I think I am a pretty good cook, considering the constraints I am usually working under. I have a lovely kitchen now, for the first time in my adult life. I know where to find things and I have placed most of them so that they’ll be within arm’s reach when I happen to need them. The superfluous things that rarely get used and take up too much space are in the basement and out of my sight Except the juicer; that thing just got tossed a few moves ago. Sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow. On a good weekend, my husband and I spend a few hours in the kitchen while our daughter naps, batch-cooking whatever we have the ingredients for, so that we have work lunches and breakfasts packed and ready for the coming week. My two main goals as a cook are: waste as little food as possible, and produce as many of our family’s meals as possible within our kitchen. I have a new one to add to the list: be okay with the outcome, no matter what.
These priorities exist together with the ideals of making food that is both good and nutritious. It’s just that I know I am capable of making good and nutritious food; the challenge comes when I am trying to both optimize and economize: producing food that is as high-quality as possible while creating as little waste (of food and of dollars spent on non-home-cooked meals) as possible. And far too often, trying to optimize and economize leads me to a dinnertime near-meltdown when something doesn’t quite work out. This morning I opened the crisper drawer to find that a bag full of hot peppers from our CSA had gone bad, and it hurt to throw them away (even though I had less than no idea what the hell I was going to do with them in the first place). My household is as responsible about food waste as we can manage to be, with two working parents and a three-year-old. That needs to be enough.
Given how much of my focus and attention the planning and the shopping and the cooking command, it’s continually surprising to me how roundly I reject, and even fear, advice and tips on food optimization. Kinja has a kitchen subset of the popular Lifehacker, filled with tips and tricks by and for my fellow culinary optimizers. Slate recently introduced a weekly feature on home cooking, whose snappy patter combined with serious advice I appreciate, on an aesthetic level. I can’t actually bring myself to read it, though, most of the time. It’s like as soon as I see that there’s a better way to organize my fridge or my cabinets or my shopping list, I just go numb and close the browser. Internet, stop telling me how I could do it better! Just tell me I’m okay (Patrick).
Maybe it’s time to admit that optimizing makes me tired. Or rather, optimizing according to anyone’s standards other than my own makes me tired. The constant reminders that I could do MORE, BETTER - I actually don’t believe I need them. I’ve learned a fair amount about myself in 32 years (though I know there is more to come) and I know that I won’t slack off on keeping the kitchen operating and the food coming unless there is a very good reason. Since having a child, especially, I have been working on thinking of optimizing differently: something closer to doing the best I can with what I have and being satisfied with that, rather than striving for an arbitrary peak and always feeling like I’ve fallen short. Trusting in my own definition of optimal: that’s the next optimization to aim for.