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Fat Guy

When your cooking skills leave you

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Most of the time, I'm what might be called a pretty good advanced-amateur cook. Most of what I serve is good, some of it is just okay, and rarely do I turn out a dish I'm embarrassed to serve. And, being my own harshest critic, I'm pretty sure I get an accurate read on the quality of what I produce.

But for the last few days, my cooking skills have somehow left me. Sure, on any given day I can mess something up. But I've messed up every single thing I've cooked since Monday.

Last night I roasted salmon in the oven and made potato wedges at the same time. The salmon was overcooked, the potato wedges were borderline charred on the outside and nearly raw in their centers. The night before I tried to make pizza dough and it just didn't rise. I burnt toast at breakfast time because brioche toasts really fast and I walked away and forgot about it. I messed up setting the timer and cooked spaghetti to mush. I did a poor job washing lettuce and ended up with a weird, sandy salad. (We're still talking about the "sand salad" four days later, and maybe forever.) Etc.

Has this ever happened to you? All of a sudden your cooking skills leave you? I hope they come back, at least.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I can 100% relate to this. I think i am a decent home cook and I know I can put out some fairly good food.

last week I made bran muffins. I do this often. Last weeks batch were just lousy. Maybe too much lazy eye measuring.

I had some fairly nice strip steaks that I grilled. I have been grilling for YEARS. I managed to pretty much burn the outside of these to a cinder while under cooking the centers. I know HOW to grill a steak. I don't need a lesson on a hot and cool part of the grill. Yet I managed to mess these up to a large degree.

Sometimes I think I have lost the ability to cook. And I am sort of baffled about it as well.

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Not sure if the cooking skills have left me, more like my brain stopped functioning....

I tried making smoked split pea risotto once, what was I thinking!?!? Starch on top or starch on top of....starch!?

Granted that was years ago...

Most recently, I tried some smoked alder wood salt on a carrot salad....yuck!

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I would be surprised to see anyone claim that this has never happened to them. And these disasters never seem to be isolated but come in waves one after another. When it happens to me I try to step back and slow down and repeat that age-old mantra: This too shall pass! And it always does just in time to keep me in the kitchen for yet another try.


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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probably more likely a function of too much multi-tasking. I have no doub that if you were to concentrate on what you were doing in the kitchen all your skills would return. It is like being in a batting slump in baseball. For me, it is usually the other way, I putter along and occassionally get hot and make some things that are really good! :raz::laugh:


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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In Caramel Knowledge, 1988, Al Sicherman wrote of a reader of his column relating:

'Evans's Theory of Relative Competence: Every time you figure out how to cook something new reasonably well, you cease being able to cook something you thought you had mastered.'

I personally think it happens when you become so comfortable in making something that you get lax with standards such as timing and measurements. Like, you think you can just intuit when to take something out of the oven, so you'll just play one more game of Tetris on the computer before checking the oven.

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Years ago I read an article claiming that the idea hitting streaks, or slumps, were the result of a batter somehow going "hot" or "cold" was a myth. Essentially, a batter's performance is a collection of random events unpredictable in the short run but statistically consistent in the long run. If you hit .300, we know that over the course of a season, you'll get a base hit in three out of every ten at-bats. But because each at-bat is a random occurrence (more or less), sometimes you're going to go 18-for-25 over the course of a critical week in August, and sometimes you're going to go 3-for-25. Not because you were "on" in the first instance and "off" in the second, but because that's the way random events accumulate.

Same as flipping a coin. You flip a quarter a hundred times and it's going to come out pretty close to 50% heads and 50% tales. But if you charted each individual flip, you'd come out with a few patterns that were statistically rare in isolation -- six heads in a row (1-in-64 chance), maybe -- but which will inevitable show up in a larger sample size.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying, Fat Guy, that you're the victim of ther laws of chance but that, in compensation, those same laws will some day present you with a solid week in which even your instant oatmeal tastes like it was cooked by Escoffier. You should invite guests.

Either that or you have a rare and tragic nerve disease and you should PM Sconzo right away to find a specialist.


I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I also seem to be in one of those slumps--the other night I was making lemon chicken for dinner--Eileen Yin Fei Lo's recipe from her Low Fat cookbook--you steam everything--I was mixing up the marinade/sauce--added the "cornstarch" last and it fizzed up--this did not make me think that anything at all could be wrong.

Left it to sit, then steamed everything--when it was finished, the sauce hadn't thickened--again had no thoughts on this--served the chicken, broccoli and sauce over the rice--started eating--it tasted just awful! I eventually figured that i grabbed the baking soda box instead of cornstarch.

This is only the biggest goof of the past week--there are more.

I have a friend who's into astrology--she will always say some planet is in retrograde when this kind of thing is going on....

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In the past, I blamed it on pregnancy. lol.

However this week, I oven steamed supposed oven roasted vegetables, I made a bland turkey and when I tried to make gravy to combat the blandness, I forgot to burn off the little bit of wine I added because even the gravy had no flavor, and it tasted like gravy that had a wine spilled in it by mistake. Then I made Chocolate Chip muffins to take to my neighbour and while they are cooked through, they taste like raw flour... YUCH....I used the wrong flour. Problem is, I'm not pregnant anymore. So NOW what's my excuse!!?

Here's hoping it's temporary.

Zoe, my mom always says that too.

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Does anyone but me see a pattern here? There's an astrological phenomena (sp?) that is taking place now, called 'mercury retrograde' where the planet Mercury appears to be moving backwards. While this is occuring, NOTHING goes right! Contracts signed at this time tend to fall thru, projects begun get stalled, communications get fouled up beyond recognition, etc. I am TOTALLY convinced that all sane people should hide under their beds for a least a week before the beginning of the phase (which lasts about 6 weeks) until 10 days before the end of the phase. This started, this time, on May 6, 2009. Things go whacky about 7 to 10 days before, and straighten out about the same time before Mercury goes direct on May 30. Your skills should be coming back shortly! :laugh::wacko::laugh:


"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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I had a phase of bad cooking last month. Burnt rice, I added coriander to chili - for no good reason, and I even knew it'd be awful, burnt a coffee cake because I forgot to butter and flour the pan. In those moments I should just order takeout!

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Steven, it would've been an entertaining week for an eG Foodblog.


Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Ah, Steven, it's not yet very well known, but some authorities explain that cooking skills are the second thing to go.

If you are still okay on the first, then there's nothing seriously wrong with your cooking skills.

Otherwise, you've got problems even worst than cooking!

Either way, you get to forget about problems with cooking skills! :smile:

If I were you, I'd just let someone else do the cooking for a while. Either way, that can be a good approach!

So, here we have that the best course of action remains the same independent of either input state! :smile:


What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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Steven, it would've been an entertaining week for an eG Foodblog.

Huge giggle. Thanks, Peter.

It happens, it does, and I'm ignorant of astrology. I'm about to burn two grilled cheese sandwiches. It's about fatigue, the little ins and outs of the family, the pantry, the stove. And next week, you'll be amazing your fam as if you were Ducasse. But I totes recognize the rotten feeling of screwing up a few family meals in a row.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Yes, but the corollary of this is that sometimes I am inexplicably awesome in the kitchen.

When I'm on a bad streak, it's because of PMS/the laws of chance/Mercury in retrograde, but when I'm on an awesome streak, it's because of my superior talents.

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Has this ever happened to you? All of a sudden your cooking skills leave you?

Only when I'm on a bender. Heh.

Just kidding. That sort of thing hasn't happened in a long while. :biggrin:

In all seriousness, I did scorch a batch of homemade, but frozen, potstickers last week. I was clearly thinking about too many things at once, while drinking a much-deserved glass of wine. It can happen.

Cooking skills don't go away, even with Alzheimer's. You just tend to forget what you're doing more often then.

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In the past, I blamed it on pregnancy. lol.

Problem is, I'm not pregnant anymore. So NOW what's my excuse!!?

Here's hoping it's temporary.

Ambra--you can always blame it on hormones, or PMS as Maggi suggests--our lady stuff is always useful to terrorize our loved ones.

Z

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Years ago I read an article claiming that the idea hitting streaks, or slumps, were the result of a batter somehow going "hot" or "cold" was a myth.  Essentially, a batter's performance is a collection of random events unpredictable in the short run but statistically consistent in the long run.  If you hit .300, we know that over the course of a season, you'll get a base hit in three out of every ten at-bats.  But because each at-bat is a random occurrence (more or less), sometimes you're going to go 18-for-25 over the course of a critical week in August, and sometimes you're going to go 3-for-25.  Not because you were "on" in the first instance and "off" in the second, but because that's the way random events accumulate.

There are two statistical models that might appply here.

The first is regression to the mean. How this works is that you have a basic level of doing a certain task, this could be cooking a steak or making a base hit three times out of every ten. Some times you will do much better than your "mean" level. This might mean cooking a truly perfect steak, or it might mean going three for four against (hopefully) the Yankees. The opposite could happen as well, and you could have an unusually bad performance -- burning the steaks or going zero for four against (hopefully) the Red Sox. These unusually good or bad performances relative to a mean skill level (or score or whatever) have a certain statistical probability which can be characterised by the normal distribution. They have low probability of happening, but not zero probability of happening. The laws of probability say that your next performance after a statistically improbable performance is likely to be a more statistically probable performance, because it is always true that the most likely performance is the most statistically probable one. What this means is that you are likely to follow a particularly good performance with one that was not quite as good, and you are likely to follow a particularly poor performance with one that is better -- this is because you are likely to give a performance that is closer to your statistical mean performance.

The second contains most of the same principles. The normal distribution says that if you have a certain skill level (let's say Roger Maris' 27 home runs per year average) that there is a certain statistical probability, albeit very small, that you will have a season or a streak that exceeds that average performance by quite a lot (Maris' famous 61 HR season). You can actually do the statistical analysis to see how many seasons by how many players at various average levels would have to be played in order to produce one who had a statistically improbable 60+ home run season, which explains why it took so long to break Ruth's record. Of course, for the following seasons we normally see . . . regression to the mean. In culinary terms, this explains how someone whose steak-grilling skills are good enough to cook 4 out of 5 perfectly will sometimes cook 20 perfect steaks in a row, and sometimes 20 bad ones in a row.


--

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Steven, you are of course not alone. I think it's a combination of having many things going on in our lives and not taking the time, or focusing, on what we are doing in the kitchen. Taking those few more moments obviously makes all the difference in the world.

As some of you know, I have, at times, photos of some of my dishes that many of you have graciously recognized as being "beautiful" and "delicious." Those are, of course, only the dishes I have chosen to portray to you. I have far, far more failures than I do successes in my home kitchen.

I find that if I focus on some basics, then I can cook dishes that are as delicious and visually attractive as what I am often served at a restaurant, (and sometimes my food is much better).

I have to start with the best, freshest, ingredients then cook them perfectly. If I start with a bad product, even if I cook it perfectly, the end result won't be up to snuff.

Last week I saw a NY Strip in the meat case at the supermarket for $4.99 a pound. I falsely assumed that beef prices must have fallen due to the bad economy. I wasn't focused. All I had to do was take 3 more seconds to read the label that clearly said "Select Grade." Select grade meats have an appropriate use, but I don't think anything less than Choice grade is appropriate when you are grilling a steak.

The steak was perfectly cooked, it just lacked flavor and texture.

It's not always a case of not buying a good quality product. Sometimes, in my rush to get dinner on the table, I mess up a good product.

Last night I had some pre-made meatloaf in the freezer. A beautiful, simple, meatloaf of hamburger mixed with Lipton Onion Soup Mix. (It's Mother's basic meatloaf and it's delicious).

I can't tell you why, but I messed it up by adding terrible dried bread crumbs out of a can and an egg. That stuff was already in the meatloaf, so why did I feel compelled to add it again? The meatloaf had accumulated ice particles while it was frozen, so when it thawed out it was watery-and I added bread crumbs which acted to make the thing one big wet sponge. I wasn't focused.

The baked meatloaf was so awful-like eating a wet sponge-and lacking in flavor I settled for a cup of yogurt.

A typical night might have me stirring risotto on the stovetop, clothes in the dryer, sprinklers on the lawn, prawns to prep for the risotto, and the tug of having five eGullet topics up on the computer at the same time.

If I don't watch over the toaster--the brioche will burn.

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I once incinerated an entire cut baguette I was attempting to toast in the broiler. And so I pitched that out and put in another one. Incinerated that one as well. So I pitched that one out and put in another one. Yep, incinerated. This was, needless to say, most amusing to my friends who were there for dinner (who just so happened to be the Fat Guy family).


--

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Seriously. triple low biorhythms or Mercury retrogarde.............take your pick!

I think it happens most when you've got WAY too many other things on your mind.

(I'm a firm believer in the fact that the mind only has so much room and when it is too full of 'stuff', something else has to go. Like sleep, or cooking skills...........) So, make some room and they'll come back ! :raz:

(Made a Thai Chicken Curry -- Frog, Philadelphia recipe--once for friends that I'd made many many times before. Used a new curry paste and had everyone choking and coughing as they inhaled the burning toxic fumes as I stir fried it............) :wacko:

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It depends on what the meaning of the word skill is… but whatever the meaning I likely don’t posses many. For my food to come out well all the stars need to be aligned. Most of the time they are as that’s the only way I can eat the food I like at a price I can afford.

But mental mistakes often conspire against the stars. Like when I forget to pat dry the salmon and the skin sticks to the grill pan, or when I take the eggs out of the water too early, or when I over salt the lettuce.

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Years ago I read an article claiming that the idea hitting streaks, or slumps, were the result of a batter somehow going "hot" or "cold" was a myth.  Essentially, a batter's performance is a collection of random events unpredictable in the short run but statistically consistent in the long run.  If you hit .300, we know that over the course of a season, you'll get a base hit in three out of every ten at-bats.  But because each at-bat is a random occurrence (more or less), sometimes you're going to go 18-for-25 over the course of a critical week in August, and sometimes you're going to go 3-for-25.  Not because you were "on" in the first instance and "off" in the second, but because that's the way random events accumulate.

There are two statistical models that might appply here.

The first is regression to the mean. How this works is that you have a basic level of doing a certain task, this could be cooking a steak or making a base hit three times out of every ten. Some times you will do much better than your "mean" level. This might mean cooking a truly perfect steak, or it might mean going three for four against (hopefully) the Yankees. The opposite could happen as well, and you could have an unusually bad performance -- burning the steaks or going zero for four against (hopefully) the Red Sox. These unusually good or bad performances relative to a mean skill level (or score or whatever) have a certain statistical probability which can be characterised by the normal distribution. They have low probability of happening, but not zero probability of happening. The laws of probability say that your next performance after a statistically improbable performance is likely to be a more statistically probable performance, because it is always true that the most likely performance is the most statistically probable one. What this means is that you are likely to follow a particularly good performance with one that was not quite as good, and you are likely to follow a particularly poor performance with one that is better -- this is because you are likely to give a performance that is closer to your statistical mean performance.

The second contains most of the same principles. The normal distribution says that if you have a certain skill level (let's say Roger Maris' 27 home runs per year average) that there is a certain statistical probability, albeit very small, that you will have a season or a streak that exceeds that average performance by quite a lot (Maris' famous 61 HR season). You can actually do the statistical analysis to see how many seasons by how many players at various average levels would have to be played in order to produce one who had a statistically improbable 60+ home run season, which explains why it took so long to break Ruth's record. Of course, for the following seasons we normally see . . . regression to the mean. In culinary terms, this explains how someone whose steak-grilling skills are good enough to cook 4 out of 5 perfectly will sometimes cook 20 perfect steaks in a row, and sometimes 20 bad ones in a row.

Apparently someone paid more attention in Stats than I.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I got this book totally thinking it was about something else, and might have some pointers for my post-bar locomotion.


--

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When this happens to me it is kind of scary. Usually it involves seasoning combinations. I rarely cook from recipes and there have been a few times where everything just seems to fall flat. The food is not inedible but I get comments like "Is this the way you usually make it". I start to feel it is cosmic payback for not writing things down. Then, of course, I vow to start recording things, get cocky and never do it. I have this tiny fear in the back of my mind that I will draw a blank one day and all my best dishes will be lost forever.

I also have the incinerating problem and it definitely comes in cycles. My son lives on quesadillas and broiled meats. I can go months with perfect results and then three or four in a row of results that even careful scraping and trimming can not salvage. I tend to throw corn tortillas directly on the rack under the broiler to crisp them and have gone through up to four in a row (within half an hour) that were so burned they disintegrate into ash as I try to pull them out and clear the stench.

The burning is clearly a distraction thing, but the off-kilter flavor episodes are scary.

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