“Most people worry to some degree, but worry about making mistakes, about making the wrong decision, about what others think, about doing well enough, and about failure and rejection are all a daily part of a perfectionist’s life. Beneath these fears is a deep desire to gain approval and acceptance and to avoid shame and humiliation.”
—Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism, by Richard Winter
Most of us live with some area of life in which the goal of perfection threatens to consume us. My desire to control imperfections in myself and others, in circumstances and outcomes, has proved not only futile, but sometimes destructive, robbing me of delight and the ability to serve others for Christ’s sake. This tendency surfaced early in my life as I began creating a graveyard of burned, curdled and fallen dishes.
I was eleven years old when I experienced my first the-world-has-ended cooking disaster. Back then we didn’t have the Food Network or glossily-illustrated Cooking in Provence for comparison, but we had Betty Crocker, and we had mothers and grandmothers as living role models who dwelt in unapproachable light turning out tender, flaky pie crusts, savoury pot roasts, moist cakes and perfect gravies. Especially perfect gravy. Satiny, seasoned, bountiful gravy ladled over loaded plates and sopped up with hunks of fresh bread.
It was midsummer haying time on our farm and customary to have a crew of neighbours help throw hay bales onto a trailer, haul them from the field to the barn and sheds, then meticulously stack them to the roof for the following winter. It was hot, hard work and important for the farmer’s wife to feed them a huge noon meal with the best of what she had. On this particular day my mother was in the hospital, which was upsetting enough. But that also left me alone with the Dutch oven and six hungry men. More than anything, I wanted her to be proud of me. Carefully, I watched the time, because the inexperienced cook’s biggest challenge is getting everything to the table simultaneously—the roast beef was sliced on a platter, the enormous pot of potatoes were mashed, two quarts of canned green beans were simmering, sliced tomatoes from the garden glistened on a plate and a chocolate cake with fudge icing was ready for dessert.
The only thing left was making gravy from the meat drippings. I had watched Mom do it many times, but alone I wasn’t so sure. Reheating the pot on the stovetop, I added more water and dumped in a half cup of flour. Although I stirred madly, it made itself into sticky dumplings of dough. I added more water to thin it out, which merely increased the volume, allowing the lumps to float more freely. I added more flour, hoping to blend the lumps into a kind of batter and then re-thin it to the right consistency. The lumps refused to dissolve, and the whole thing morphed into a tasteless gray paste—with lumps. Then I thought, “I’ll add milk!” to make it creamed gravy. Brilliant. When it finally came to a full roiling boil, a thick layer peeled off the bottom, adding scorched chunks and more colour to what could no longer be called gravy. It was a shameful gallon of gelatinous waste. Getting rid of it seemed critical. No one would know if I fed it to the pigs, who indiscriminately ate everything with awesome intensity. They were thrilled and as fast as I scraped it into their trough it disappeared.
As we sat down to eat with everyone in place Dad asked, “Where’s the gravy?” I don’t even remember what I said, but I know I gave myself a D-.
Long ago, I began a journey of leaving behind the goal of perfection when I walked into the kitchen. I still work at it. (See a recent ruin here.) My desire to create the Food & Wine museum-worthy dish isn’t going to happen most days, and I’m contented with more reasonable goals like tipping the omelet out of the pan without landing it on the floor. I believe this applies broadly to life whether we are talking about scholarly achievement or relationships. Not that we shouldn’t try to do things well. Not at all. But as North American Christians, we are sorely tempted to believe that if we were really dedicated and disciplined, we’d make the Olympic team. My husband and I have needed to remind one another of this repeatedly, and it’s even true of our marriage: if we want perfection or nothing, we’ll get nothing.
One of the most important aspects of eating together—providing a safe place for shared communion—is enhanced when you are freed from the many “shoulds” and “oughts” perfectionism brings. As you increase your range and skill in the kitchen, keep a sense of proportion—and if failures occur, there’s always the dog or the compost. If there’s no time to start over, serve hot cinnamon toast or run to the deli for a cheese and a loaf of bread.
In my collection of dishes on repeat I keep many that are simple, affordable and nearly fail-proof. On a busy, stressful day, they don’t just help with perspective—they bring as much blessing and comfort to those who might be eating with us as any of my culinary capstones.
Simple Potato Soup
(Children also like this.)
2-4 slices bacon (optional)
1 medium onion, diced (leeks may be substituted)
4 potatoes (Yukon gold or red) peeled, diced (about 5 cups)
4-5 cups chicken broth (or use water and 2 or 3 chicken bouillon cubes)
1 cup of milk
½ cup light cream
Salt and pepper
In a large three-quart saucepan, fry bacon until crisp. Remove, crumble, and set aside.
Pour off most of the fat and sautÃ© the onions in the same pan. When the onions are softened, add the diced potatoes and broth or water with bouillon cubes. Cook until potatoes are tender.
At this point, if you choose, you can mash down some of the potatoes or blend some or all the soup. Whatever appeals. Add the milk and light cream or any combination of it. Amount of liquid determines thickness. Season and reheat. Sprinkle each serving with a bit of bacon. Serve with a good crunchy bread, carrot sticks and pickles. If you want to punch up the protein, add a couple of sliced sausages as you sautÃ© the onion. (Any kind will do.)
There you have it: a complete meal. Almost perfect!