The new season of Gordon-Ramsay-themed cooking shows has begun. Yes, OK, I’m addicted. Thank goodness I don’t KNOW him, or work for him, or in any way have to interact with him on a professional or personal basis. But as a craftsperson myself, I admire dedication to craft.

I’m with Michael Ruhlman on this one, by the way, when he talks about the CMC test for chefs:

Cooking is a craft. Oh, I know how the foodie blowhards–and even a lot of chefs–love to talk about food as art! (But….don’t talk to me about food as art or chefs as artistes.) As with any craft, there were artful levels and shared standards of excellence. The test’s very existence implied that great cooking….was not art, was only craft, the result of physical skills that were consistenlty measurable and comparable from one chef to the next.

The only thing I’d quarrel with there is his use of the phrase “only craft.” Craft is stinking hard. What I do is also craft. (More on this when I come back to my reflections on The Courage to Write.)

My oldest son got hooked on Master Chef in Australia and told me I HAD to watch it. Now I’m hooked on the American version. Like all those ambitious home cooks, I love to cook. In fact, when I heard about the casting call for the first American season, I said to my husband, “Hey, wouldn’t that be fun? What if I just went down and tried out? For fun?”

(My husband said, “Are you nuts?”)

Watching the current season, I’ve become clear about something. I will never really master the craft of cooking, because I don’t care enough about the tiny details. My meat has more sear on one side than the other? Whatever. My ravioli are irregular? I couldn’t worry less. My exact flavor combination isn’t quite right? Well, it still tastes good, doesn’t it?

Part of this, I’m sure, is the by-product of years cooking for teenage boys. Not much point in laboring over the exquisite details of something that’s going to get snarfed down in thirty seconds with a chaser of Doritos. But the larger issue is that I’m not essentially absorbed by the craft.

I compare this with what I do when I write.

I revise and revise and revise.

I change single words and then change them back and then change them back again and read sentences out loud over and over to see what version is better.

I spend hours and sometimes days locating an authoritative source that confirms some tiny detail that might or might not even make it into a final draft.

In other words, I take infinite pains. It’s a compulsion.

I think there are a lot of people who want to write, or talk about writing, or even publish, who write the way I cook. Pretty competently, that is. In a way that gives others pleasure, which is no small thing. But they don’t feel the (painful and obsessive) compulsion to polish the corners and crevices, to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, to aim for perfect clarity: the prose version of taking the time to melt your onions for an hour over low heat with a freshly made herb sachet instead of doing a quick olive oil saute, because the tiny change in flavor will make the final dish sing just a little more clearly.

If I cook something and it’s good, but not perfect, I don’t have the slightest hesitation in plopping it on the table. (Even for company.) But it takes me a long time to get a book out the door, because so many little flaws that need mending pop up every time I reread.

So, back to work. Need to find the perfect word to describe a king who blinds his five-year-old nephew in order to assure his own son’s ascent to the throne.

Sometimes cooking is more fun.

Showing 6 comments
  • Capt Uhura

    I loved this blog entry! You have described the difference between the way my Dh cooks and the way I cook. He will labor over a sauce, constantly adjusting flavors, tasting, trying this and that…..I say, “Give me a recipe, tell me what to add and how much and call it a day.” The only time I truly appreciated his craft in the kitchen was when I was pregnant with my third chiid. With the first two, food was something to consume to help them grow. I just didn’t want food on top of my nausea. With my third, food was something to be enjoyed, savored. I could taste all the different spices and how they came together. I could taste if Dh changed something or left something out. Needless to say, I gained the most weight with the third one. I finally understood what foodies must feel on a daily basis. Luckily, after giving birth, those taste buds went into dormancy or else I’d have a serious weight problem.

    I am so glad we get to enjoy the fruit of your compulsive writing!!!!!

  • Penelope

    I went to an event last night where several writers read their work for an audience in the basement of a pub in the West Village in NYC. I expected the true craft of writing to be on display- writing that shows careful thought and has something fresh to say.

    All of it was at an 8th grade reading level, if that. Cliche chick-lit. One reader read from her recently published book. My roommate is working to get her book published, a beautiful childrens’ novel. Her writing is far beyond the work we heard at the event. She commented that writing is a business in addition to a craft. A business where what sells is what is “crafted”, and what is crafted (in the truest sense) doesn’t usually sell. It’s too bad!

    I appreciate this post very much!

  • Rebecca Silva

    If I was childless, I would cook and write with abandon and a view to perfection. I would also be neurotic and friendless, but nonetheless personally fulfilled by my crafts. As that is not my reality, I teach my three sons to write (using outstanding curriculum, by the way), and I keep a steady flow of mostly wholesome, usually tasty, occasionally pretty food flowing at a seemingly incessant rate.

    We lesser mortals salute you and your painful, obsessive compulsion. You make our lives so much easier.

    As for that elusive word…the possibilities that come to mind are inappropriate for adademic writing (not that you need help). Have some chocolate.

  • kerri

    I’m not a writer, but I do paint, and I know what you mean. Though sometimes I find that obsessing can actually get in the way of being able to relax and let things flow. But I want everything I paint to come straight from the heart and I agonize over that.

  • Cheryl

    As far as the king is concerned, how about “unhinged?” (Shudder!)

    On the rest, I don’t think I have anything that I obsess about to that degree – not cooking, certainly not housekeeping (!), and not writing. As long as what I do is excellent, it’s OK if it isn’t perfect. By the same token, when it’s other people’s work, typos, grammatical errors, syntax errors, outright misuses of homonyms, run-on sentences, etc., leap out at me as I read.

    When I’m doing my own writing, though, I don’t make many changes after the finished product is done, but I also rarely find errors (although when I do, I cringe). Maybe it’s for the same reason your cooking isn’t a compulsion: my writing is, for the most part, done for people who “snarf down” the work and really need the relevant points made quickly. Polishing the piece to perfection isn’t appreciated…..

  • Sarah Park

    Michelangelo spoke of liberating the imprisoned statue from a block of marble. I think writing can be this way, as well—there is the sense that there’s an ideal way to articulate something, it exists and it’s in there, somewhere, so if I just keep at it, and continue “showing up” at the work, I will uncover it!

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