Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mastering the Art of Fucking Up Your Cooking

All of my friends eat well, and most cook well. It makes sense: San Francisco is a city that pulls hedonists into its orbit. Last week I listened to a pick-up quartet play Brahms at a bar in the Mission District. A man with a silver moustache tapped his sneakered foot and leaned close to inspect the sheet music between movements.

"Are you a musician?" I asked him.

"No," he said, "I love beauty." That's how I feel about food.

So when I happen across someone who doesn't enjoy cooking, I am in disbelief. Andres, my roommate in Boston, boiled spaghetti to death each Sunday afternoon at our walk-up in the North End, spooning the limp noodles into a giant tupperware container he'd parcel out for each workaday lunch and dinner.

Obviously I cook because I like to eat. But also I cook because I like to experiment. I cook because I like to make a mess. I cook because I like to fail.

Failure isn't an acceptable option in many realms of life. It's unsafe and shunned. Who wants to fail at raising a kid or on a project at work?

Failure makes you learn, sure. But failure also makes you laugh at yourself. Failure makes you less of an asshole.

On the first night in my new apartment, I invited a few friends over for celebratory snacks and drinks. In the three hours between the movers leaving and the guests arriving, I baked green-frosted cupcakes and paved white bread with butter, cukes and truffle salt.

When you assume you'll have a 50% acceptance rate for a party with free food, you assume wrong. Everyone showed up and most brought friends, arriving directly after work and hoovering the limited supply of edibles before addressing the liquid portion of our meal. Reviewing the circle of drunk people sitting on the floor in my furniture-less living room, a dear friend ran to Safeway and returned with a canned ham and a microwaveable packet of fondue cheese. It was both hilarious and horrifying. Someone threw up in the sink. Someone was me.

I try new things always, but that spark of discovery sometimes burns into a full-on fire. Last week I roasted a chicken with a new recipe and set my pink vintage apron (yes, that one) on the stove for a minute while I ran to grab a lemon from the dining room table. In the minute gap, the apron hissed and curled like a Shrinky Dink tongue, with that same plasticky smell.

So here's my failure list: the apple butters from last year were dreadful; sometimes I buy food but then obsess over writing some story and let the fruit compost. If you wend down the trail of "I'll post the recipe tomorrow!" notes followed by silence, I was probably eating take-out noodles on the couch, wondering "How DOES George Saunders do it?" while the plums rot on the white counter. Also, I've heard from several sources that my marmalade's too sour (but that's how I like it).

Just today I melted some lovely pink rubber gloves accidentally left on the stove while I baked a marmalade tart. All the time I make messes, experiment, fail and learn. But that, also, is how I like it.