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Fear of failure

"Relax into the rhythm, release any expectations of perfection or outcome. Go with the flow, take a breath, and remind yourself: I've got this." Alice Zaslavsky

This morning I had to get a blood test. Just a routine thing to test cholesterol. I hate blood tests. Not because of any fear of needles but because, as one phlebotomist once said, I have very ordinary veins. Mostly they have trouble getting any blood from me. And indeed at my first attempt last week we failed, the phlebotomist and I. She knows me well because I had to have a lot of blood tests whilst undergoing treatment for cancer, but she assured me today her heart doesn't sink when she sees me. For I have a double fear when going for these tests - that they will fail, and that she will feel bad. Which is silly because I suppose I cannot in any way be to blame. Anyway because of this difficulty I am always very nervous which I'm sure doesn't help. She too as she said today. They are only allowed two goes at this at a time did you know? Anyway today - first attempt failure - found the vein and inserted the needle but - no blood. Sometimes we can't even find a vein. My heart sank. But we tried again and this time success. What a relief. The point being - "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again."

And the same can be said of cooking - or as Julia Child put it:

“Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.”

Now this is a pretty spectacular failure - not one of mine, but I do fail quite frequently. Well I suppose it's rare that I cook anything inedible, but there are quite a few disappointments. Witness our lunch on Sunday - although, as usual, I did not take photos to demonstrate. The first course - Delia's roast tomato salad tasted pretty nice, but I overcooked the tomatoes. They had shrunk right down and the overall appearance was not great. A bit like the ones below. They were supposed to be plump and succulent. It was made even worse looking by the dark olive oil and balsamic vinegar vinaigrette that you poured over them.

But never mind the taste was pretty good - quite intense. Just not very pretty.

Then there were the cured pork chops. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had said to leave them in their curing mixture of salt, sugar and herbs for between 12 and 24 hours. I think they had about 18 - and it was too long. Either that or I didn't rinse them enough because they were very salty - also not helped by the cornichon and caper garnish. The potatoes were also well overcooked but this turned out to be a great thing. The cheese had melted so much over the potatoes that it and they became crunchy. They might have looked a bit unprepossessing but they tasted great. Along the way I had experienced fear because you were supposed to cook the potatoes in their skin and when softish - I swear they were - crush them before coating with oil and eventually cheese and baking. But they just wouldn't crush so in the end I had to cut them up and just squash the edges. Cook until really soft next time I think. Dessert was Ok though.

Perhaps I should keep in mind Julia Child's words: “Usually, one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is.” Truth to tell I'm never entirely sure whether it's my own, probably too high standards, or whether it's fear of disappointing others. Or - to quote Alice Zaslavsky's words, from the Introduction to her book The Joy of Better Cooking - the real impetus for this post:

"Forget about cooking for someone else's tastes or expectations. I've tried doing that in the past, and would strongly not recommend. Why? because fear lives here, and the paralysis of choice. Oh, and doubt, of course, about what it is you should be doing and whether you're good enough." Alice Zaslavsky

Oh so very, very true.

It was she who mentioned fear whereas I guess I would have gone for the more moderate 'anxiety'. But she is almost right. Mostly I am cooking for David (and myself) and that increasingly involves a lot of choices that I might otherwise not make, because of his likes and dislikes. So yes, there is a tiny element of fear that it (a) won't please enormously; (b) won't be up to his expectations or (c) will actively displease. Which does evoke a tiny bit of fear. I fear I lack Julia Child's attitude to cooking prowess:

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." Julia Child

Which is why I like the videos of that guy Jamie who is cooking his way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. He often makes mistakes but doesn't get upset by it and in the end it generally turns out well, even brilliant. Very 'what-the-hell.

On the other hand that kind of advice goes against all the other advice that you see everywhere - summed up in another Julia Child quote:

“I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a valentine as you can give.”

Almost every cook with a name, every cookbook and every foodie magazine has said something of the kind at some point. Cooking is an act of love, and so of course you try to please the person or persons you are cooking for - to cater to their tastes. I mean what would be the point of serving David prawns? It's far too late to persuade him that they are delicious and because I am only his wife, not an important customer (if he was still working), then he would just refuse to try it anyway. So wasted effort.

And let's not forget the people with allergies and sensitivities to various foodstuffs - vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant, fructose intolerant, gluten intolerant ... There's enormous fear of inadvertently feeding someone with a genuine and alarming intolerance the wrong thing by mistake. Vegetarian these days is easy. Remember when it would paralyse you with indecision. But every day it seems some other kind of intolerance comes up. And here I have to include a mildly funny quote I found today:

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food, and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.” Andy Rooney

So yes there is a lot of fear out there, most of it self-generated and unnecessary, but other people have a much more serious and alarming fear of cooking - so much so that there is an actual medical name for it - Mageirocophobia. Now I did not know that. I came across it on a site called Mind Help, but it's not just some weird theory from a health nut, there are other sites with rather more well-known credentials who talk about it too. It's an actual thing. It may be an overall inclusive thing, or it may just be one aspect of cooking - but the five aspects they mention are: Fear of cooking. Fear of the process. Fear of cooking inedible food. Fear of causing illness. Fear of poor presentation. And it's often associated with other mental illnesses.

I guess if you are a professional cook then all of those - in particular causing illness, poor presentation and inedible food would be important - but to the ordinary, everyday person I think the only one to be aware of at least is fear of the process - sharp knives and flames and all that.

I try very hard not to get up tight about my cooking. It ought to be something almost semi automatic and easy. And mostly it is. But disappointment lurks at all times - it won't taste as good as you thought it would, the people you have cooked it for won't like it, it won't look as good as it did in your beautiful cook book ... And even after years, and years of cooking I am still able to make simple mistakes like not reading the recipe properly and missing out a step or an ingredient, cooking for too long or not long enough, or cooking at the wrong temperature. Anything really. Which brings us back to the fact that learning to cook - learning anything really - is best done by making mistakes. And sometimes - well very occasionally - the mistake turns out better than the original. There are so many myths associated with particular dishes that sprang from a mistake - tarte Tatin being the most famous.

So yes you have to go for it:

"cooking is going to make you a better cook." Tyler Florence

Or put another way - 'Just do it' as the late Michael Jackson famously sang. Look in the fridge to see what you've got, select the things that go together, chuck them in a baking tray with some oil and herbs and spices or sauce and cook them. Voilà - dinner.


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