Nature Versus Nurture, or The Automatic Cook

13 Feb
The Food Network Kitchen, where you will be in school for the rest of your life.

The Food Network Kitchen, where you will be in school for the rest of your life.

I am very lucky.  I started this wee blog to blather on about cooking and baking and to try and convince folks that the kitchen is not a scary place.  Along the way, I have picked up a merry band of followers, and I merrily follow others.  It’s like the Sherwood Forest of the Hinternet where everyone gets to be Robin Hood, except without tights.  And hats with feathers.  Ahem.  The point is, all these folks are very smart, funny and talented.  They’re excellent writers and are all blogging, mostly about food, for different reasons.

Well yesterday, one of these talented, funny people commented thusly:

Daily Spud alerted me to this post in a comment on my most recent entry “Crouching Tiger, Cooking Dolphin” where I asked if nature or nurture determined cooking skills. I’d love to get your take on it!

I’d like to consider myself creative, at least when it comes to writing and crafting. However, I tend to box myself into a recipe, following it to the letter rather than allowing any creativity to jump in and yell, “Hey, how about trying this!”. On occasion, it does get my attention but too often I tamp it down. It may be tied into a fear of failure. But then again, failure is a learning opportunity, isn’t it?–Tangled Noodle

So, I put it in my brain that I would write about this very topic today.  And then, guess what?  Another brilliant and talented reader/readee responded to the first comment.  Thusly:

Tangled Noodle, I think you have it exactly when you say it’s a fear of failure. Creativity is not so much the ability to come up with new ideas, as the confidence to actually *try* them.

Confidence comes from knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Fearlessness — not the same thing — comes from a realization of the low impact of failure. (Ooh, your soufflé fell, the world won’t end.)

Just plain fearlessness can lead to spectacular originality. Or spectacular failure. (Oh, it was an *anchovy* soufflé. Okay then.) Confidence leads to boldness, and to constantly expanding horizons of knowledge.

Instead of trying to be creative with a brand new recipe, start with one you already know well. Maybe brown sugar instead of white in your chocolate chip cookies. How does that change them? Or thyme instead of oregano in your spaghetti sauce, what will that taste like?

Most creative success builds on a foundation of knowledge. The most creative people generally have the deepest, widest foundation on which to build.–Drew from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother

See how smart everyone is around here?  This is just about exactly what I would have said, and I could just leave it at that, but I’m not going to.  I’ll add my own 3.5 cents worth.  Thusly:

What people don’t seem to understand, and what The Food Network and most cookbooks fail to tell us, is that you cannot be truly free and comfortable in the kitchen until you really understand and have internalized the principles of ingredient function, cooking/baking methods and techniques.  Drawing on my psychology background (are you really surprised), it’s all about automaticity.  My spellchecker says it’s not a word, but it really is.  Ah-ta-mah-TIH-si-tee.  What this little theory states is that, when we are first learning a new skill, we are hypervigilant and very mindful of the learning process.  We’re actively engaged and intent on performing each step correctly (and in the right order).  Through repetition, we become more and more comfortable with the steps until eventually we can perform them without even thinking about them.  Voila:  automaticity.

Think back to when you learned to drive a car.  Wow, but there are a lot of things to keep in mind.  Gears, brakes, turn signals, gas caps, rear view mirrors, ten and two, three-point turns, parallel parking and on and on and on.  Remember your driving test?  I knew some guys who were very cavalier about the whole thing–they seemed at ease and not a bit nervous about performing these complex tasks under the watchful eye of The Examiner.  I was in awe of those guys.  What I only later came to realize was that they had been driving, illegally, for a really long time and had internalized all the rules.  On the other end of the spectrum, there was me.  I was Petrified.  I knew next to nothing about driving when I started in Driver Education classes.  Seriously.  I somehow thought that, once I had the car up to 35 mph, it would stay there, uphill and down, without my having to do anything else.  Turns out, you have to apply the brakes or the gas or coast to keep yourself at a constant speed.  Who knew?  The guys that had been driving for years knew. That didn’t make them better than me, although at the time, I thought they were better.  It just made them better drivers.  And they were better because they had had more practice.  They had achieved automaticity–they could perform all the individual tasks required to drive without having to think about them.  Meanwhile, here I was, all talking myself through each step and sweating.  Amateur.  Guess what?  You will be pleased to know that I have become an automatic driver.

Now, apply the principle of automaticity to cooking.  There are a ton of rules.  A ton!  Heaps of skills to be learned.  Methods to get down pat.  Techniques to become proficient in. When we first start cooking, we have to consciously think about each step and refer to cook books to tell us what to do next.  We have to think about the correct way to hold a knife, dice an onion, make a stock.  It’s a slow, time consuming and often stressful proposition.  And that’s where many home cooks are right now.  They’re in the hypervigilant learning phase.  I’ve been there, too.  I can remember checking off ingredients on recipes, slaving away for hours over what would now take me just a few minutes, and following instructions without knowing why.

Which brings me, inevitably, to The Food Network (FN–fitting, I think.  Say it again:  EFFenn).  Have you guys heard this Chinese proverb before?  “Give a man a fish, and he eats today.  Teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.”  Let me tell you folks, The Food Network is keeping us down and just giving us fish.  Giada might tell you to cut up onions and celery and cook them in some oil and butter in a pan, but what she fails to tell you is that’s the way that most Italian cooking starts! It’s the first step because it builds your first level of flavor.  And, what do they do in France?  They do the same thing, but they add carrots.  It’s called mire poix.  And how do I know this?  Not from the Food Network.  It really kind of pisses me off:  they don’t tell us these things because then we would know.  And if we know, we won’t need them anymore.  Soylent Green is People!  (Sorry.  Not sure where that came from). They aren’t teaching us to cook.  If they were, they’d say, “dice onion, garlic and celery and sweat them in olive oil.  This is a soffritto.  This is the basis of many, many dishes.  Next time, when I say ‘make a soffritto,’ you’ll know what I’m talking about.”  Sneaky, selfish Food Network people.  If they were really teaching us, eventually, we wouldn’t need them anymore.  What they’re doing is just stringing us along, one recipe at a time.

I seem to have gotten off on quite the tangent.  Imagine that.  Back to my original point (I think):  you can’t achieve automaticity by watching The Food Network.  You can only achieve it through learning and internalizing the fundamentals.  Like the Very Smart Drew says, “Most creative success builds on a foundation of knowledge. The most creative people generally have the deepest, widest foundation on which to build.”  To that, I add that these folks’ knowledge has been internalized to the point that they don’t even think about it.  They just unconsciously draw from their broad knowledge base and cook.  Here’s another thing:  that knowledge base isn’t an exhaustive database of recipes. It’s an understanding of ingredient function, cooking methods and techniques.  Sure, everyone has a few recipes that they know by heart, but most of the really great cooks can look at a refrigerator full of seemingly disparate ingredients and, drawing on their encyclopedia of know-how, whip up something fantastic.  If all they had in their heads was a recipe data base, they’d probably start by going to the store to purchase a few specific items that were lacking so they could make Recipe 143.26.c9.  Beep.

So, nature versus nurture?  I think you can guess on which side I come down.  To all of you cooks and bakers out there who are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed, please read your recipes and cookbooks with a discerning eye.  Sure, glance at the ingredient list, but focus on the preparation.  If 90% of the recipes in your Indian cookbook start with “grind spices.  Toast in ghee,” remember that.  Understand that it’s a way to build base flavors for that particular cuisine.  If your soup recipes all begin by telling you to cut up carrots, onions and celery, sweat them down in oil, deglaze with something and then add a bunch of broth or stock, know that you can generalize that to any soup.  If your Great Muffins cookbook tells you, time after time in recipe after recipe to combine the dry ingredients and fold in the wet ingredients, understand that they are repeating the rules for The Muffin Method over and over again.  Learn the method, and you are free (within the bounds of chemistry and good taste) to use that method to make any muffin you want.

I need to stop now.  Thank you for asking questions. Thank you for your thoughtful responses.  We can all teach and learn from each other.  And everyone can learn to cook.   Unfortunately, just like they haven’t started selling pantyhose that don’t run to ensure repeat buyers, cooking shows aren’t going to teach you how to cook.  They’re only going to show you what to cook.  They aren’t dumb–they don’t want you to graduate from Food U.  They want to keep you in school forever. You’re going to have to read between the lines of both the shows and cookbooks, learn the underlying skills and eventually achieve automaticity.  And it will take time. Don’t worry, though–you aren’t in this alone. We’re all traveling the Road to Automaticity.

29 Responses to “Nature Versus Nurture, or The Automatic Cook”

  1. vbright February 13, 2009 at 9:20 am #

    I so enjoy your blogs. lol. Effen. Indeed.

  2. groovyoldlady February 13, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    Ah…I have no TV, so the only time I’ve ever seen the FN was when my mom had surgery and I stayed at her house while she recovered. I learned to cook by reading. I am a staunch believer that if you can read cognizantly, then you can DO anything – provided the instructions are clear! Fortunately for me I started ut my adult life with two fabulous, basic cookbooks that do teach clearly and well, albeit from different angles: The Joy of Cooking (1975) and The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia Cookbook (1976). These are my go-to books for every cooking/baking question because if one doesn’t have the answer, the other will! Tey go way beyond just listing recipes and tell you how and why. I just ❤ them!

  3. Brian J. Geiger February 13, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Agreed. Well, agreed with one exception: Good Eats. The first time I really figured out what Alton Brown was trying to do was when I saw his first potato episode, where he’d been more or less kidnapped by a fan. The only thing the fan knew of cooking was from Good Eats, and she wanted to make a potato soup. So he says, “Okay, you’ve been watching the show. How do we start?” and she thinks for a second and says, “We sweat some aromatics!”

    That’s when I realized that I needed to start paying attention to what he way saying and not just learning some facts and some recipes. Alton basically said, “Look, this isn’t magic, you can figure this out,” and so I am. And that’s what I try to pass on to others. I figure, if you can visualize what’s happening inside the food as you’re manipulating it, then you’ll have a better chance of being able to do it properly.

    Also: Practice.

  4. croquecamille February 13, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    Amen. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  5. Drew Kime February 13, 2009 at 2:41 pm #

    Brian is absolutely right about Good Eats. That’s why it’s one of my favorite FN shows.

    (PS: I’m pretty sure that was me who wrote that bit about creativity.)

  6. Courtney February 13, 2009 at 3:31 pm #


    I would add–rely on your senses, especially smell. If I’m considering a new combination of herbs or spices, I will hold the open jars together and smell them. If the combined odor doesn’t smell good, it’s probably not going to taste good!

  7. onlinepastrychef February 13, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    @vbright Thanks:)

    @groovy A woman after my own heart!

    @Brian Yes, AB is a notable exception. The Beloved and I are big fans!

    @croquecamille Amen, indeed! Thanks:)

    @Drew I have remedied that. Oops, sorry 😦

    @Courtney That is an Excellent Tip; thanks for sharing it 😀

  8. Natasha - 5 Star Foodie February 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    You bring up great points on this issue. You’re definitely right about fearlessness in cooking – I’ve definitely had a lot great successes but also a few great failures. It’s easier to cook, but I have yet to conquer my fear of baking! My daughter wants me to make her a Cinderella cake for her birthday in May. I hope I’ll be ready 🙂

  9. Tangled Noodle February 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    Thankyouthankyouthankyou! I recognize so much of what you and Drew talk about. Instead of finding the familiar in techniques, I approach each dish as a completely different entity – as if I were starting from the very beginning! The soffrito is a perfect example – I begin so many of my favorite dishes by sauteing garlic and onions but rather than seeing it as a ‘base’ from which to branch out, I see it as Step 1 of that particular recipe.

    Maybe I’ll print out a recipe, blank out all of the ingredients and see what happens! I have great hope of improving: I am ‘cooking’ more instead of relying on prepared components (e.g. jarred tomato sauce) which doesn’t help me to understand how the individual components really work with one another. Wish me luck!

  10. onlinepastrychef February 13, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    @Tangled Noodle You are well on your way! I think it’s a great idea to blank out the ingredient list. And see, right there you’re ahead of some folks on the Road to Automaticity to even be able to suggest such a thing w/o shuddering! Yay, you!

  11. linda February 13, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Agree except for Alton and Molto Mario who always explains soffrito and such like. The FN is designed for the home cook who wants to put together a meal (or simply watch one being put together). Hence the popularity of the hideously unwatchable Rachael Ray or the should-have-been-stopped-at-birth Sandra Lee. If you talk to the folks in charge at FN they will tell you that they don’t want things too complicated or technical. When they’ve tried that, the shows fail. I think they should do a cake decorating how-to show (sponsored by Wilton, of course). I’ve suggested it a dozen times but nobody ever listens to me.

  12. onlinepastrychef February 13, 2009 at 10:53 pm #

    @Linda Preach it, sister! And that is a very sad commentary about Food Network. What I take away from that is that the audience as a whole, doesn’t even WANT to learn how to cook. I listen to you:)

  13. Chris February 14, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    So that’s what all the big chefhats call it: automaticity! I think we can all remember the first time we saw someone dice an onion with only five slices or so, seeming to conjure magic with that final slice and those perfectly sized onion cubes. (Or maybe it’s just me.) I relish in the fact that I was able to teach my own mother how to do that same task just months ago 🙂

    The one thing that I would defend is that the Food Network does a lot of constructive instruction, just not explicitly. Where did I learn that coffee and chocolate were meant for each other? Giada kept adding espresso into her hot chocolate. And how did I learn to use red pepper flakes in tomato sauce? Just watch Rachel Ray. It is unfortunate that there aren’t more entertainingly instructive shows like Good Eats out there, but the exposure to the techniques is almost as important as the teaching of formal names. From personal experience, it was precisely watching these shows that ignited my interest in cooking and allowed me to surpass that amateur, absolute-recipe-followed mentality.

    The same can be said about cookbooks, by the way; for example, I would estimate that at least 50-70% of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian is made up of illustrations and advice on ingredient usage.

    But I totally agree with Linda: Sandra Lee should not be allowed to host a FN show (or decorate a “tablescape”) ever again!

  14. onlinepastrychef February 14, 2009 at 8:35 pm #

    @Chris I hear what you’re saying, but I still have an issue w/FN–and it is that you *have* to read between the lines. You are a very discerning viewer who watched with the express goal of learning how to cook, and you were able to generalize one technique or method to a wide variety of dishes. For this, you rock! 😀

    Unfortunately, some people don’t generalize these techniques because they are intimidated and haven’t been “given permission” by the TV cooks to do so. Like Tangled Noodle says (and she is a very good cook–go look at her site, if you haven’t already): “I begin so many of my favorite dishes by sauteing garlic and onions but rather than seeing it as a ‘base’ from which to branch out, I see it as Step 1 of that particular recipe.” And that is where FN wants to keep everyone. (I promise I’m not yelling–you are the rare viewer who was able to take more information away after watching those shows than what was given) 🙂

  15. Niko February 15, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Excellent and thoughtful entry. As mentioned in other comments, I too enjoy Good Eats the most for the educational factor (and highly entertaining host). You’re right the FN is doing a disservice by dumbing things down but, and I hate to say it, I think people actually have become dumber. Many have lost their curiosity about the science, lore and even practical methods behind many activities including cooking. They just want a foolproof way to get from points A to B, as if all cooking followed baking rules (which, IMHO, is more of a science). That’s why you see the proliferation of lightweight cooking shows… the FN really is delivering to its audience.

  16. Ashley February 18, 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I just love to say soffritto!

  17. Daily Spud February 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    Amen to all of that (and while I’m not familiar with the Food Network, I think I get the picture, we have equivalents over here…). I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head when you say that they teach what to cook, not how. You, on the other hand, are empowering your readers (go on, take a bow…). I now proudly consider myself a student at the University of Pastry Methods and Techniques (and, hey, I’ve even gotten a cert for one of my lessons! 🙂 ).

  18. Barb/ostara February 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    I read this post a few days ago, but was busy with something else and didn’t leave a comment. So thanks for the reminder.

    I have never watched Food Network so can’t comment on that. I have watched Jamie Oliver and enjoy the simplicity of his dishes and I think he explains what he’s doing at any given moment, fairly well, but again, you need to have basic knowledge.

    I got my basic knowledge first from Fanny Farmer and then from Home Ec in school. Also, I had very patient parents who never scolded me for my often spectacular culinary catastrophes. I started cooking for the family on occasion when I was about 12 years old.

    I generally eschew fast alternatives and do most of my cooking and baking from ‘scratch’. I never hesitate to experiment but if I find a basic winning formula I will stick with it.

    Interestingly, regarding onions and garlic, I remember reading something once. A working mom was commenting that when everyone was arriving home right about supper time, and clamoring for food, she would put a frying pan on the stove with some oil, onions and garlic. Didn’t matter what she would eventually add to it. Just the smell of them cooking was enough to satisfy everyone that food was on the way.

    Enjoyed this post and all the great responses. Even old gals like me can still learn a thing or two. 🙂

  19. Beth February 23, 2009 at 2:39 am #

    You hit the nail on the head here. As autumn approached last year, I decided to get back into bread baking. When searching for something different, I ran across many comment posts etc of “No No No Yeast!!” “Never again!” Well you get it. So I started up my yeast baking blog. It’s in infancy at this time. I’ll even have a section called Mystery and Fear.

    TFN – my parents are glued to this channel. I don;t even have cable 😉 When I go over and they force me to watch with them I am appalled at some of the things I see there.

    On Nature vs Nurture, I learned how to make a basic white sauce when I was 12. From that one technique, I have concocted probably a hundred items, everything from tuna casserole to cream of celery soup. And even my famous Welfare Casserole (my friend Jeff tells me it smells like feet, but he’s an a$$)

    Welfare Casserole for People on the Skids

    Ground Beef
    Diced Onions
    Fresh or Canned Tomatoes – Diced
    Some Cooked Elbow Macaroni
    Some Cinnamon
    Some Paprika
    Salt, Pepper to Taste

    Cook up beef and onions in a pan. If you like the grease, leave the grease. Up to you.
    Add tomatoes last. If fresh cook till a little bit done. If canned just mix them in. Mix in the cooked elbows. It’s ok if there’s a little tomato liquid. If it’s too soupy, just drain some off.

    Throw it all into a lightly greased casserole. Actually you’ll just need to grease the upper walls. If you have nonstick casserole, you can skip the greasing.

    Topping for the Mess

    Basic White Sauce, about 2 cups of it, sort of medium thick
    2 or 3 eggs

    Beat the eggs into the White Sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread it over your meat mixture. Bake in oven till golden, probably 30 to 40 minutes. About 375 F is good. If you smell smoke take it out earlier. Crack out the cheap beer in the fridge and enjoy.

    It’s the eggs in the sauce that will give you the nice puffy topping. If you take the time to really aerate your eggs, the topping will be fluffier. But it’s just fine with a good whisking too.

    Everybody here loves this and can’t figure out why they like it. It’s the teaspoon or so of cinnamon that’s the secret.

    And guess what? You’ve now made what a lot of Americans call Goulash. Except their dish does not have the topping 😉

  20. Beth February 23, 2009 at 2:54 am #

    Just a small additional note for the Welfare Casserole.

    Cool your White Sauce down a little before adding the eggs. If the White Sauce is too hot, the eggs will start too cook. Comfortably warm is fine. Just make sure the White Sauce is not hot.

    You use a water bath I guess 😉

  21. wbsullivan February 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    What a great post and list of replies. I too often am looking for recipe inspiration, and not nearly often enough, personal inspiration.

    When I left my job to finish writing a book, a close colleague gave to me the following quote by Goethe. I keep it on my desk, and even take it along with me sometimes.

    I think it applies well here:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the change to draw back, always ineffective, concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. Al sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance to which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

    I think there has to be some level of boldness in cooking, but your ability to succeed when taking chances must indeed be based on a solid foundation, a solid understanding, of the chances your taking.

    I approach cooking, and eating for that matter, as though I were trying to overcome some problem, no matter how small or large. I then seek to use what I know to answer that question – often times trying to do so by taking chances and heading in some new direction. For instance, jenni, with pastry. I’d been at it for years and just couldn’t understand why the risks i’d been taking weren’t working out. I realized I had to go back to the basics. You know the rest of this story!

    The food culture, or the culture of foodies, is really booming, and I’m glad for that. But with it I suppose we also inherit the meek – people who just don’t feel the way about cooking and food that we do. So be it. And I guess so bet it that the FN wants to cater to those folks.

    But I’m hopeful the network, and every other fad, is creating at the very least some sort of echo chamber, where people are thinking more about their food – sourcing it, buying it, cooking it and, yes, eating it.

    That thought keeps me going when someone tells me they like a recipe, but could “never, ever, make that.”

    I always have the same response. “It’s really not that hard, I promise. just try it.”

  22. onlinepastrychef February 23, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    @Nico Amen to that!

    @Ashley So-FREE-toh is indeed a fun word 😆

    @Daily Spud (bowing) And the best thing about U-PMAT is there are a ton of great guest lecturers here:)

    @Barb I love the story of the onions and garlic! It’s true–you could make almost anything starting w/those ingredients sizzling happily in a pan 🙂

    @Beth Major props to you for the Welfare Casserole! White sauce in general just aches (maybe not literally) to be made into all sorts of Wonderful Concoctions. Went to your yeast blog ( and really like it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting here 🙂

    @wbsullivan I LOVE that quote. It made me well up, mostly because I see the truth of it in my own life. You are probably quite correct when you say that the Food Network is playing to the lowest common denominator. Sigh. But I love your response to folks who say they could NEVER make such-and-such a recipe: Just Try It!

  23. Jen B. February 26, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Okay…I am just getting caught up on the past weeks blog posts. Amen to this one! With the exception of AB and my undying love and affection for Ina, I agree. I try to follow a recipe properly the first time, then after that, I find it better to put my own spin on it based on how I like to cook. I could not do that unless I had some tricks/techniques in my back pocket. FN does not foster that type of creativity. Although, I do find PBS cooking shows a more informative and less “entertain-y”. Nary a “tablescape” or a “sammy” on PBS. It seems the group at PBS does want to help make you a better cook by actually TEACHING you cooking methods and a sense of impowerment.


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