Le Pragmatic Cook.

By: Jen Shoop

In a business negotiations course, a professor of mine once explained that most people can be categorized as either a purist or a pragmatist.  This taxonomy seemed, on the surface, outlandishly reductive,  but he insisted that classifying which type of person you’re interacting with will dramatically streamline negotiations and, typically, yield a faster, better outcome.  I get his point.  And, the more I thought about it, the more I found that most people do, in fact, gravitate towards one pole or the other.  I can pretty easily tell you whether each of my good friends and family members are purists or pragmatists — except for Mr. Magpie, who is a curious label-resister in this regard.  In many ways, he is a purist, and most people who know him would quickly identify him as such.  He has strong, unwavering opinions that he can be rather stubborn about, and is wont to comments like, “It’s 10:30.  The breakfast window is closed.  I can now only eat lunch things,” and “anyone who owns that particular make and model of car has a major attitude problem,” and “I will never, ever wear black jeans,” and “table salt is trash.  Kosher only.”  But in other ways, he has the pragmatic mind of an engineer: willing to re-evaluate and try multiple tacks to get something done.  Open to changing his opinion if you give him the space to do so.  Creative about problem-solving, even when it involves some compromise.

Me?  I am definitely a pragmatist. One of you astute readers (Bunny?) pointed out in a comment a few months back (and I paraphrase) that I rarely self-identify with a specific label or philosophy.  And it’s true — I think I’m too squarely in the pragmatist camp to do so; I’m more likely to sit in the middle, negotiate, even change sides occasionally — with the notable exception that I do consider myself a Catholic, something that often startles friends new and old alike.  “You go to Church every Sunday?”  Eyebrows arched, studying me for possible signs of evangelical nuttiness.  The scrutiny is often eclipsed by a condescending, “Well–good for you,” as though going to Church is like eating vegetables or announcing that I’ve decided to visit an ashram for a year to cleanse my soul.  I generally keep my Catholic-ness to myself, though I trust it permeates my actions and occasionally predisposes my language to include phrases like “Thank God,” and “God has a plan,” and “God is good,” which are all but absent from the vocabulary of most of my friends.

But I digress, and I’m not sure how relevant that whole bit on being Catholic is to the matter at hand anyway, as being a Catholic does not necessarily mean you are a purist, but — yes, I am a pragmatist in nearly every regard.  I am rarely so absolutely sure about something that I can’t accommodate another perspective or negotiate a middle ground.  On the plus side, loved ones come to me as a peacemaker.  On the negative side, I’m prone to being a people-pleaser.  Sometimes I envy the purist, all crisp edges and clean lines and pureness of thought.  The right answer is never far afield.  But purists bear their own albatrosses: I have observed that they are more likely to get embroiled in debate, to ruffle feathers, to flock with their own.

And, I’m not talking about politics here, though I think there are absolutely purists and pragmatists in that discipline as well.  I’m talking more about the day-to-day life stuff, like when Mr. Magpie would rather go without meat than buy it from a big grocery chain, and not because he’s snobby, but rather because he has done a lot of research on the topic of the farming industry and has particular standards about what he will eat.  I, on the other hand?  I see where he’s coming from, but I’d also buy a pound of lean hamburger meat from the nearby Giant and be done with it.  (Sometimes you just want a burger, okurrrr?)  The same goes for things like laundry — sometimes (horror of horrors) I’ll throw all the colors in at once to simplify life and save time — and grocery shopping, where I might spend a little more on produce at Whole Foods so I don’t need to go to two different grocery stores to get everything done — and especially cooking, where I’ll sub in ingredients or shrug if I don’t have *quite* enough of an ingredient because I don’t feel like going out to get another batch of it.

Incidentally, cooking is what brought this whole purist v. pragmatist debate to mind.  I had been reading Cooking for Mr. Latte and was tickled? excited? liberated? to read that the author described a dear and respected cooking friend of hers as “an ambitious cook…but she has the rare qualities of a realist.  She scoffs at Martha’s obsessive detail, disdains recipes that call for more than three pieces of equipment, and does not acknowledge garnishes.”

Aha!  A pragmatist cook!  This is me, and is a common source of tension (admittedly amicable and cartoonish tension a la Lucy and Ricky) in the kitchen with Mr. Magpie who — while he may be a pragmatist in other areas — is the most pure of the purists when it comes to cooking.  He will use the exact right implements for a meal even if it means using every single pot, pan, and tool in our entire house.  He measures all ingredients by weight.  All.  Including dry pasta.  Dry pasta!  So he can be sure he’s actually cooking 1/2 lb so that the pasta is in the right proportions with the sauce.  But, dry pasta!  He brings all ingredients to their appropriate temperature — “temperature is an ingredient,” he correctly points out, while I nonchalantly toss an ice-cold piece of meat into hot oil.  He youtubes videos to make sure his mirepoix is the correct size.  He uses cheesecloth to strain things.  He even measures the amount of salt to use when seasoning meat: “it should be 2/3 tsp of salt per pound of meat.  It looks a lot, but it works out perfectly every time.”

Until Hesser described her friend as a “rare realist” in the realm of ambitious cooks, I’d been second-guessing whether I was cut out to be a good cook or not.  I’d taken to denigrating my cooking skills which are, to be clear, paltry compared to Mr. Magpie’s magnificence in the kitchen.  He is impressive.  He cooks with authority.  He runs his kitchen.  By comparison, I feel as though I’m half-assing everything — I’m too impatient to get caught up in the details of plating or dicing things perfectly or letting things stand to come to room temperature (with the exception of certain baked goods, because, for example, cold cream cheese will totally ruin a cheesecake), and don’t even get me started on using single-function implements, like — and Mr. Magpie is reading this and smirking because he knows exactly where I’m going here! — the dreaded potato ricer.  I hate that damn thing.  It’s bulky, hard to use, next to impossible to clean — and for what?  A slightly better texture?  I’d much rather throw soft potatoes into a stand mixer and shrug it off if I come across a lump or two.

But, all that said, I consider myself a pretty good cook.  I love cooking for friends and family and I’ve taken on some ambitious projects of my own, especially in the baking realm.  And Hesser’s words made me realize this, made me nod at myself in approval: just because I am a pragmatist in the kitchen doesn’t mean I’m a bad cook.  As in most things in life, there are all kinds of kinds.

Just last week, I made a delicious sea bass “bonne femme” recipe from our treasured Zuni cookbook (P.S. — you need all of these cookbooks).  You boil potatoes until fork tender, then transfer to a pan with butter, thyme, leeks, broth, and vermouth, and then add the fish and broil for a few minutes.  It’s delicious, home-y cooking, and I’m proud to say that Mr. Magpie absolutely flipped out over it.  He actually said “Mmmm” out loud multiple times.  

Little did he know that I’d very loosely eyeballed all of the ingredients, had overcooked the potatoes before putting them in the pan, and had rolled my eyes at and willfully ignored several of the book’s overly fussy instructions, like when they tell you to transfer the fish to a warmed plate, then tilt that plate back over the pan so that any fish juices drip into the pan, then return to the heated plate, then swirl counterclockwise while holding three sprigs of thyme two inches above the pan’s surface and reciting the Lord’s Prayer (HA, that last one is clearly a joke but, you get my point).

So, it just goes to show: pragmatists can cook, too.

What are you?

Also, some items I really want for my kitchen:

+This electric kettle is so chic ($125), and is shown in the photo at the top of this post in that ultra chic white kitchen that I would tarnish in two seconds flat.  Would make a great gift for your tea-loving sister’s kitchen.

+I’ve long wished for a set of holiday china from Juliska.  I especially love their country estate pattern, but this reindeer set is darling, too.  I bought a great table runner from Pottery Barn last year with deer and wintry foliage all over it in a bronze color that would look like perfection with it.  This is semi-similar, but more Christmas-y!  Also, I can’t wait to bring out my ceramic turkey tureen I bought last year for my Thanksgiving tablescape — no longer available, but here is the exact one I have on eBay.

+I just bought one of these WS dish soap and hand soap sets since I was tired of the clutter on our countertop, even though I’ll probably replace the soap ASAP with my own preferred brands — I like Mrs. Meyers hand soap for the kitchen since it’s inexpensive and not overly perfumed and we go through A LOT OF SOAP IN THIS HOUSE, and good old Palmolive for dish soap.  (I’ve temporarily been using Downy because it was what they had at the nearest convenience store and it is SO STRONGLY SCENTED.  I felt so badly when I sniffed one of minimagpie’s bottles — she must have been drinking soap milk the last few weeks!  Woof.  So, I switched to this for her bottles.)

+As a gift for a nephew, I snagged this adorable robot plate and matching fork and spoon set.

+I’m still obsessed with our Aerin scalloped-edged plates.  They make me very very happy.

+Got one of these to organize our selection of Boos blocks and Epicurean cutting boards (the latter being Mr. Magpie’s cutting board of choice).

+Do you keep your salt in a salt pig?  We started doing it about a year into our marriage and it changed our lives since we use salt so often and in fairly large quantities when seasoning pasta water, big pieces of meat, etc.  So convenient to have it at the stovetop, a finger’s pinch away.

+I do not need one of these, and I do not have space for one of these, but I really want one of these.  Our blender is decent but, like most blenders, it occasionally leaks and doesn’t crush ice particularly well.

+ALSO: 10 things you must have in your kitchen.

+Unrelated to the kitchen, but we have a new magical nanny in our lives who doubles as a housekeeper and triples as a cook.  (OMG — the urban unicorn.  I have her.)  She was distraught to find that I don’t own a full-size ironing board (rather a half sizer that stows easily) and also that we didn’t have a mop on hand when we moved in (though in fairness, that was because the movers had lost it).  It’s led me to do quite a bit of recon on various new household and home care goods — including a new iron.  I really want one of these because every review out there recommends it, but a stubborn (purist?) part of me feels that an ironing board should cost $50.  Don’t ask why.  Any suggestions?  For an iron, people love these, this one is recommended by The Sweet Home, but I’m gravitating towards this budget buy.  Also, more of our recent home purchases here.

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7 thoughts on “Le Pragmatic Cook.

  1. I love this post. I think I am a purist at heart with pragmatic qualities (thinking about people-pleasing especially!) In the kitchen, I am FULLY a purist but not an especially accomplished cook nor a baker. Le sigh. There’s always room for improvement, I suppose, and that Zuni cookbook and Epicurean cutting board are now on my wishlist! AND I just ordered the coolest salt cellar from Food52 for my boyfriend for Christmas — we desperately need one, as we knock the kosher salt out of its tiny current dish on a weekly basis and then go running to the sink, throwing the spilled salt over our left shoulders! Haha.

    1. AHH! The salt cellar is a must and I’m so glad you have one. Epicurean = Mr. Magpie’s favorite cutting board, so you’re in good company there, too!

  2. I’m totally with you on pragmatic cooking, which is why I can’t bake, I do not have the patience for measuring. (I also like my mashed potatoes lumpy) My husband, however, is all about the food scale and portioning out his ingredients in little ramekins. Maybe there’s something to be said about opposites attract? I have to say though, while he is on the quest for the perfect homemade pizza crust, sometimes the best meals are like yours, the ones that are a little off recipe and come together perfectly by chance.

    Future post request: Some of your favorite recipes! Whether from your fave cookbooks, or the go-to recipes that your fam loves and you turn to time and time again! I’m always on the search for new go-to dinners! I

    1. Sold, Claire — you’re totally right! Mr. Magpie is big on investing in the best equipment you can for the job at hand…I’m sure he’d take your side on this one!

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