Aiming to Please without Apology

Right after Julia Child’s husband, Paul, bragged to his brother that all sorts of delicious foods were “spouting out of [Julia’s] finger ends like sparks out of a pinwheel,” Julia made a disgusting lunch for herself and her friend Winnie.  This was after she’d studied cooking and knew how to create fine French food.   Nevertheless, she describes her meal as “horrid” and “most vile,” but she and her friend ate it without saying a word about it.

I made vegan hollandaise sauce the other night.  It turned out so bad, it went straight to the compost bin.  My husband and I had clear words to say about it:  Gross!  Smells awful!

It’s rare that we make something in our household so completely unsalvageable.  Not all of our meals turn out great, but I can think of only one other dish so unpalatable we tossed it after a tiny spoonful to taste-test.

I feel awful about wasting food, but the hollandaise sauce turned out bland, with a choking aftertaste.  Bitter, sour, or too spicy are all better than bland.  You know bland is a form of punishment, right?  The infamous “Nutraloaf” that prisons supposedly used as punishment for the unruly had all the nutrition a person needed but tasted starkly bland, deflating one’s drive for defiance in the hope of some flavor.

This lesson about blandness goes beyond the palate.  If you’re someone who avoids pain (and who doesn’t?) at the expense of living life, you end up feeling bland.  Numbing painful emotions dulls out the good ones as well and your life ends up as savory as Nutraloaf or Julia’s lunch for Winnie.

Even so, Julia refused to apologize for her “vile” lunch.

She does not “believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make.”  So, when she and Winnie choked down the vile lunch, “I made sure not to apologize for it.  This was a rule of mine.”

Julia Child’s cat in Susanna Reich’s children’s book ‘Minette’s Feast’ featured in the New York Times

This was not a whim but a rule.  Julia felt so sure about the destructive nature of apologizing and the burden self-deprecating comments like “Oh, I don’t know how to cook…” because they “only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings)” and force the guest to reassure the hostess and ultimately think, “Yes, you’re right, this is a really awful meal!”

Interesting about “self-perceived” shortcomings.  The vegan hollandaise was undeniably bad, but how many times have I replied to compliments about dinner with “Really?  It’s okay?”  Or worse, dug for compliments when they weren’t forthcoming by saying things like, “So, how is it?  Too salty?  Less spice?” hoping the diner will gush, “No!  Change nothing!  This is the most divine piece of toast I’ve ever had the opportunity to masticate!”

Not Julia.

She says:  “Maybe the cat* has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed–” ah well, too bad!

Maybe the failed vegan hollandaise sauce underscores some Big Life Lessons about blandness and apologies.  Even so, I don’t know how such a simple recipe with recognizable ingredients turned out so bad.  Hollandaise sauce can be veganized and taste delicious.  I’ve had it at Portland’s Vita Cafe and Blossoming Lotus.  Apparently, I lack the right recipe.

*Don’t worry VeganMOFO readers.  Although Julia was a most devout omnivore, she was just as devoutly in love with her kitty Minette, and should Minette have fallen into any stew, she would have been rescued immediately, comforted, and fed fine French food.  [Here’s a link to a beautiful children’s book about Minette]

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15 Responses to Aiming to Please without Apology

  1. dropscone says:

    Maybe the flour was off? I’ve had sauces ruined by rancid flour before…

  2. Claryn says:

    I just stumbled across your blog, and just had to comment on what a good and refreshing read this was! I like the no-apologizing rule, but I think it depends a bit on your audience. Sometimes, I think it’s fine to just throw up your hands and laugh about how ridiculously bad some dish is. Bad food happens to everyone, and it’s not the end of the world!

    • tristac says:

      Claryn! I almost said something similar about audience in this post but thought it was going too long. There’s probably a response that isn’t apologizing but still manages to fill people’s bellies. I think laughter is definitely in order. For our bad hollandaise sauce, we were mostly mystified but grateful that the tofu scramble and sweet muffins turned out well. I think I want to add “Bad food happens to everyone” to my imaginary t-shirt that started with Kate’s comment. : )

  3. Kate Allan says:

    Don’t worry, I get that experience too! sometimes something I’ve made 100 times I could do it in my sleep just doesn’t work, and I think WTF did I do to this? Meh. It happens to all of us, glad Julia was no exception!

    • tristac says:

      Ha, ha, ha! Kate — I know we’ve never met in person, but now that it’s our third VeganMOFO, I feel like I sort of know you, and I like this happy, relaxed chef! Striking out on your own has been good for you. “…and I think WTF did I do to this? Meh.” Ha! I want this on a t-shirt!

  4. Deb Stone says:

    Ha ha! I rarely have complete fails in the food department. I remember one where I decided to make a warm pasta salad dish and threw in a little balsamic vinegar. The room was pungent as the children gathered at the dinner table and served themselves. I was still wrestling glasses onto the table when one of the kids said, “That smells awful.” A moment later, another said, “And it tastes worse than it smells!” I didn’t apologize (but I didn’t try making it again.)

  5. Karen Karbo says:

    This was a great read. I don’t think I’ve ever made a good Hollandaise sauce; it’s one of those recipes that requires someone with a Ph.D in chemistry (or Julia) to perfect. I agree with Claryn, that it’s probably fine to throw up your hands and say “gah! this is a mess!” but the reason I like Julia’s non-apologizing policy is because when you serve the bad meal, its in the spirit of a creator and experimenter. It’s “hey, I’ve worked on this, wasn’t great, but it’s still edible.” When you’ve slaved away on a meal, then serve it and apologize for it on top of everything, it feels makes you (by which I mean ME) feel like a servant. You should try it again! (And again and again! Julia was also about cooking and recooking until she got something right.)

  6. joyweesemoll says:

    Good luck with your hollandaise experiments. I love the advice about not apologizing. I’ve been on the receiving end and it really is most uncomfortable. But when it’s just me and my husband, we have fun analyzing every last element of the dish in the interest of improving it next time. When we have guests, I have to remind him that he’s not allowed to do that for fear of ruining the experience for others.

  7. Miss Prickly says:

    Oooo! I can’t wait to read the book about Julia’s cat!

  8. Aw I love this post so much! Such a pleasant read. And I need to adopt the no apologies rule in the kitchen!

  9. heatherk7 says:

    ahhhh… i made some nasty Hollandaise one time courtesy of rancid olive oil. My dad had no problem saying “um what is WRONG with this Hollandaise?? it tastes OFF. is the olive oil rancid!??!?!” lol. embarrassing. It really stuck with me so this post resonates with me as well. I think my mom was trying to validate what Julia was dictating but I wasn’t listening… Also love the bit about Nutraloaf – I’m not sure I knew that (although it seems vaguely familiar) but that is obviously the reason why they serve “slop” (oatmeal) on big brother (this is turning into a confessional now of guilty pleasure tv!) Lastly, I love the part about numbing because obviously this is something on the forefront of my mind. so much to consider!! thanks for writing it all out! 🙂

  10. tristac says:

    These are such thought-provoking comments! I love Karen’s point about how Julia approached cooking, “in the spirit of a creator and experimenter.” It eliminates my expectation that everything turn out perfect. And, Deb, my husband and I enjoy analyzing the meal, too. I’m glad he’s honest with me when things could be better. Heather–you make me wonder about the tarragon in my sauce; there are hardly any ingredients, and it was only a 1 tsp of tarragon, but maybe it was rancid? I smelled it before putting it in because I couldn’t remember when we last refreshed it, but I realize now I know nothing about tarragon and couldn’t say if it smelled right or not! And yes … possibly more to come about numbing and all that.

    It’s so lovely knowing you all are out there reading!!

  11. I don’t like to throw food out, especially something I have just made, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I hope your next vegan hollandaise experiment turns out better!

  12. Pingback: There you go again, showing your humanity! | All But The Kitchen Sink

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