ll be ready to explain to them soon), and declare without embarrassment that a large bag is currently on its way from Memories of China. That is, in the deepest sense, the beginning of true hospitality.

3. What do we do with leftovers?

The standard answer is to tip them into the bin. Like much that is flawed, imperfect and less-than-acceptable about human existence.

But the good enough cook knows that leftovers are a fundamental part of the weekly diet. Viewed with sufficient creativity and free spiritedness, there is something especially beguiling about cold curry, congealed steak, gelatinous beans and last night’s half-eaten roast tomatoes.

The pleasure isn’t just that they taste nice (often nicer than the first time around); such dishes are hinting at a bigger theme: the way that something which has been rejected can in the right circumstances, become central and impressive. In religion, this idea crops up in the Gospel of St Matthew. In one of the parable stories, Jesus declares that ‘the stone that the builders have rejected will become the cornerstone.’ What he means is that ‘leftover’ people who are so often regarded as unworthy – the meek, the poor, the untalented – will one day have a completely different place in the Kingdom of God, where the secret merits of their souls will be properly recognized.

The idea stretches way beyond religion. In our own lives too, we can sometimes see that low prestige things (the ‘leftovers’ of the predominant culture) can turn out to be lovely if we give them a chance. It might, for instance, seem that no-one could ever really want to go on holiday with their elderly aunt in a caravan. But it can be enormously pleasurable to spend time in an ingenious compact mobile home in unexplored bits of the landscape with an aunt who, even though she dyes her hair badly and wears rather unflattering clothes, turns out to have very interesting past and intriguing views on literature and politics. Generosity of imagination is what we will all need someone to apply to us one day. We too will, at some point, be a ‘left over’, a slightly dispiriting item in the back of the cupboard of life – and we too will need others to come along and know how to perceive our potential beneath the unprepossessing exterior.

When we make a pleasing meal the next day out of the things that were unwanted late last night, we’re enacting one of the profoundest themes of existence: redemption.  

4. Can I eat the children’s food?

It can seem slightly ridiculous for an adult to want to eat things that have been specially prepared for a child. In a restaurant, we’d probably be too embarrassed to choose something for ourselves from the kids menu; we have to suppress our curiosity about the smiley face pizza or the plate of soup with animal crackers. But secretly we may be very charmed by the soft textures, mild flavours and funny shapes.

Our attraction isn’t merely linked to taste: through such foods, we’re hovering around distant (but powerful) memories of being little: when we were cared for and looked after, when we had no responsibilities, when we were deeply loved just for existing, when we could be thrilled by a snowfall or a puddle, when people carried us if we got tired, when we didn’t have complicated emotional drives and rather dark bodily urges.

There’s a benign kind of regression – activated by certain foods – in which we can reconnect with what was lovely and good about our early childhoods. We are back in touch with our warm readiness to be loved; our enthusiasm for simple things; our sense of trust and admiration; our hopefulness. We’re not becoming five again, but thanks to a mini-burger or alphabet spaghetti, we’re letting the best parts of who we were in childhood enter into dialogue with the more forbidding, complicated and sadder creatures we have become.

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Eating off our own children’s plates is also confirmation of the deep ties of loyalty and love that connect us to our offspring. When they have run off to play in the garden and we are left at table (too tired as yet to start clearing up), we might reach over and munch on the bit of sausage smeared with tomato sauce they abandoned on the side of their plate; we’ll eat the remains of their sandwich or finish an apple they’ve taken three bites from or finish the remainder of a half-eaten fish finger. Such things would be very disgusting if we did them in a work canteen or if, on a plane, we stretched over and scooped up the remains of a ham sandwich on the tray of the stranger sitting next to us. But around our children, such picking becomes an act of precious intimacy. We’re demonstrating our closeness by eating no just the same kind of food, but the very same bits of food, complete with their teeth imprints.

And for the child who comes in and sees us devouring the last of their beans or mousse, it’s perhaps rather lovely to witness their parent wanting what’s on their plate so badly: the child can see that they have something the parent really wants – when too often, it is the child who is envious of the parent’s possessions: the electric saw they’re not allowed to touch; the car they can’t possibly drive, the credit card the adult waves in shops. For a moment, in the company of fishfingers or mashed avocado, the hierarchy is nicely reversed and it’s the child’s situation that is established as infinitely more appealing and profound.  

5. Dare I be a bit bad?

Of course there are people who should try a lot harder to be good. But for most of us, the problem lies elsewhere: we’re already very predisposed to making our best efforts, we’re dutiful and responsible, ready to abide by the rules and devoted to trying to do the right thing. Indeed, we’ve grown a little sick from trying so hard to measure up.

Our culture generally isn’t very good at lessening the strain on an already severe conscience and allowing the less righteous sides of a personality some freedom.  At the root of its moralism is a thesis about the relationship between justice and effort: if we are good we will be rewarded. If we work hard, our careers will flourish; if we are polite and modest we’ll have nice friends. If we are kind, we will find love. And if we regulate our diets in all the ways experts tell us we’ll be healthy and live a long time.

It’s a powerful idea, stemming originally from a religious belief that virtue will be rewarded in the eyes of God. But in reality life does not reliably live up to this vision of justice. Our efforts don’t routinely result in us getting what we want. We put in long hours but the company we work for gets into difficulty because of an ill-judged expansion in Eastern Europe with which we had nothing to do – and we are sacked. Or we try hard to listen to our partner, but our sex-life withers all the same and we end up in a divorce; or a friend who was very careful around what they ate still got cancer and died  before their thirty-fifth birthday.

Our bet on the link between being good and getting our just reward doesn’t reliably pay off. It’s not surprising and should indeed be celebrated that, at times, we get fed up with self-abnegation and the frustration of our promises. We’re not simply weakening: we’re making a proper protest against the injustice of reality. We’re not going to go off the rails entirely: but if we’re occasionally naughty and strategically ‘bad’, we’re acknowledging a darker fact about existence: effort, sadly, is no guarantee of a good outcome.

The occasional indulgence around food is making (to put it in a usefully grand way) a metaphysical statement: the cosmos is not a moral machine. We’re accepting a tragic dimension in life: the person who does the right thing can still meet with a grim fate. We should, at points, knowing that the good can die young and the talented fail, deeply enjoy the pleasures of ‘bad foods.’

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6. In praise of the dish that goes wrong

Instead of being a deep, bright runny yellow, our scrambled eggs are pale and flakey; instead of reaching the plate as a whole, firm slice, the salmon has flaked off into a dozen messy fragments; the crust of our pie doesn’t rise into a neat glowing dome but sags anaemically.

We might be tempted to throw it all away. But we shouldn’t. As we enjoy these apparently woeful meals we’re signaling an important general truth to ourselves: something can be wrong and look and sound a little awful and still be perfectly good enough.

Most recipes don’t tell you how to make sure that a pastry crust goes soggy, or how to ensure that a soup that’s meant to be clear can be made to turn out cloudy. But perhaps they should.

By openly embarking on cooking projects that are likely to turn out rather badly (judged by an ideal standard), but are still actually good enough to eat, we are forcibly – and usefully – keeping ourselves in touch with the profound truth that we can fail by the standards of an overly-ambitious world – and yet still be fine and on some days truly happy.

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