Chemistry Class

By FoodNerd February 24, 2009

I have spent most of my life in fear of being found out.  Of not being as smart, as capable, as committed to the cause as people think I am.  And thus, I often feel like I am faking it.  Hoping no one ever discovers the truth. This may be why I like to cook.  Up to a point, a very savory one I might add, I can gleefully fudge my way through a recipe with imprecise measurements and food spills on the floor.  Doubt and dismay are easily remedied—more salt!  More garlic!  More olive oil!  And I can present you with something palatable.

It's no wonder I never found any fun in baking—where it's all about timing, chemistry, and exactitude.  And why wouldn't it be?  After all, you're taking a group of dry ingredients, adding the smallest amount of liquid and creating something that grows and rises into a warm delight.  It's magic, a form of alchemy—and it can't be faked. There's no way to recover from failure.

During the days of the college co-op kitchens, the bread bakers enjoyed an awe-filled and precious status. You only signed up if you knew what you were doing.  At times, I was tempted, drawn to the challenge and the learning opportunity.  But the fear of public failure held me back.  I volunteered to cook breakfast instead.

But as they say, you can run but you cannot hide.  And failure has found me.  I have been exposed--and no amount of quick tricks can cover the truth.  I’ve had a terrifying realization: Cooking too can demand exactitude; should demand exactitude. My illusion—that cooking can cover sloppiness—was in itself a sloppy story. This realization came from my love of Japanese cuisine—and cooking the deceptively simple miso soup in particular.


Lately, Japanese cuisine has inspired my cooking.  I am drawn to its simplicity—the aesthetics of appearance and list of ingredients.  But I have learned that preparing each dish is far from simple. And cannot be faked. 

Miso soup is easy to take for granted. It's that bowl of brown liquid that you're given before your sushi arrives.  There's nothing to it: Water, paste, some seaweed, maybe some tofu.  Miso invites confidence for the beginning cook.  

But here's the rub.  Making miso soup is a chemistry experiment, an attempt to strike a delicate balance of tastes and textures. So if you're striving to be traditional—as I am, adding salt as compensation is not an option.  Nor is the addition of garlic or olive oil.  Once all the ingredients are in the water, you cannot turn back.

So it is beyond ironic that I am preoccupied with a dish that I cannot fake.  Failure comes often. The most recent example: This past week, combining tofu, cabbage, and soba noodles with my favorite dark red miso seemed like a worthwhile pursuit.  The week before I had used the same tofu with the noodles and the paste and loved it.  The cabbage was in the fridge—why not throw it in?

The result could not be masked—it was slop.  Tasteless. And the stringiness of the noodles conflicted with the chopped cabbage—too many long things floating around.  Rather than dumping it, I faced the failure and ate the soup all week. And it wasn't so bad.  A watery version of humble pie showing me that failing doesn't have to be scary or humiliating.  It's just a bland bowl of soup.

Like any misstep or mistake, each time I prepare my soup, I note what didn't work and move on.  No longer viewing each bowl as a reflection of me.  And of course, I cannot avoid the larger lessons—that failure should not be feared, that risk cannot be avoided and that an earnest effort should not be equated with donning a mask.

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