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Keep It Simple
Back to January - February 2023
This year for Thanksgiving, I cooked my turkey the Butterball way—at 325°F. I didn’t brine, salt, baste, lard, bard, deep-fry, stuff, spatchcock, braise, roast high/low or low/high. I have been asked why, since there are so many more interesting methods, and my answer is that I wanted to keep Thanksgiving simple. I wanted to enjoy family, play Scrabble in the afternoon and enjoy a meal that was stress-free. Last year, I cranked up the Big Green Egg, which worked well enough, but I felt like I was running a relay race between the kitchen and my backyard.
This experience, of course, begs a grander discussion—what exactly are we trying to achieve? We can search for perfection—the best method—an enterprise I have devoted most of my life to. It is a bit like trying to understand what existed before the Big Bang; you have to posit theories and test them out in the kitchen. Does blanching potatoes make better french fries? Does adding baking soda to tomato sauce work better than sugar in reducing acidity? Does melted butter make a chewier chocolate chip cookie? For someone who is curious and who loves to eat, it’s a good life.
Years ago, I ordered vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce and was enjoying every gooey frozen lava bite until the person I was with took a taste and opined that the ice cream was second-rate. That, I thought, was not the point. Perfection was off the table. What was on the table was reliving a childhood pleasure that had more to do with memory and mouthfeel than the provenance of the ice cream itself.
The kitchen offers up every possible experience, from dry, overcooked chicken to a tender, perfect crème anglaise. In his book “Provence, 1970,” Luke Barr describes a famous dinner party at La Pitchoune, Julia Child’s house in Provence, attended by James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher and Richard Olney. Child roasted the chicken, and it turned out undercooked, yet the party continued on without a hitch. Over the years I have collected stories of home cooks who made horrendous substitutions—including Comet cleaner for Kraft grated Parmesan; shrimp for chicken; Ex-Lax for chocolate; toothpaste for mint; shredded coconut for noodles; catnip for oregano; tuna can water for fish sauce; baking soda for cornstarch; and Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenges for Fleischmann’s Yeast. And, yet, each of these kitchen missteps turned into happy memories.
Those of us who labor in the world of recipes and restaurants seek a form of perfection, but the home kitchen never judges harshly. Just stepping into the kitchen and turning on the oven is an act of social engagement, a commitment to family values. Before the oil hits the pan, we have demonstrated a cupful of human kindness.
Never let fear of failure hold you back. Remember that even Julia Child undercooked the chicken. Try to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie, but enjoy the failures along the way. Invite the best cook you know over for dinner and make hot dogs. (Any famous chef I know would be forever grateful.) Dream about the perfect cheesecake, but cover it with lemon curd if it cracks. If your turkey is dry, make extra gravy. If you char the steak, slice it thin and whip up a quick sauce of Worcestershire and butter (or miso).
It’s OK. As your husband, father or child; as your neighbor or co-worker, as your grandparent or friend, we appreciate your effort, the warmth of the oven, the glass of wine and the conversation.
Once you step into the kitchen, you already are a cook.