Respect Among Cooks

Jumping off of the recent Cook’s Illustrated kerfluffle, my on-going obsession with recipes and their role in cooking, and, coincidentally, Kate’s post about food blasphemy (I swear I didn’t steal this idea from her.), I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of respecting other people’s tastes and cooking methods.

Most Americans are lucky enough to afford whatever food they want, so food has become more than just sustenance to us. Cooking and eating have become a creative outlet, entertainment and a status symbol. Food is marketed the same way fashion and cosmetics have been marketed for decades. Cooking magazines have “What’s In, What’s Out” columns. Like hairdressers in the 60s, chefs have become stars, where previously they worked mostly in anonymity. Restaurants sell an experience as much as they sell food. How else to explain a restaurant where customers eat in total darkness? As a result, food is no longer a part of living, it’s a lifestyle.

I spend a lot of time on food blogs. Most of the time, there’s a lot of friendly discussion and exchange of ideas on these blogs, and it’s like one, big, happy food-loving family. But I also frequent blogs where fights break out on a regular basis. It’s the snobs against the cretins. People who always make their own stock vs. people who use canned. Roast chicken vs. molecular gastronomy (a conversation I got myself embroiled in, adamantly on the side of roast chicken, and most certainly on the side of those who believe traditional cooking is still relevant).

I won’t even try to deny that I’m strident in my opinions about food. There are some things that appall me – gourmet pizza, mayonnaise on a hamburger, sugar in red sauce, Cool Whip, and ranch dressing. (Seriously, I wish someone could explain this country’s fascination with ranch dressing. I think it’s vile. The turkey, bacon and guacamole sub we ordered at Quizno’s included ranch dressing. When we said we didn’t want it, the people behind the counter looked at us like we had lobsters coming out of our ears. Here in Durham, wings – which are already of questionable quality – come with ranch dressing instead of blue cheese. If you ask for blue cheese, the server brings you ranch dressing too.)

I’m Woody Allen in Annie Hall, who nearly has an aneurysm when Diane Keaton orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise. There was a time when something like that would have sent me on a tirade. I once gave a friend of ours a five minute speech after watching him put sugar on his pizza. I believe it started with “What the hell are you doing?”

However, these days I keep that approaching aneurysm to myself. I’ve seen my own taste and cooking methods vehemently criticized on some of the food blogs I visit. I’m not embarrassed to say that the criticism hurt. Not because someone disagreed with me, but because of the way it was expressed. It didn’t matter to me that it was just some stranger on the internet. Being publicly insulted upsets me. There’s a way to disagree with someone, and essentially saying “you’re an idiot for doing it this way and you suck” isn’t it. That got me thinking about how my own rants made other people feel. It can’t have been good. No one wants to have their worth as a human being questioned because of something they like.

Due to my chronic back problems, I’m not always able to make dinner, and I’ve been teaching Logan how to cook. At first I hovered over him, even though I was supposed to be resting, repeating “no, no, no, don’t do that” so many times I think he started to believe “no, no, no” was his first name. He did need some guidance, and we had to start somewhere, but I got a little carried away with insisting he do it my way, even as he became more comfortable making his own decisions. When he got over his biggest hurdle, which was understanding how flavors work together, I started to back off, mostly letting him do his thing. We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes, and over the years he’s been gracious enough to suffer through my experiments. The least I could do was give him the same consideration. And the man is a natural at cooking. Maybe it’s because he’s almost entirely right-brained. At any rate, I generally leave him to his own devices now. When he needs help, he asks.

Who wouldn’t like to have someone cook for them, when that person is someone who knows how to cook and loves doing it? No one except a cranky control freak-in-the-kitchen who’s pissed off because she can’t always do it herself, that’s who. My friend B. has been staying with us for several months. Just thinking about sharing my kitchen with someone else freaks me out. Having to actually do it was…a learning process, shall we say.

I wanted her to feel at home, and that included her not thinking she had to ask when she wanted to cook something. But I wanted her to cook like I do. Except she doesn’t. We have the same basic attitude about cooking – simple food, fresh ingredients. But her methods differ from mine, and it was all I could do to not tell her she was doing something wrong. I mean, it was crazy, because she doesn’t do anything wrong. She just does it differently. I cook chops on the stove, she does them in the oven. I make biscuits from a recipe, she just throws stuff in a bowl. She puts peas in salads, and I would never have done that, because I’ve always hated peas. (A duh moment: Fresh peas and canned peas are two completely different things. I don’t hate peas anymore.)

I’ve come to terms with having other people in my kitchen, using their own techniques, and we’ve had some great meals as a result. Who makes dinner changes from one night to the next, depending on who’s in the mood; among the three of us, we manage to have a good, healthy dinner most nights. Occasionally we order a pizza, or Logan works late, and B. and I decide to have popcorn and cookies for dinner while we smoke cigarettes and watch 100 episodes of Law & Order.

It’s just about respect. When you criticize what people eat and how they cook, you’re also criticizing who they are and where they came from. You’re likely dissing someone’s mama, and that’s never OK.

I usually take the middle ground these days. I might not like what someone else likes, and I might think my cooking techniques are the best. I’m still going to think “how could anyone put mayonnaise on a cheeseburger? It’s fracking gross.” But I keep my mouth shut, because no one should be forced to justify their likes and dislikes to me.