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September 13, 2018
Permission to Cook Normal Food

A home cook’s ambitions, driven by a sometimes insane and frequently unrealistic food media, yield to blissful mediocrity.

When I make dinner, there are two cooks in the kitchen. There’s the cookbook-combing, magazine-flipping, David Lebovitz dot com reading dynamo who sees sweet potatoes on his counter and envisions perching twice-roasted hunks on a mint-strewn, yogurt-sauce-slathered platter, who takes a rib eye from the fridge and muses over ideal treatments—the frequent-flip, the reverse sear, the herb-butter baste. Then there’s the guy who actually makes dinner.

This guy has significantly less patience, talent, and confidence than the former. He also has a habit of waiting too long to shop and prep, ensuring that by the time actual cooking commences, projects with even a flicker of ambition get traded down to frantic ad-libs.

With a hungry four-year-old bleating for food and a five-month-old threatening to topple over, he resorts to a sweet potato cooking method that amounts to “roast until you smell burning.” His dreams of experimenting with science-minded steak techniques cave to what I like to call the reverse reverse-sear—instead of slow-roasting, then finishing in a hot pan in order to boost enzymatic tenderization, minimize the internal-temperature gradient, and maximize the Maillard reaction, I just, like, cook it in a pan.

By the time I’ve finished scouring my older kid’s daily bowl of whole wheat spaghetti with tomato sauce for visible pieces of garlic—because God forbid there are visible pieces of garlic!—and dealing with an ill-timed diaper situation, dinner has gone from Bon Appétit cover shoot to a struggle plate from Cooking for Bae.

For this nightly clash between Technicolor aspiration and dull reality, I blame people like me. I help write cookbooks, many of them with breezy, you-can-do-it prose—“it’s a simple process, really, as long as you have a three mandolines and a Vitamix!”—and photos of chef-engineered, food-stylist-fussed plates, with a few disingenuous stray crumbs on the table as if to say, “See, pros aren’t perfect, either.” I fully believe in the purpose of these books: to celebrate creativity, create culinary artifact, and provide tools that help people make tastier food. But I also understand why, when I flaunt to friends my latest 344-page tome full of four-page recipes, they nod politely and decline to take home a copy—muttering something about limited shelf space.

Food magazines, both print and virtual, are typically better attuned to the privations of home cooks. Yet I’ve found that the appeal of these publications is undercut by a surfeit of talent among the test kitchen staff. Seeking out a recipe for, say, roasted potatoes can give you the impression that no self-respecting cook would serve tubers without subjecting them to duck fat or salt crusts, romesco sauces or harissa rubs, cheese dredges or Hasselbackery or thwacking with a rolling pin. Between the endlessly clever riffs, “best ever” hyperbole, and “you’re doing it all wrong” disabusals, the universe of recipes can look like a Hubble Telescope highlight reel, even though dinner, like space, is often about as exciting as gray rocks drifting in blackness.

Now, I imagine that not everyone gets grumpy about having an incredible bounty of recipe ideas at his or her fingertips. No one’s forcing me to crust, sauce, or thwack my potatoes. And I will admit that virtually all of the hundred or so open tabs on my Internet browser that aren’t articles on the logistics of presidential impeachment are recipes whose cleverness made me think, “I should totally make this.” Still, looking to Jerusalem or old issues of Lucky Peach for dinner inspiration can feel like scrolling through Instagram for vacation ideas—everyone else seems to be at a riad in Marrakech or a hacienda in Mexico City while you’re staying on a pull-out in Margate, New Jersey.

My insecurities are compounded by the company I keep, the kind souls who invite me over for meals featuring things like stacks of freshly made tortillas, pots of laborious curries, or briskets smoked for more time than it takes to fly to Austin and back. Just the other day, I bumped into a friend as I was leaving my neighborhood market, and, noticing my shopping bag, he asked what I was making for dinner. This is a friend who semi-regularly debones pig heads to make Bath chaps, who always seems to be in Copenhagen, and whose bacchanalian New Year’s Eve spread includes a flock of geese roasted on his wood-burning grill. I’m embarrassed to admit that I almost didn’t tell him I was planning to cook a plain steak with some tomatoes splashed with olive oil and vinegar. But then I thought, hey, I like Margate, New Jersey.

RECIPE: Reverse Reverse-Seared Steak With Acceptable Tomato Salad

JJ Goode

JJ Goode helps great chefs write cookbooks.