Peace through Mis En Place
Most of us cook because we have to feed the people in our house, or just ourselves. There is a love/hate synergy with cooking, and if you are Team H, well, the advent of food delivery apps was probably a gamechanger for you. For those of us on the Love Team, where cooking is a gumbo of care and love and nutrition and whatever-we-can-throw-together and savoriness and comfort, food connects us. On the days we are into it, everyone benefits.
I put myself through college working as a breakfast cook in a commercial kitchen on campus. Good times. I am still hell with the pancakes, and can omelet along with the best of them. If you ask my spouse what I cook best, he will say ‘bacon’, which is both happy and sad — happy because yay for bacon, sad because it is decidely NOT what I make best; this is the actual dichotomy of cooking for others: you will never please all the people all the time. Welcome to life.
The truth is, if you can read, you can cook. So that is where it begins. But when you are ready to deliver, it starts with mise-en-place. That’s cooking-language for get-yourself-organized. In translation, it means having all your ingredients measured out, your pans prepped, bowls set out, the utensils you need at the ready, before you crack the first egg or preheat the oven. Bigger than that, it means nothing is missing, you know ahead what you need, and (bonus) anyone could step in and help. Mise en place makes you do some anticipatory thinking, then be confident once you are underway. It’s the equivalent of filling the gas tank and checking the map before a road trip. It is peace-of-mind. And who isn’t looking for that?
In recent years, cooking shows have filled television schedules, streaming services, and even whole networks. At their very best, they let viewers believe success in reach for them, too. They demonstrate, explain, teach, encourage. (The flip-side of course is that they can be at their worst, featuring critics who are harsh or demeaning — it may make for higher viewership but that is not what real-life cooking is about. Hard pass.) Some are game-show-like, with contestants competing to continue to the next episode. The gold standard on this take is “The Great British Baking Show”, where contestants often lend each other a hand or moral support, where judges are critics but also fans, all under the pressures of tight timing and bare-minimum instructions. I could go on and on; most of us will not make an award-winning Genoise but we can appreciate the hell out of the effort of someone giving it a shot.
The GBB was hailed as a ‘balm for the nation’s psyche’ during the height of the pandemic, as networks (and streaming services) re-aired previous seasons’ episodes. This is low-risk feel-good fare. Just as the mind can order the cooking process, so can the cooking (or baking) process order the mind. Having things unfold in order, in an anticipated structure, with a beginning and middle and end, helps us cope. For many of us during the pandemic, watching this play out in someone else’s kitchen was tangible solace when so much felt unknown. One cooking show currently airing, Selena + Chef, has it’s roots in exactly that: Selena, not a cook (with capital NOT) learns cooking basics during the pandemic via tele-conferencing with various chefs. In her tricked-out kitchen, she learns basic chopping skills, and even more basics like turning the convection setting on in her oven. She also learns mise en place (though it takes a few episodes), because saying you’re ready and actual readiness are two different things. She gets it together, and we cheer for her, because she perseveres, and overcomes, and makes some top-notch dishes. (Full disclosure: she won’t de-bone a chicken, and neither will I, so that was a moment of true redemption, right there on the screen.)
The abundance of cooking shows (and channels) speaks to our basic needs to provide food, and maybe learn something new. Bonus if we are also entertained. Cooking is crossing over to miniseries (the stellar “Julia” on HBOMax being my top rec) and docuseries like “High on the Hog”, and “Salt Fat Acid Heat” (again, those are my own faves, but explore the options out there). Survival foragers are paired with chefs in “Chefs vs Wild”, travel combines with adventurous eating in “Somebody Feed Phil”, history lessons are embedded in the fabulous “Cooked”. PBS re-packaged classic footage with new commentary in “Dishing with Julia”. And foodie movies like “Chef” (all the stars) and “Julie & Julia” and “One Hundred Foot Journey” have had resurgence on streaming platforms. Stanley Tucci’s cooking memoir has landed atop the NYTimes Bestselling Books List. Others, like “Yes, Chef” and “The Cooking Gene” join my own book collection anchored by “Kitchen Confidential” and “Animal Vegetable Miracle”. There are holiday cooking specials on TV, and competitions of varying intensity, and kids, too, are in the cooking game with their own programs. Here’s the thing: we all eat, so hooray for inclusion.
Back to mis en place. Stress is inevitable — it’s part of the human condition. We worry, we care — and the two are inextricably linked. But channeling our energy (or our nerves) into controllable outcomes, is a good practice. Mis en place, outside of cooking, is translated to ‘everything in its place’, which is (again) good practice. You can mis-en-place your closet, or your pantry, or your basement, or your school desk or locker. In nearly every case, the ordering of it all brings actual order and calm to our mental state as well. I promise you, you can enjoy cooking, but only if first you are ready. And readiness looks like knowing what you have and what you need. Which sounds a little like life advice, because it’s proven true. Whether you cook alone, or with family, or alongside friends (really, such a favorite joyful use of time), that feeling of reaching for what you need and finding it right there is the salvation we all seek.