Monday, February 10, 2014

Making Good Mac & Cheese

A few weeks ago, Mum was lamenting to me over the phone that she can't make macaroni and cheese.

She had just tried to do that for dinner and, according to her, it was TERRIBLE. She bought Velveeta cheese, thought it was going to be this lovely, creamy dish, and apparently it was awful and even the noodles didn't cook up right. Despite the cost and the work involved, she was giving leftovers to the dog.

"I just can't make macaroni like you," she said. "You can do that simple one pot kind and it's perfect--when I try it, it's always terrible."

She's right, I make pretty damn good mac and cheese. And not just one type, either. See, mac and cheese was my favourite food as a kid--still is the ultimate comfort food for me. I have a dozen different types, including: the cheap, one pot dish I cook in a dutch oven with a cheese soup base that makes enough food to feed an army; the gourmet kind I bake in the oven with various cheeses and a savory breadcrumb topping; the quick vegan kind with cashews; the time consuming vegan one with homemade aged cashew cheese; ones with veggie bacon, or roasted garlic, or broccoli, or a cayenne kick. And while I've browsed recipes for inspiration, I've never, ever used one directly while making one of these dishes.

I am the mac and cheese QUEEN. I could feed you a different type every day of the week without you getting sick of it.

Was I born with magic cooking genes? Is it all the virgin blood I add to the sauce in the name of the Dark Lord?

The thing I immediately thought of when Mum was complaining was all the times I've made mac and cheese that fucking SUCKED. Overcooked noodles. Not enough salt. Getting dried out in the oven. Having the wrong butter-breadcrumbs ratio.

I'm single now, and when I lived with someone for years, he wasn't home much. I've cooked a lot for myself, which meant no performance anxiety. The only person eating the food is me, so when it sucks, I shout FUCK, eat it anyway, and file away the experience as a lesson for next time. Mum's not a bad cook, she just doesn't cook from scratch as often as I do because she doesn't enjoy it, so she doesn't have the same amount of experience I do. She doesn't know what consistency to aim for, what it smells like when the cheese has browned just right in the oven, and she wouldn't dare add smoked paprika. But she still compares her practice efforts with the result of YEARS of experience fucking up the dish on my part.

Do you see where I'm going with this, writers?

You read a book sometimes and it's like OMG. It's a fucking revelation. The prose is stunning, the characterization is a work of art, and then, THEN, there was that plot twist that just wrenched your heart and made you sob.

And then you look at yours. My GOD, is that thing ever ugly. Every word just looks wrong. And it seems to SMELL. Like, really, there's an odor coming from your laptop every time you open the doc, and you're pretty sure it's not just you because the cat stares at you like, "Are you fucking kidding me?" every time you work on it.

But you've never seen the thousands of bad "mac and cheese dishes" that other person "prepared". All the times it over-boiled, burned, or otherwise went wrong. Before writing that perfect book you got in the bookstore, the author went through dozens of imperfect books. And before the perfect one became perfect, it was flawed, and went through lots of stages of polish.

If you were living in their kitchen (aka office), hovering over their shoulder, sampling all of these "meals" for years, your perspective would change entirely. The difference between a bad cook and a good cook is one persevered through a few hundred bad dishes to develop the skills and intuition that leads to an excellent meal.

It's fine to strive toward excellence, but don't compare your practice efforts with someone's finished results. It's not magic and it's not out of reach.

They've just been doing a lot of cooking.

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