Ephemera

I'm Tired of Being Told to Be the Best Possible Cook

July 12, 2016

I make entirely fine scrambled eggs. Not the best, not the worst. They do their job; they get by.

I prefer them to any eggs I've eaten at a buffet, but would I serve them to Amanda and Merrill? No. And do most of my colleagues make scrambled eggs better than I do? I'm sure.

I know the tricks, hacks, tips, and techniques to make them so light they'll fly away (poach-scramble) or so creamy that they fall into large, slick curds (mascarpone, crème fraîche, cream). I know to pre-salt the scrambled eggs and let them sit, to add yogurt or sour cream or cornstarch or plenty of butter and cheese. (I even know how to make them in the microwave.)

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And these tidbits aren't "secrets" at all: Google "scrambled eggs" and, after a few basic "how to make scrambled eggs" posts, you'll see articles titled "Perfect Scrambled Eggs" and "How to Make Perfectly Fluffy Scrambled Eggs" and "How to Make the Absolute Best Scrambled Eggs Ever."

Enough already, I find myself thinking: I don't want the best eggs. I'm happy with these slightly good ones.


Judging by the superlative-heavy headlines—many of which I use myself, all the time—we don't want good enough. We want what's best. And that feeling of constant striving, reaching, pushing, searching, stretching, never settling is exhausting and exhaustive: We don't want good pasta in New York—we want the best pasta in New York; we don't want a good deal—we want the best deal. If it's not the best, we don't want it at all. Because when you have everything you need, when you can get most of what you want, the next phase is to desire those things to be the very best—to exceed, not just satisfy, the desire.

I'm not surrendering to mediocrity, but making a note to myself to reprioritize from time to time.

I'd argue that this need—to be the best and have the best—is a privileged one, particularly acute and complicated when it comes to cooking. We don't all want to be the best swimmers or yodelers or ceramicists: But shouldn't each of us want to be as good a cook as possible? It's a skill that defines our species and, thereby, our competency as humans. In Emma Straub's new novel Modern Lovers, her character Elizabeth describes the feeling of inadequacy well:

Whenever she dropped by Zoe's house for lunch, one of the three of them would be eating some bowlful of brown rice and hard-boiled egg and sautéed kale, with an avocado-miso dressing that they'd just whipped up. [...] It wasn't easy to have a best friend who seemed so much better at so many of life's most important skills.

The constant bombardment of ways to be a better cook is inspiring until it's paralyzing, until the pressure of making each meal the best it can be gets tiresome—and starts to feel silly. Because the push to make everything the best way possible not only makes me feel bad about my own skills (in the kitchen, in life), but it can also distract me from what I think is important about cooking in the first place: to have respect for food and an understanding of where it comes from; to bring yourself and others happiness. I'm not surrendering to mediocrity, but making a note to myself to reprioritize from time to time.

My dad, a non-cook whose cooking advice I collected for Father's Day, makes very boring food, and he would admit it. But when I asked him if he would improve his skills if he could, he said that he was satisfied, that what he did was sufficient for now. In this best-obsessed world we're treading in, it was refreshing—not disheartening—to hear that he didn't share the ambitions all of these headlines assume us to have. My dad's priorities lie elsewhere: in his profession, in his other hobbies. As is true for so many people in the world, who eat to fulfill a biological need, who cook to feed their families, who are happy with eggs whether they're the best or not. Working at a food website among the food obsessed, I too often forget this.

And I also forget that food doesn't have to be its best to be its most enjoyable: You know this if you've gone backpacking, if you'd choose your grandma's blueberry pie above all others.


So after I cook eggs in a double boiler once, I know that the next time I'll go back to exactly what I was doing before. It's not the best, but it's good enough for me.

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25 Comments

Dee N. July 19, 2016
Another load of solipsism that brings nothing new to the table, as it were. Cook how you want, when you want. De-glaze your navel gazing and you will be just fine.
 
Carla July 18, 2016
I will have to live to be 1000 years old and try 10 new recipes each day to try all the "best" that I've downloaded and either wasted paper printing or saved in little files on my computer. Ridiculous!!! Like so many said...I too have returned to doing things I like..more often than not, how my grandmother taught me. Excellent article...thank you. Now if all those picky eaters would lighten up...but that's another topic...and frankly if they don't like the stuff I cook...I don't care!
 
Denise Y. July 18, 2016
amen, amen, hallelujah, amen! this is sound, sage, wise advice, an attitude we need to adapt and apply to more than just food in our lives. thank you for the sanity ...
 
mcs3000 July 16, 2016
YES!
 
catherinej July 15, 2016
Amen, sister. literally
 
Leslie July 15, 2016
This article really struck a cord with me. With so much access via social media, I find myself easily comparing myself to others out there. It is a good reminder that the best is not always as it seems. I agree, I would take anything from my grandmother's kitchen over some other so-called "best" pie, dessert, etc that is out there.
 
Smaug July 13, 2016
The notion of "Best" is so entirely subjective yet people seem desperate for someone to tell them what's "best". For my day's rant, I will go for practicality, which I think should be a significant factor in judging a recipe. If you have to pay $45 to import a gram of puce colored salt from France to complete a recipe, I see that as a considerable negative- a dish that can be made with readily available, reasonably priced ingredients is a better dish (for you) than one that can't. Simlarly, a dish that involves exotic and time consuming preparation may be interesting as a project, but as a practical matter of feeding people starts at a real disadvantage. For example, anyone who bakes to any extent can go into the kitchen and turn out a batch of Toll House cookies from pantry items in an hour or so. If you start doing stuff like browning butter (which then needs to be cooled), toasting nuts, freezing and shattering expensive chocolate bars, using recherche combinations of sugars and flours and whatnot, chilling dough between operations or any of the many other ways people complicate this process you end up with an all day or beyond project, probably a couple of trips to the store, leftover ingredients that you may or may not have a use for- it's just a whole different animal, and, in this case, produces results that some might prefer, might not. For our nest rant: the current aesthetic that finds things that look like they just came out of a factory as an ideal to reach for.
 
Smaug July 13, 2016
Apologies for the complete abandonment of grammar in my final sentence- at least it doesn't look like it came fro a factory.
 
Zelda July 13, 2016
This seems more of an American thing (albeit a privileged America). Goes hand in hand with the supremacy of choice, and the urge to optimise, fuelled in no small part by sites like this one, and the modern tyranny of the food stylists. Here in Europe, people are more sensible.
 
cv July 13, 2016
For sure, today's attention to presentation is excessive at many sites (not just Food52) as well as social media services like Instagram and Pinterest. More often than not, we see recipes on the Internet that have 4-5 beauty shots of the dish with nary a practical photo on the preparation or key steps.<br /><br />You're right, this seems to be more of a privileged white American thing. "My blueberry pie photo got 260 likes on Instagram which means I am awesome." I don't grasp that mentality very well. How many of those 260 people will consume a slice of that pie?
 
Hannah N. July 13, 2016
Sarah, this was so good. I'm sure my boss wouldn't be thrilled to hear this, but I'm making an ongoing effort to extend the "good enough is good enough" philosophy to other parts of my life, too.
 
Radish July 13, 2016
I was just thinking about this the other day. Good enough is good enough if you are working, and or feeding a family. I was wondering who the people are that actually cook with all of Yotum Ottolenghi ingredients. A lot of pressure is put on home cooks to prepare restaurant meals. I was sorry when Martha Stewart stopped the mini mag. EVERYDAY FOOD. That little magazine helped my working daughters get food on the table. And food on the table is what my grandchildren need.
 
Donna H. July 12, 2016
Doesn't everyone have a different idea of what is the best? I personally wouldn't eat scrambled eggs that were "fluffy" (aka - undercooked) it's a personal palette, right? I think whatever a person likes is the best for them! I love th stories and recipes in this site. I likely will make very few of them, although I consider myself a very good cook, but it's each to their own when it comes to food! Love the thoughts, keep them coming!
 
cv July 12, 2016
We touched on this topic below. The problem here is we don't know who is doing the judging and how much Sarah cares about the judges' conclusions.<br /><br />If you are cooking for yourself, there is only one judge: you. As soon as you start feeding someone else, this gets more complicated.<br /><br />The reason why no one can answer Sarah's original post is because she gives zero context about the evaluation situation.<br /><br />The question is innately unanswerable due to its delivery.
 
Sean R. July 12, 2016
Beautifully stated. It took a long time before I realized that social media and its inherent bragging (deliberate or not) really bummed me out. <br />As they say, comparison is the thief of joy. You are you and that is good enough. <3
 
aargersi July 12, 2016
I heart you Sarah. And now I am going too go eat some pretty good leftover farro stuff with a decent pork chop on top, drink a glass of cold white wine and sneak treats to THE BEST DOG I KNOW :-)
 
Ashley R. July 12, 2016
Oh sarah, I adore you. This is so incredibly refreshing in a world that feels so overwhelming. Thank you for writing this.
 
melissa July 12, 2016
hear, hear!
 
Sam July 12, 2016
This is the BEST (ha ha just kidding). But really, such a nice reminder of what's really important. Thanks, Sarah!
 
Nick July 12, 2016
As a young Chef trying to please the masses, this is so refreshing and extremely helpful for me to sit back and enjoy a little more! Thank you
 
cv July 12, 2016
As I've said this time and time again at the Hotline, after all, you're putting food on your table. What matters most is whether you and your fellow diners are satisfied.<br /><br />It's the same thing with almost anything you do in life, whether it's raising a child, parallel parking, making your bed, or writing an Internet article.<br /><br />If your bed made nice enough to be on the cover of some fancy magazine? Your child doesn't win the Nobel Prize, Wimbledon, the Super Bowl, a Grammy, isn't principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre, etc. Are you a failure as a parent? Is this article going to win a Pulitzer and if it doesn't will you ever write again?<br /><br />Does any artist really think his/her creation is perfect? That there are no flaws? Is it good enough to exhibit? Good enough to dedicate to someone special? Good enough to sell? Good enough to copy and sell again? Good enough to be hidden in some secret trove?<br /><br />Terms like "the best" or "good enough" are subjective. The question is who is doing the judging and how much you care about their ruling.<br /><br />I think people who are constantly striving improve end up making the world a better place because they set expectations higher, whether it be parenting, governing, creating, nurturing, healing, etc.<br /><br />What a terrible world this place if we didn't have dreamers who wanted a better place. <br /><br />Some people want to cook tasty food. Some people want to create really pretty dishes. Some people just want to use the two pounds of butter in their fridge before they move. Some people want to use the dregs of their mustard jar so they can move onto a fresh jar. Some people will cook something just so they have something they can write about because they'd rather write about cooking versus just cooking. Some people like cooking for other people so much they make it into a career. Some people like cooking only for immediate family members and a handful of friends. Some people would rather not cook and prefer to have someone else prepare meals for them.<br /><br />If some person is telling you to be the best possible cook and it's bothering you, maybe you should find someone else who has different hopes and expectations for you. If that person and you are one and the same, then you have a real problem.
 
cv July 12, 2016
Okay, parallel parking isn't such a great example. :-)<br /><br />You aren't a valid judge, you need to follow laws and the meter maid/cop will decide if you have correctly parallel parked.<br /><br />Here's a different analogy, better. What shoes are you wearing? If you employer has a casual dress code, maybe you are probably wearing something that satisfies you, rather than something that must fall under certain guidelines. Heels? Sandals? Birkenstocks? Wood clogs? Sneakers? Combat boots?<br /><br />As some of us grow older, we look around and try to figure out if we've done enough good ourselves, whether we instilled the same interest/ethnic/vision in those who come after us, whether it be cooking, woodworking, playing a musical instrument, writing laws, raising offspring to be a self-sufficient adults, playing baseball or pretty much anything any human does.
 
caninechef July 12, 2016
Issues with the quest for “the best”: a) It is totally subjective. I wonder if the link to scrambled eggs above results in something I even consider to be scrambled eggs. b) Time vs payoff exists in the real world. If I can get something that tastes great in a fraction of the time( or dirty dishes) than a “best ever” recipe promises, I won’t feel guilty for taking the efficient route, Certainly not at 6 PM in the middle of week and probably not even on the weekend if I would rather be doing something else. <br /> <br />This is a symptom of privilege and over abundance, turning food into competition. Much of it driven by the internet which in its turn is driven for fresh content every day. Maybe not on cooking sites but I see total drivel dished out in other areas because of the need for daily fresh content. I agree that always having to be or have the best is exhausting and self-defeating. Sometimes “good enough” is indeed good enough.
 
Nancy July 12, 2016
Sarah, what a lovely, sane article! I'm going to make a big leap here, but I also hear between the lines (your lines or my hearing or both) that we inadvertently - with all this tireless and tiring pursuit of the best (technique, restaurant, particular dish, particular skill) - lose the joy of our everyday lives. This also reminds me of an old saying, something like "pursuit is the perfect is the enemy of the good." Often used in politics, maybe applicable here.