After writing last month’s post about snickerdoodles I ran across an adaptation of Martha Stewart’s recipe. Of course, it’s half again as rich as the ones I made. Is that a problem?
Let me say first that I am not in the legions of Martha-haters. Martha Stewart is great at what she does. We have two of her cookbooks, and the recipes are fantastic. I don’t object to the fact that many of them are less a recipe than a lifestyle; they are what they are, and the results usually justify the work.
Martha’s schtick is making everything special. All of her cookies — and let’s just take the cookies, since that’s what I’ve been writing about — look like something from a baker’s window. The sugar cookies are cut into alphabet shapes and elaborately iced. The gingerbread men have so much butter they’re quite difficult to roll out. The snickerdoodles use half again as much butter and egg as the ones I made and are more than twice as big. I’m sure the snickerdoodles are fabulous; the way to make tender, chewy cookies is to make them big and rich. I’m sure they taste like something out of a baker’s window, as well.
I don’t need a cookie out of a baker’s window, though — certainly not every day. Not even every week. A baker’s-window cookie is a special treat, and I don’t need special treats all the time. Nor do you. Nor does my kid. Nobody does. If we have special treats all the time, they stop being special. Also we get fat.
What’s more, baking cookies has become something I usually do with my daughter, and when you are baking with a seven year-old there are limits on how fussy you can be. Fancy cookies, at that age, are cut out in animal shapes and sprinkled with artificially-colored sugar or rolled in cinnamon sugar. The dough, if the child is going to work with it, has to have some structure; it can’t be butter, egg, and sugar with just barely enough flour to hold it together. Good as baker’s-window cookies are, they are not starter cookies.
I don’t object to Martha being Martha. There’s a place for baker’s-window cookies. What’s bad, I think, is the extent to which this sort of food dominates the culture. Every recipe, every magazine, every food blog, wants to tell you the single best way to cook something. (There are exceptions, but they can be hard to find. It’s only been gone a month, but I already miss The Minimalist.)
I believe, as do a lot of people, that one of the best ways to get people to eat more healthy food is to get them to cook it themselves. I believe that principle extends to baking. I believe it’s better to do it yourself for a lot of other reasons as well (economy, taste, satisfaction). But baking is not easy. To get good at it, you have to bake a lot. And you cannot bake baker’s-window cookies (or anything else on that level) all the time, not if you are genuinely a home cook, getting dinner on the table for your family after working all day. You can’t get started by baking the best, either — nor can you teach your children to cook that way. If baking is a special-occasion thing, very few people will bake at home.
There’s an argument that people are better off eating things like cookies seldom but eating the very best when they do. A year ago I think I would have agreed. Now, after a year of researching and baking, I’m starting to see the virtues of the full cookie jar. Of having a batch of good but not earth-shattering cookies, cookies that are a little bit sweet and rich but not ludicrously so, cookies that are reasonably serving-sized, cookies that you baked yourself, there when you want a bite of something sweet — which, let’s be honest, most of us do. Avoiding dessert six days out of seven (for example) takes discipline that could better be directed elsewhere (working out, keeping the garden weeded, finishing my book). And when the cravings have built up, what then? Wouldn’t moderation be better?
To eat in moderation, though, and to cook at home, we need food that’s good enough — food that’s satisfying, that doesn’t leave us craving more, but that doesn’t bloat us in a single serving; food that’s easy enough to cook every day; food that provides more than mere physical satiation. We need cooking that can be integrated into our lives, cooking as a daily ritual, cooking as family time. We need to accept that we don’t need the best, richest, newest, most flavorful, most amazingly delicious thing all the time.
Of course we should have some standards; of course we should cook thoughtfully and look for ways to improve. But we should also get dinner on the table, and we should also bake cookies with our kids. It’s one thing to aspire to perfection; it’s another to expect it and set yourself up for failure. Perfectionism is not a path to doing one’s work joyfully. Unless it’s combined with humility — the recognition that one is not perfect, and won’t be — it’s a recipe for frustration. If you aspire to baker’s window perfection, you might achieve it — but what if you don’t, or if you simply don’t have time for it? Chances are you simply won’t bother.