Last night after work we stopped off at the store and got fresh eggs, sweet butter, heavy cream, spices, flour (cake and all-purpose), sugar (granulated, brown and powdered), bittersweet chocolate morsels, cocoa and cream of tartar. At home there was milk, nuts, pure vanilla extract. I have everything I need. I could cook anything. Yet I cooked nothing. Tonight, again, with hours to spare, I baked no treats. Why? I sometimes have a fear of cooking.
It's no ordinary fear. I don't fear failure: I have faith in any recipe I'll find in my cookbooks. I could even bake without a recipe, and it would turn out fine. I'm not afraid of wasting time, effort or even ingredients--every baking supply is either in the house or across the street at the Safeway. But somehow, when I sit down with a cookbook looking for ideas or direction, I flip pages, reject everything, then watch two hours of television. It's a palpable fear that keeps me out of the kitchen. I can feel it.
I gather my courage and step over to the cabinet, take out a cookie sheet, look it over. "No, I don't think so," and back it goes. I set out the butter to warm for creaming, go off for an hour reading cookbooks, then return and put it right back in the fridge. These half-starts are infuriating. If I could just get two ingredients irrevocably together--butter and sugar, water and flour, even breaking an egg--I'd be committed, I'd have to bake something. But I don't. Now it's eleven at night, and I'm writing about why I didn't cook.
Ambrose Bierce defined industry as work done to avoid some other, more odious task. Heaven knows I can get anything done so long as I'm facing some other deadline. But I love to cook, and I certainly enjoy the finished product, so why would I be putting it off? What is this fear that keeps our kitchen cold and organized, when it could blaze with the happy chaos of full-throttle baking?
Another great thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote of the "vertigo of infinite possibilities." For Sartre, riding a train was agony, because he couldn't take his eyes off the emergency brake. At any moment, at every moment, he just might reach up and pull that cord, force the train to a screaming emergency stop, simply because he could. The potential paralyzed him, make him dizzy, gave him vertigo.
Before I cook anything, I face that vertigo. If I know I must cook a particular dish, the vertigo is a mere molehill. But without that need, when I know I could cook anything, I'm faced with a mountain. I grab the cookie sheet, so I must have decided on cookies--but that means I can't make custard. How about custard, then? But there's no brown sugar in custard, shouldn't it be used? And custard would use all the eggs, so nothing else could be made without a run to the store...and on and on, juggling infinity, trapped in an existential world, a boundless prison, hemmed in by forever, surrounded by potential, catatonic with possibility, frozen in a sunspot, unable to move...
In the end I am a poor creature, trapped in time and space, sitting in my solopsistic asylum, eating Nestle toll house morsels out of the bag.
Hell is other recipes.
A Burke and Wells essay