I’ve become a fair to middling cook in the last year, due to repetition. Chopping, mincing, sautéing, grilling. Watching how heat changes and destroys something. Learning to control the destruction. That’s what cooking is. Controlled destruction.
It’s tactile. If you mainly work with words and other brain figments, attempting to distill air into digital bits that will be inked on a pulverized tree weeks or months down the road, or left as bits, doing something tactile and physical is welcome. The simpler tasks in preparing food can be meditative and unwind a worded-up brain much like drinking alcohol. You’re doing something with your hands that’s tangible and multisensory. It can start and end in the same slice of day. It produces a result that you can hold and taste, one that hits the first slab on the Maslow pyramid. Cooking is what writing isn’t.
In other ways, they’re too metaphorically similar for comfort. In both you make something and hope it’ll be consumed and enjoyed and held long in the stomach. Hot is best. Fresh is best. You can taste when something’s been pulled from the icebox. Leftovers bring unpleasant decisions. When you can’t eat them and you can’t throw them out, you get a tincture of the feeling of being hopelessly in debt. Just a few atoms of that feeling. It would be smarter to throw the leftovers out now. You have a few in the icebox that are older than your nephews. All of whom are in their thirties.
At my rudimentary level of cooking literacy, I take stabs at reverse engineering the superior or poor outcomes. For example, the pork loin chops were succulent last week but today I’ve got a plate full of hatchet heads. Everything seemed identical. Same meat, same fire, same duration, same weather, same rub, same handling, same process. Vastly different results. Science says I’ve missed something fundamental; one or more variables I didn’t identify were indeed different. The humidity, the wind, or the constitution of the muscle, bone and fat I set 3.5 inches above red-glowing carbon.
Someone further along than myself, who has spent another five thousand hours working animal cuts into a meal, would know what was different. It’s likely a simple thing. They might find it laughably obvious. That is like writing.
I’ve made the pork loin maybe 20 times. I have a theory that you need to do something 50 times to achieve reliable competence. Not mastery, but a reliable, useable result that will satisfy for most purposes. Like the 80-20 rule, I think this applies to nearly everything. Pork chops. Stand up comedy. Bike repair. Catching quarters stacked on your elbow. Selling a car. A card trick. Heart surgery. Walking tight ropes. Programming a complicated function. Learning a difficult phrase in a foreign language. Sex. Flying a 767. Juggling. Filling a cavity. Cutting hair.
Do it 50 times on your own and you’ll do it passably well. Raw amateurs may think you’re an expert, and experts will think you’ve got the basics down. The wholly uninitiated won’t know the difference.
An integral part of this is fucking up. Making glaring errors. Looking imbecilic to those raw amateurs and the wholly uninitiated, including yourself. This is painful, because you’ll feel like a baby trying to operate a nuclear reactor. All witnesses will find you amusing or worrisome or pathetic, maybe so bad it’s good, and you’ll need to suffer this.
One way to struggle through this is to surround yourself with other neophytes. Like, say, in a cooking class. This might help you feel less alone—we can all look like asses together—but it probably won’t do much to shut off your internal critic. Not if you care even a little about what you’re trying to learn.
A second way is to struggle in private. With the Internet, that’s never been easier. You can watch a video in seclusion and stuff sausage casings, pluck awkward strings on your guitar or draw crude outlines on your easel until you’re producing something that’s as minimally embarrassing as you need it to be. However, you’ll be quickly reminded that mixing glassy technology with a frustrating act will put your internal critic on the 10,000-amp P.A. system in your head. And he will get profane.
When you’re dealing with food, specifically food you’re making for other people, you can rarely hide your fuck ups. And you get to experience them twice. First during the active fuck up and again when you see dead-straight eyes and straining jaw muscles.
With writing, you get to experience your mistakes eternally. They stay with you. All you can do is keep making more.