Mastering a dish is one of life’s simplest and most satisfying accomplishments. When you learn how to make something perfectly, it reinforces all the lessons society placed in your brain over the decades. You’ve achieved a degree of self-improvement thanks to hard work, learning from your mistakes, and refusing to give up, and you got to taste something delicious to boot! You can almost hear a little musical flourish when you finish cooking something perfectly, as though, somewhere, a file has been added to your permanent record. MAKE IDEAL PORK CHOPS: COMPLETE.
But there is also the opposite culinary path, where you make something that’s pretty good or even great on your first try, and, on every subsequent attempt, it somehow gets worse. No matter how slow you go or how many tweaks you try, these dishes defy improvement, calling into question your abilities and, in particularly dark moments, your entire worth.
J. Kenji López-Alt’s Easy Fried Rice is one such recipe for me. The first time I made it, the results were delightful: balanced flavors, good textures, ideal leftovers. The second attempt took several steps back, which I chalked up to rushing things. Attempt three corrected those hasty mistakes and was somehow...worse? I’ve made this dish two or three more times beyond that, and the best I’ve gotten back to is “it’s fine, I’ll eat it.” That first fried rice seems like a taunt.
So I decided to seek comfort in the worst place possible: Twitter. And, as it turns out, many of you struggle with your own regressive recipes.
Potato gnocchi. First time? Soft, airy little pillows of awesome. Every time since? So dense I’ve been told “it feels like I ate a bunch of rocks...”— Ben Pierman (@BPierman) September 3, 2020
Gnocchi and other handmade pastas fall into the category of “Make this well and you will convince yourself you should open your own restaurant, completely ignoring how hard that would be and how easily you might fail for reasons beyond your control.” To reach this peak so quickly and then fall so hard is a special kind of torture, because you’re compelled to keep chasing that first batch. You know you can enjoy restaurant-quality gnocchi at home! You just have to keep trying, even as you slowly ruin the dish for your family forever!
Ribs. I made an excellent batch once about 10 years ago. Ever since I’ve been trying and failing to get back there.— Tate. Gooch. (@thegax) September 3, 2020
Several people submitted ribs or similar dishes, but this was the only one that included a date range. Think about everything that happens over the course of a decade. Katie Ledecky started swimming when she was six, and eight years later she’d gotten good enough to win an Olympic gold medal in the 800 meter freestyle, breaking the American record in the process. Meanwhile, several of us have taken that same amount of time ... and failed to learn how to make ribs.
And it’s not due to lack of effort or desire. The meat gods simply shun us.
do “pancakes” count as a recipe?— teagan! (@mteagan) September 2, 2020
On the opposite end of gnocchi we have pancakes, a dish that should be harder to get worse at because the pancake spectrum isn’t all that wide to begin with. Watching your pancakes get worse over time is particularly alarming because there are so few variables to change. There aren’t that many ingredients. They don’t cook for that long. They don’t require any special equipment. You’re stuck in culinary purgatory, and your only hope is to convince everyone else in your house that French toast is a tastier breakfast.
carbonara— Louis Bien (@louisbien) September 2, 2020
made it perfectly one time, and been scrambled eggs and bacon over spaghetti since
Some dishes (often those requiring very precise egg treatments) exist on a razor’s edge from the start. Get the timing or temperature or technique wrong and you won’t get a B-minus version of the recipe. You’ll ruin the dish and be stuck with a deeply tragic substitute. When you success on a pass/fail dish the first time, perhaps you are better off treating that triumph like winning big on your first pull at a slot machine. Take your money, walk away, do not tempt fate further.
Problem: You live in the casino. Every time you see that pasta in the pantry, some synapse elbows you, whispering “Say, wouldn’t carbonara be a great dinner at the end of this trying week?” And so off you go, nickels in hand, ready to give the slot machine your time and get nothing valuable in return.
Chicken pot pie. Can’t explain it. Nailed it the first time or two and it’s been downhill since then— Jenny Rogers (@jennyrogersDC) September 2, 2020
Chicken pot pie checks all the misery boxes: labor and time-intensive, requires a fair number of ingredients, and impossible to judge as you go. Screw it up and you’re either throwing the whole thing out or eating the leftovers for far too long, which might be worse.
Bad pot pie doesn’t just feel like a cooking failure. It’s a deficiency of coziness, a loss of edible hygge. Focus on this too long and soon, if you’re like me, you’ll start wondering if you’re even capable of creating a warm and welcoming environment in the first place. It gets pretty dark!
Recreating my mom's rice pilaf. I've been at it for 20 years now and not only can I just not do it, but I've been regressing every attempt. It's pathetic.— Sam Wilkinson (@samwilkinson) September 2, 2020
This submission grabbed my attention because of the family background. The dish itself is almost secondary, because what you’re trying to create when you make a family recipe is familiarity and nostalgia. You want this rice pilaf to taste like mom’s because then you’ll feel, if only briefly, like a child again, safe and happy and curious. You will remember the past in the way we all want to, with the edges rounded off and the highlights slightly more sparkly.
When you can’t do this – and when you get worse at it over time – you feel like you’re losing that past, or maybe failing it somehow. But maybe some dishes are better off belonging to one beloved relative. You can’t make mom’s rice pilaf or grandma’s peach cobbler or your uncle’s carnitas because, well, you’re not them. And the recipes are part of what makes those people special.
(I’m fine. Don’t look at me. Leave me alone.)
Chocolate chip cookies, somehow. Every fucking cookie is worse than the last. I can make from-scratch pie crust from memory!— Amanda Mull (@amandamull) September 2, 2020
On the one hand, Amanda’s a very good cook and baker; she wrote a very helpful story about biscuits two years ago that I’m pretty sure people still well-actually her about today.
On the other, cookies are easy as shit. They’re one of the first things some people learn to bake as children.
Given those two facts, I am forced to conclude that the kitchen fates simply refuse to let Amanda make good chocolate chip cookies. Nothing she does will change that, and so she is free to write them off as outside of her skill set and make something else.
There is a freedom in that, and I encourage you to embrace it for yourself. The dish that keeps foiling you isn’t about you as a cook or a person. It’s about some unseen force, working against you for no good reason. How do you win? Abandon the recipe, and kick that force right in the stomach.