Caution: food writing creates a set of self esteem issues you probably haven’t seen since the 10th grade. Once word gets around that you write about food, people start acting funny. When a friend recently heard I was attending a small get together for which he was cooking, he remarked “Oh great, now the pressure’s on. Why does she have to be there?” He was half-kidding (I think) seeing as how I was clearly standing within earshot, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. His blackened chicken fettuccine was remarkable, possibly better than one I could have concocted. His error lay not in thinking that his food wouldn’t meet my expectations, but that I had any expectations at all. I was just glad that someone else was doing the cooking for a change—sometimes cooking is a real joy for me, but it’s often the same utilitarian pain in the neck that it is for most people. He could have made a bowl of Cheerios and I would have thought it was pure genius.
A few times I’ve been mistakenly referred to as a “food critic” by friends, and I could see people get nervous, like they were thinking “Do I know anything about food? Should I bring up truffles? Can I cook? Am I going to have to feed this woman at some point?” My friends probably just lacked a better term for what I do, but food critic is off the mark. I don’t review restaurants for a living, and when I do write about restaurants, I’m not making value judgements most of the time. The idea of critiquing a restaurant and becoming a Taste Maker doesn’t really appeal to me. “Critic” implies that my taste somehow matters, both economically and socially, and it doesn’t. Trust me, restaurant owners aren’t pasting my photo up in their kitchens so that I’m given good service and good food every time. I get bad service and bad food just like all the other patrons in town. No cafe will be made or broken by the number of stars I dole out. Most importantly, the word “critic” seems to imply a sinister ulterior motive that I do not possess. I think food is too interesting and too much fun to ruin it by calling myself a Food Critic, donning some black rimmed hipster glasses, and taking notes every time I sit down to chicken wings at Big Daddy’s.
The insecurities food writing induces in the writer herself, however, are perhaps the worst; the dry, cardboard-like corn bread I took to a New Year’s Eve party… I knew everyone was whispering in the corners: she’s a food writer? really? this is terrible… I could make a better cornbread in my sleep. And really, they could have made a better cornbread than mine. It was awful. The macaroni and cheese I served at Christmas? A petroleum byproduct at best. The garbanzo bean salad I made for a friend’s recent dinner party? The silence was deafening. I would say I could only hear them chewing, but truthfully, they may have been swallowing each bite whole so that they wouldn’t have to taste it. That’s not to say that all of my food is bad. Obviously, I knock it out of the park on a fairly regular basis, but that doesn’t lessen my anxiety when it comes to preparing food for other people. I’m always worried if people will like my food, if I deserve to be writing about food. I worry that I won’t be able to live up to the impossible standards that I imagine other people have for me.
And my failures in the kitchen aren’t even the worst of it—I can’t even begin to tell you what I don’t know about food. I had honestly never tried lamb until three weeks ago. Never. I’ve never eaten foie gras or truffles. Not that I don’t want to try these things, I just haven’t yet had the opportunity. I don’t own a food processor. The ex kept my old one in the divorce and I’ve never bothered to replace it. I don’t own Silpat or a single piece of Le Creuset. And so I wonder sometimes, do I have a right to be writing about food?
Yes. Eating and cooking and then about food is, for me, a process of discovery: discovery of my own limitations and promise, discovery of the heritage and hospitality of my friends, discovery of what is good and fun and delicious in a town that is often hard to live in. And it’s a way for me to get to know my own insecurities and see past them. I have learned that my friends love me because of my mistakes, not in spite of my mistakes. They love the fact that I have a sense of humor about my failures, that I learn from them, and that I’m more human than foodie.
One of the mistakes I consistently make is that, in an effort to impress people, I will try something new and exciting. This is good. Courage and experimentation are necessary tools in the kitchen. Otherwise you’ll just make the same Hamburger Helper every night for the rest of your life. But if you’re going to make something new, don’t go too far; experiments fail. They should fail until they succeed. And you don’t want to try your first failure out on someone else.
The following is a recipe for something very simple. When your experimental cornbread recipe fails, you can whip this up in seconds, and for most of the year our local markets have plenty of heirloom tomatoes around.
Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
If you want to be fancy call it: Heirloom Insalata Caprese
- 8-10 heirloom tomatoes (different sizes, colors, and types)
- 1 8-12 oz package of mozzarella pearls, drained
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
- salt and cracked pepper
Directions: Chop the tomatoes into broad chunks and mix them with the other ingredients. Add a bit of green (cilantro, spinach, parley, etc.) if you so desire.