Kitchen Anxiety: Handling Home Cooking in the 'Top Chef' Era



I am not afraid of bees or bugs or the dark. I am not afraid of public speaking or taking charge of a group. I am a reasonably competent 23-year-old who lives by herself and cleans her apartment and does her laundry every Saturday. I take out the trash and the recycling. And I am terrified every time I show up at a friend's house for dinner and find myself asking the question, "Do you need help with anything?"

Don't get me wrong: I am not someone who doesn't know how to boil water or dice an onion. I cook for myself most nights, and when I'm really on top of it, I make double portions and have leftovers for lunch the next day. It isn't that I can't cook, but that doing it for other people makes me unreasonably anxious. And in this, I would guess, I am not alone.

It is, in many ways, understandable: Cooking is risky. You're offering both to nourish and to please whoever you're feeding, to see to their health as you engage their tastes. To cook for someone is to try to give sustenance as a gift, one that is laced with social implications. (It is no accident that the traditional trajectory of dating waits until the third date to move from restaurant to home kitchen.)

To share that meal with friends is, in some sense, to tell them what your world looked like today,
and what you made from it.

It seems to me, however, that my kitchen anxiety has progressed beyond a shy desire to please at the same rate that food and its preparation have become a near-constant topic of conversation (even among my friends who don't work for a project with "food" in the name). With the rise of the kitchen stadium and the advent of the food blog, critical language has become the order of the day. Somewhere between Iron Chef and Top Chef, eating has become a game you can win, both as skilled cook and as outspoken critic. The new food culture prizes sustainability (sometimes) and creativity, and it wants to get us excited again about what's on our plates. None of those things are in themselves problematic. But when you start hearing Tom Colicchio over your shoulder as you stir up another sauté of things found in the fridge, wondering why you aren't reaching for a more exotic flavor profile, it might be time to start worrying.

There is also the matter of health, both human and environmental, and of the furious national debate about what and how and how much we're supposed to be eating. Putting the whole industry of diet programs aside, we come up against questions of local or organic or biodynamic or hydroponic, confronted by a technical vocabulary of growing techniques with government-certified definitions that do not always match the way the words sound in our heads. It takes me hours to get through a grocery store; I'm wary of one-size-fits-all solutions, and I read every label. I buy local produce to roast and add to Mideast grain mixes from Trader Joe's. I slice California-grown figs onto locally baked bread and pick conventional Connecticut raspberries rather than their organic cross-country counterparts. I'm not sure about any of these decisions, but I make them, because I have to eat something.

Sometimes the greenwashed retail scene seems too much; lacking easy answers, I wonder if the questions themselves aren't flawed. The number of decisions to be made once you've decided to get interested in food's provenance can be overwhelming. It asks a kind of engagement that is difficult to come by when so much else demands attention. And yet these choices have effects, whether or not we can acknowledge or even fully understand them. Conscious consumerism may sound like an opt-out, a way of excusing our acquisitive selves, but given that we're going to be consumers, we ought to be ethical ones. There may not be easy answers as to what we should be eating, or how we should be growing it, but the pursuit and the effort are just as worthy. To consider where your food comes from is to involve yourself with science and economics, your taste and your values, what you want for dinner and what you want the world to look like 20, 50, 100 years from now. To share that meal with friends is, in some sense, to tell them what your world looked like today, and what you made from it.

This is why I cook, regularly for myself and for others when I can work up the nerve. It is not because I am good at it, or because I think I ever will be. Cooking doesn't have to be a display of technical prowess or agricultural knowledge. When I cook for myself I get to be intuitive, the day and the contents of the fridge and my own body's quiet desires pulling together ingredients for a meal. Cooking for others means caring for them, giving of myself even when I'm not certain of the value of my offer. It terrifies me, yes, because it forces me out into the world, into action and participation, into engagement with the most basic, physical aspects of my life. I have to learn to take care of myself before I can be good for anyone else, my friends or family or community, much less the planet. So for now, this is the plan: I start with breakfast every morning, and take it from there.