x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Aiming for perfection is not advisable in life or in the kitchen

Loving food means wanting to make everything your very best effort, but as in life, improvisational skills are key in the kitchen.

What does it mean to love food?

I mean, I love air but I'm not pursuing a degree in psychometrics. I love the human mind but I'd never want to be a psychiatrist. And I really love plants, even though I used ethnobotany class as a chance to catch up on sleep. Love doesn't preclude mastery, but it doesn't really have anything to do with it either.

There is a fair amount of disagreement among psychologists over what constitutes perfectionism; some believe it guarantees a life that's dissatisfying and maladaptive, while others feel that perfectionism is not pathological when simply a matter of someone deriving a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment from investing a great effort.

Some perfectionists pull off an admirable dinner party, and some create insufferable ones. Most perfectionists who throw parties seem to land somewhere between wanting every last detail to be exquisitely orchestrated and realising that if the host isn't having fun, then nobody is. There are a lot of well-meaning souls out there whose perfectionism, at its least forgiving, alienates rather than invites, thus accomplishing the exact opposite of what they set out for.

It's a sad story when nobody wants to spend time in the spaces you've slaved over to make "perfect". I don't aspire to be the kind of host who can pirouette between the kitchen and the front door, balancing a tray of hors d'oeuvres on my forearm while describing the dinner menu to guests … in French. I don't feel inadequate for lacking Martha Stewart's polished, albeit sterile, composure. If given a choice, I'd much rather have Nigella Lawson's sensual accessibility and unapologetic lack of restraint, which I prefer over that of anyone who cooks on TV.

I once watched a clip of Delia Smith finishing up a demo on a talk show, then being offered a bite, by the show's host, of whatever she had just cooked. She gently refused, explaining that she didn't like to eat while on camera. Personally, I've always found fallibility to be beautiful, and the willingness to be vulnerable - and yes, to spill on oneself or to look silly while chewing - even more so. Of course, as the clumsiest person of all time, it's in the best interest of my self-esteem to promote and celebrate the act of making a mess. My all-black wardrobe isn't an accident, although my propensity for accidents was the reason I adopted it.

My personal strain of pseudo-perfectionism has nothing to do with a fear of imperfection and everything to do with the fact that I equate love with acts of service. I equate love with other things, too, like Korean-style short ribs and walks on the beach, but acts of service rank high on the list when it comes to expressing and recognising affection. So if I love someone, I will work hard to bring that person pleasure.

Or so I thought. There's an annoying pitfall here, and I was reminded of this a few nights ago when my mother asked if I could make a tarte Tatin for my sister. My first thought was: "Of course". But after realising that I wouldn't have access to the "right" bakeware and the "right" ingredients - only what I considered to be substandard substitutes - I said I just couldn't do it. My mother looked disappointed, and I hate to disappoint. She thought about it for a moment, then said that she thought I idealised perfection, and as a result, lost sight of the big picture.

Her assessment was spot on. It wasn't about making the perfect tarte Tatin. It was about embracing an opportunity to make something - anything - for my sister who lives very far away from me and never asks me for a thing. I understand that now, but it took the look of disappointment on my mother's face to get it to sink in.

Ultimately it's all about balance, not perfection - for both the food and the person making it. I don't have surgical precision or an unwavering attention span or the vision of an architect or any interest, really, in extending my general anxiety to the very thing that helps me manage it.

The mishaps will come; the sauce breaks, the roast burns, my mind wanders and I slice off a fingertip. I've accepted ownership of them - and of many other things I do inelegantly - and have even learnt a few things along the way. For one thing, if what you set out to do isn't working out, give it a different name, turn it into something else, or sprinkle it with snipped chives. Those and freshly ground pepper can cover all manner of sins.

When I get finicky about symmetry and balance in my cooking - which sometimes happens when life feels chaotic - that's also usually a sign that I'm not as coordinated as I'd like to be. My kitchen to me is like a home gym; it's where I work it all out. And everything looks better in the morning, except, usually, the kitchen.

The truth is, few good things in life are neat. I would take an overstuffed po' boy over a tea sandwich any day of the year. Saying "yes" to life means taking in all the messiness it can bring with the glory and the grief. Wear a bib if you have to, but don't fret over the clean up. Most importantly, don't let the fear of the mess keep you from making it.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico.


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