I used to believe that the true secret of extraordinary success in the kitchen lay in skillful grocery shopping. I was doomed, it seemed, the minute I hit the market, where I was hardwired to revisit the same aisles, to buy the same ingredients, to make the same dishes, over and over and over again.
It was like Groundhog Day, but with cheese.
And then, one day, Nigella Lawson appeared on television to reveal what a well-stocked pantry truly looked like. Thrilled beyond measure, I sat down to take notes, only to be blindsided by the results. “Naturally, candied lavender,” she purred, “is an absolute must.”
Now I was really doomed.
My mother, who was beautiful and funny and brilliant in every way, was acually a rather distracted cook. She was also thin — naturally thin, the kind of thin where she forgot to make meals sometimes because she didn’t actually appear to think about food very much. Our family lived for many years in Paris, where you could eat extremely well pretty much anywhere without ever setting foot in your own kitchen. Curiously, many of my food memories of Paris that do involve our kitchen are sort of strange, like the time Carmen, our Spanish babysitter, stayed with us for a week while our parents were away, and upon learning that my sister and I liked to eat toast for breakfast, proceeded to torch the entire loaf and put it in the dish cupboard, whereupon we were obliged to eat from the cold, charred pile for the next five days.
I was surrounded, it seemed, by distracted cooks.
There is a story — possibly apocryphal, though I tend to doubt it — that when I was about four years old, I accompanied my mother to the supermarket where she deftly steered me to what can only have been the aisles where she herself was a repeat visitor: the produce section, the butcher area, and so forth. As ours was a sugar-free and high-protein sort of household, this meant my mother pretty much avoided anything sweet, prompting me to proclaim — rather indignantly and at the top of my toddler lungs — you never go down the candy aisle.
Which she didn't, and which reinforces my point: might we posit that a willing embrace of all the aisles in the supermarket result in a more diversified pantry, and consequently, make one a better, bolder cook?
The more I consider the idea, I do think there's a great opportunity for some kind of cooking rehabilitation service for people like me, built on the premise that being a good cook has less to do with deboning a duck or flipping a frittata, and more to do with navigating those alien aisles filled with mystery ingredients. I also dream of someone creating an app that lets you plug in what you actually have in stock, funellng it through some sort of alchemical algorithm that spits out the possible options (candied lavender + burnt toast + and vodka: GO!) much the way Anagrammer does for people who cheat at Scrabble. (Not that I would know.)
And by the way, I'll bet Nigella's mother always went down the candy aisle.
This post is part of multi-site online conversation looking at food, curated by Good magazine's Nicola Twilley.