Train of thought

After making a batch of blueberry yogurt multigrain pancakes, I left the dishes to simmer for a few days. Today, when I cleaned them up, I noticed that the batter bowl had a strong odor, one that cuts through the air like a ripe parmesan.

First thought: “Did I cook anything with cheese?”

Second: “Hm, the bacteria in this bowl must produce similar gases to those in cheese.”

Third: “I wonder if those bacteria resemble those in cheese, or if the environment is similar?”

Fourth: “Oh my god, my toilet is cleaner than this.”

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Modernist Cuisine: A Cooking Scientist’s Dilemma

Any article about science and cooking, much less one about a lab devoted to discovery and innovation within cooking, is bound to fascinate me, yet the idea of “modernist cuisine” leaves me feeling cold.

The gist of the article is that the former CTO of Microsoft started a lab devoted to inventions and cutting-edge technology. Somewhere down the line, he decided to figure out the science behind sous-vide cooking, because nobody had bothered to do so. Eventually, this led to devoting much of his lab work to the discovery of the properties of food; how heat travels through meat, the temperature & egg:liquid ratio required for certain consistencies of custard, and using vacuum chambers to get a novel consistency in a food.

On the one hand, I appreciate the hell out of this work. I love that we have the tools to look at a recipe and say “Okay, this is what is happening on a molecular level”. Through the science of cooking, one can understand the forces at work in a recipe, and therefore control what is happening and what will happen at its most basic level. This opens a world of possibilities for knowing one’s kitchen beyond following a recipe verbatim.

In our culture that prides individualism, I think that de-mystifying cooking is an important step toward getting people in the kitchen. When you don’t know what you’re doing, cooking is intimidating; it’s a field with its own language and a presupposition that one knows when a dish is “done”, not to mention the intimidating task of cleaning a pile of dishes afterwards. And because we’re increasingly isolated, we don’t have much of a food-based culture (at least beyond eating fast & cheap). For many people, “cooking” consists of Rice-a-Roni and baked chicken tenders, and convenience dictates that we eat out several times a week.

Once food is treated as an burdensome time-suck, recipes are no longer passed from one generation to the next, and people don’t get the hands-on training that was once necessary to maintain a homestead. Therefore, cooking (especially from scratch) is seen as an impenetrable, intimidating art. This means that we’re less likely to attempt to cook, which means we don’t teach their kids to cook ad nauseum. I fully support anything that makes cooking¬†comprehensible, and I think something brutally objective clears the cloudy language of cooking (“Cook until mostly softened; how do I know what mostly looks like!?”).

But on the other hand, I don’t know how I feel about the fancy-pants preparation endorsed by this “modernist” cuisine. From the book’s description:

“The authors and their 20-person team at The Cooking Lab have achieved astounding new flavors and textures by using tools such as water baths, homogenizers, centrifuges, and ingredients such as hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is all fascinating; I’m intrigued by the possibilities of food. I love that someone is able to use a centrifuge and vacuum chamber to create bizarre space food. But I also think that puts another wall between the common American and cooking. For example, once we have a notion of the “perfect” French fry, anything less could seem like a disappointment. Why should we bother cooking “good enough” when we can motor to the local McDonald’s and drop $1.39 on some pretty great fries that don’t take 2 hours of our time?

Also, I think it’s kind of silly to spend all this time and energy on new, expensive cooking techniques. I guess that rich guys will always do rich guy stuff to food, and rich guy technology has increased exponentially with time. Still, I think that rich guy stuff misses the point of cooking. To me, I love cooking for the sake of using my knowledge and abilities to feed my friends & family and to bring people together. I enjoy the challenge of a new recipe or technique, so maybe it’s only natural that a rich guy would stretch that envelope as far as he can.

But still, I think that objectifies the food itself, as in we find our pleasure in the end product rather than the non-quantifiable process it takes to get there. I think that’s a push for perfection or novelty, which is inherently unsustainable. Food shouldn’t be perfect; it’s most satisfying when it takes some guesswork, the help of your friends, and the inimitable je ne sais quoi of simply knowing a recipe (or the smug satisfaction one gets from stumbling into a well-prepared dish on the first try).

So, that’s why I’m torn. I love the discovery of food, and I would not turn down a chance to attend the 30-course feast at Intellectual Ventures. But chasing novelty or the perfect dish is unsustainable and kind of silly. I realize I’m making a Luddite-ish argument that borders on saying “this is unnatural, therefore bad”, which is inherently a slippery slope; as Nate Myhrvold (kind of arrogantly)¬†points out, bread, wine, and cheese are all highly-processed foods, which is no different than what he’s doing. I guess I have to draw the line somewhere, and I choose to draw it at million dollar equipment.

I think the moral is that people will always try to do more with food, and that’s okay. But I think it says that the point of cooking is the food itself, which misses the point of friends, community, and the other unpurchasable imperfections that motivate me.

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In Which I Make a Fool of Myself

Sister: What’s Hitler’s least favorite planet?
Me: Jew-Uranus?
Mom: Zach, think about it.
[pause]
Me: Oh.

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I Can Live With That

I was a little upset at first. I mean, obviously people are going to think I’m a showboat, and a little bit of a prick. But then I thought… that’s me. I said those things, I did those things. I can live with that.

I watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou last week, and that line stuck with me. The scene is preceded by the titular character reading a less-than-flattering article written about him, which, per his character, would sting his insatiable ego. This turn, to me, is the perfect encapsulation of the epiphany of self-awareness, and possibly more importantly, self-forgiveness.

The line carries much personal weight for me as well. For who knows how long, I would react defensively to any criticism, because I saw myself as a keen dude. I was able to explain away my infidelities, my aversion to emotion, my cruel teasing as something integral to me. I trumpeted my past failures and shortcomings as things beyond my control. “Eh, circumstances weren’t right for that relationship to work.” “I was raised by great parents, so I haven’t had to deal with any pain! Quit being serious and make jokes.” “She should have accepted my nonchalance as healthy!”

But through the gift of hindsight, I realize that all these stinging criticisms of me were spot-on. I was a cheat. I did pretend to be an emotionless automaton to hide my true self. I chose novelty over strong relationships. Also, these comments were made by people who cared about me enough to tell me these things so that I may improve. It was a huge hit to my ego, but that’s the first thing to go when you admit wrongdoing. And I was wrong.

I told lies (to myself and others) so that I would be popular, accepted, affirmed, whatever it was to satiate my ego. I felt for so long that I was unpopular (I think mostly because I was often treated as a weirdo/misunderstood in elementary school) that I fell into popularity’s seductive trap and became a people pleaser. To maintain that, I told lies, I acted shallowly, and when I was accused of such, I ran from the accusations and tried to explain them away.

Honestly, I wish all the hurtful things that have been said about me weren’t true. I wish I could undo the pain. I wish I could take back the mean things I said. I wish I held myself accountable for the emotions of others. But, I’m human. I will continue to make mistakes, say dumb stuff, and inadvertently hurt others until the day I die. I mean well, but I will always have blind spots. The trick is to be aware of my words & actions so I don’t fall into hurtful habits.

So, like Bill Murray’s character, I’ve come to understand that what was written or said about me is true. I said those things. I did those things. I’m okay with that. But I don’t want to repeat those mistakes.

(Post-script for the concerned: I’m okay. I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching though, and it hit me that I’ve done a shit job of being emotionally honest, or even acknowledging that I have emotions. I feel like I’m tearing down a lot of walls and that I’m being pulled in a million different directions, which, to me, says that I’m growing up. Change for the better should hurt, and if this is a little uncomfortable to read or completely out of character, good. That means it’s working.

But seriously, I’m okay. I still think I’m a stellar guy, but I’m working on being a better man.)

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A Moment of Indulgent Pretense

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel,¬†If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

The opening chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a fantastic paean to book lust. Read it immediately if you have ever felt the gravitational pull of a used book store, if an empty bookshelf evokes a nervous itch at the center of your being, or if the prospect of opening a new text makes you giddy with Christmas morning-esque excitement. If not, read it anyways, and you’ll understand why I eagerly spend hours poring through stacks of pages and the uncomfortable anxiety that comes from the unread.

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Coming to Grips

I think the worst part of a breakup is coming to terms with one’s shortcomings. In the past, I have willingly brushed these off as incompatibilities, or as another’s biased view of me, one that I could explain away if only they would listen.

But now, looking back, I was a dick, and didn’t listen as a manner of self-defense. I thought that, because I treated people well as individuals, I was immune to criticism. “I’m well-liked,” I thought, “why should I change? I should just find more people who think I’m great!” Even though I’ve always had a great respect for the complexity of life, I haven’t quite grasped the complexity of human interactions, and I’ve acted as though I should only be judged for what I do directly to people.

I’ve never had issues with anger, outright belittlement, or other sociopathic red flags. However, I’ve cheated, I’ve lied, I’ve told people what they want to hear, and I certainly have not acted with conviction. I was willing to write off all the above as aberrations, each caused by a faulty relationship, not caused by a guy who didn’t know himself well enough to commit to what he wants. What I thought I wanted was validation and affirmation, which I receive in spades for being a funny guy, a good listener, and reasonably symmetrical. All of those are good qualities, but to use them to obtain popularity, especially with the opposite sex, is an empty gesture that belies my often-ignored emotions.

So, I’ve started seeing a counselor. Not for any particular malady, depression, or straw-man unfairly associated with mental health, but to talk out my relationship woes and figure out what I want and how to pursue that. For so long, I have dabbled, content to take surface interest in an idea or a person, while ignoring the potential of a deeper passion, avoiding the hard work it takes to maintain a connection with someone, and constantly straying toward the new & exciting.

It’s not easy. Speaking matter-of-factly about my string of casual relationships and infidelities made me realize how I have underestimated other people’s emotions. Thinking back, I tried my hardest to make everyone happy, which normally meant avoiding my true feelings about a situation or an outright lie.

I’m sick of that shit. Opening up is not natural, but this vaguely-worded blog post is at least a start toward honesty, both with others and myself. I’d be naive to say that I know what’s going to happen, how I’ll act in 5 years, and whether or not I’ll look back on this as a moment of triumph or an outlier of my emotional state.

(To the concerned: I’m doing okay, which is the advantage of a steady mental state. I’ll still make silly jokes and default to adventure mode. However, I feel like I’m coming to a big crossroads personally and professionally, and I haven’t been fully satisfied with my life in who knows how long. So this is just me trying to open up, have some integrity, and be a well-rounded person. Basically, I’m actively trying to grow up.)

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Inaugural Stew

A few things about beef stew:

1. It is always easy to make. I used this recipe, which, like all stew recipes, is basically “Brown beef in pan, add everything else unless it will get soggy if overcooked, cook for an hour or whatever, add in other stuff, cook until you feel like eating.”

1a. If said recipe says “dissolve corn starch in a bowl of water before adding to stew”, it doesn’t mean you can just toss the corn starch in the stew and call it good. Unless you’re the type to enjoy lumps of corn starch (a quick Google search of “corn starch fan club” yields 36,700 results, so there’s hope for you freaks).

2. Beef stew will never not look like a pile of sick or whatever is stuck to my stove.

Delicious, delicious sick

3. I used buffalo stew meat, which smells grassy (my dad will back me up on this; it’s inexplicable) but turned out very tender.

 

If I die, it will be from natural causes

4. The hardest part of stew is waiting.

 

 

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