Every day, there are new discoveries to be made, and some revelations are more gratifying than others. In descending order of greatness, today brought conscious certainty of perfection in some homemade black liquorice ice cream on to which I had crushed a few heathery shards of vanilla salt. Then I learnt that that the teeth-gnashing futility of trying to peel a hard-boiled egg that was too fresh when boiled can be bypassed by steaming it for 20 minutes instead of boiling for 10. (Eggs typically need to be at least a week old before their shells can be pried off without clinging stubbornly to the whites.)
Later, I found out that the cheese aisle’s ubiquitous semicircles of “longhorn” cheddar are named for the cylinders in which they are moulded, and have nothing to do with Texas Longhorn cattle – an association I had favoured, but evidently also fabricated. Learning is fun!
Of course, I’m not all childlike awe and wonder. Why keep calm and carry on when you can shut down for some internal housekeeping? Plenty of discoveries have passed me by because I’ve been too fixated on some minor annoyance, like the way coffee drips down from the underside of the takeout cup’s plastic lid, or the sound of Paula Deen’s voice. Or maybe fuming because I’ve just received an email informing me I have successfully unsubscribed from a mailing list that I unsubscribed from because I wanted them to stop sending me mail.
William James wrote: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” James’s generation came of age in the middle of the 19th century. So why do we treat this as new information every time another self-help guide shepherds us toward thinking positively?
My mother, a committed realist, often encouraged us to play pretend with food when we were little. When something wasn’t to my taste, she’d ask what I would choose to eat if I could snap my fingers and magically have it appear. “A big fat juicy steak,” I might have said, dreading another spoonful of kiwifruit. “All right. Open your mouth and close your eyes. Here comes a steak!” At the time, I marvelled at her amazing imagination. But in retrospect, I realise the heroic magnitude of her efforts to get four picky eaters to survive childhood without developing scurvy.
Around the same time, I remember watching an ad for Hidden Valley Ranch dressing while eating plain yogurt. Anticipation stimulates every human urge and appetite there is, and on TV, dancing garlic, herbs and spices cascaded into swirling buttermilk. But by a certain point, I’d read Aesop’s Fables enough times to consider it a character weakness to forfeit the rewards of something real – the old bird in the hand – for the remote appeal of its abstract superior.
When I read suggested substitutions in recipes that make little sense, I start looking for a place to throw the magazine. “If you’re counting calories, try fat-free yogurt instead of crème fraîche.” How about trying a different recipe, friend? Pretending it’s one thing when it it’s another is like trying not to look when someone calls out your name. It denies every visceral intuition we have.
Reality can accommodate fantasy, but it can’t be replaced by it.
Nouf Al Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
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