Perfectionist cooking paralysis.

I’m having a problem with perfectionism – namely, when it comes to writing. I can think of ideas for posts, but I can’t make them exhaustive enough, or perfectly researched enough, or even typo-free enough to bother writing at all. This partially explains why I’ll go over a month (two months?) without posting.

Part of it is due to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Part of it is due to fear of criticism and wanting to cover all my bases. But all that aside, the bottom line here is perfectionism. I hold myself to an impossibly high standard, for various reasons internal and external, and ultimately it results in a mash-up of writing things I think are good, and writing absolutely nothing at all.


Good segue, huh?

Transparent as this attempt at breaking my writer’s block by writing about my writer’s block may be, it is absolutely true. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen perfectionist cooking paralysis in my people.

Often those who are the best, most skilled, and most passionate cooks are also those who cannot bear to set foot in the kitchen, except for sporadic episodes of party-induced panic-cooking, in which they exhaust themselves by making pasta from scratch in quantities large enough to feed a stable of pubescent Olympic swimmers. The rest of the time? It’s Rice-a-Roni-athons and Pizza Hut.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Rice-a-Roni and Pizza Hut – they make a lovely addition to an otherwise varied diet and will let you survive in a pinch – but when it turns into months or even years of the same no-cook delights because you are feeling paralyzed and resentful about the prospect of making actual food in your kitchen, it can get rather dreary. Demoralizing, even.

And this is where I become a cheerleader for mediocre cooking.

Don’t get me wrong – I adore fancy food, and will eat it every chance I get. But I do not adore spending hours in the kitchen (if you do, I will gladly come to your house and eat your food – leave address in comments), especially when I’m hungry, have worked all day, and my feet are tired.

I have flat feet, a tendency toward low blood sugar, and a mood disorder so trust.

If I have to face the prospect of 6pm with an hour or more of cooking ahead of me, there are two possible outcomes: either it’s not going to happen at all, or someone’s going to get hurt. And it won’t be me.

Out of desperation, I have developed a repertoire of what I think of as Level Two and Level Three meals. Let me explain.

Level One is as close to absolutely no effort as one can reasonably get and still eat. This may vary somewhat from person to person, but for me Level One is ordering pizza, eating a bowl of cereal, or having cheese and crackers – maybe, possibly, in the extreme outward edges of Level One, preparing a box of Kraft Dinner or a frozen boxed casserole with nothing on the side. (Level Zero is having someone else cook the food, bring it to you on the couch, and possibly spoon-feed you.)

At this point, it’s subsistence-level eating. It will get you through, and you should probably plan to do this a couple times a week on purpose, but it’s no way to live for months or years at a time.

Level Five would be making a reasonably complex meal, or trying a totally new and unfamiliar recipe. From there, you’d work your way up through levels that include cooking increasingly complex meals with multiple dishes, to basic holiday fare for a crowd, to high-pressure dinner party where you are cooking fancy things for several people.

Maybe Level 10 would be head chef in a gourmet restaurant, cooking incredibly fancy things for many, many people – I really don’t know because from where I stand it is basically terra incognita.

Here be dragons

Levels Two and Three, then, would encompass meals that are partially homemade and partially pre-prepared, or meals that are entirely homemade but easy enough that you can put them together in half an hour or so, or one-pot meals that take longer due to slow-cooking, but require little effort outside the assembly stage.

It would also include meals that require some basic pre-prep (taking out something to thaw or soaking beans the night before, or making a simple marinade in the morning), but are not difficult to cook.

The reason for this system (who am I kidding – it’s not really a system, it is totally something I made up on the spot while talking with a client) is to assess where the gaps in your cooking repertoire are. Because those of you who can’t bear to set foot in the kitchen may only have recipes at Levels One and Eight. Black-and-white. All-or-nothing.

See where I’m going with this?

On a weeknight, most human people will not be able to countenance more than an hour of cooking. (And if it’s an hour, part of that hour should probably be spent with something in the oven that you don’t have to baby along.)

This is okay, really. If you are one of the lucky few who love spending more than an hour in the kitchen on a weeknight, then you may safely ignore everything I say in this post. Go forth and be happy – but I beg of you, don’t be a snob about it. Just enjoy your gift.

Because I don’t put massive amounts of pressure on myself to cook elaborate meals on a nightly basis, I paradoxically end up cooking more than I otherwise would, and, I suspect, more than a lot of people. Except for periodic seasons in the abyss, when it’s sufficient to survive at levels zero and one, I’m a pretty reliable cook.

I also get huge enjoyment out of cooking corny American staples, so that is reflected in my repertoire.

In the next post I am actually going to share with you a few of the things I regularly cook. Some are recipes, and some are just concepts that don’t require a recipe. Fair warning though: no serious food criticism allowed. None of it is fancy, and this blog is a food-shame-free zone.

I want people to feel comfortable enough to share their own cooking, at any level. So don’t be snotty, but also: if someone cooks fancier things than you, don’t be bitter about it. I won’t be hosting Mommy Wars, The Sequel: My Cooking [Or Lack Of Cooking] Makes Me Better Than You.

We all start at different places, and some people like cooking more than others, or have more practice at it. Some people don’t like it, or don’t care about it, or just don’t know how. That is okay. There’s no reason for any competition or comparison judgments – you start where you are.

Where other people are has no bearing on your place, other than to encourage or inspire you – and in my case, maybe amuse you.

See you soon.

Mud wrestling in comments.

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