It was a winter morning in the middle of the Ina In A Year project. There was a breakfast menu which was originally slated for me to cook at home over the weekend, that I had not executed. Wanting to stay on track, I decided to arrive early to work on Monday morning and cook the breakfast menu for my managers so we could enjoy it during our weekly staff meeting.
The menu was Herbed Scrambled Eggs, Salt and Pepper Biscuits, and Roasted Asparagus.
We sat down to a platter of golden yellow eggs topped with fresh herbs, a stack of piping hot biscuits, burnished brown on the outside and cloud-like on the inside, and a plate of perfectly-roasted Parmesan-crusted asparagus. It was a moving experience.
The eggs were everything I could dream eggs to be. Soft but not runny, tender, seasoned deeply, enhanced with an ample amount of butter. The biscuits were perfection, offset with crackly bits of black pepper. The asparagus had initially seemed like an odd addition, but it worked, bringing an elegant adult-like element to the menu.
We marveled and ate quietly, not wanting to break the silence as we chewed, awe-struck by eggs on a Monday morning.
What was it we were tasting? Was it skill? Not particularly. Eggs and biscuits are not advanced culinary pursuits. Was it quality ingredients? Probably not. The eggs and butter were standard fare, the asparagus from the grocery store. Was it something else? If so, what made this meal so insanely other-worldly?
I think what we tasted that Monday morning, and what set that meal apart from other instances where the menu included eggs and biscuits, was the trouble. I think the trouble it takes to cook food from scratch brings a quality to the food that cannot be found with short cuts or substitutions. I think our Monday morning eggs beautifully encapsulated this idea.
I believe that the trouble we go to when we choose to cook at home turns humble ingredients and standard-issue skills into a gift. The eggs I cooked that winter morning took almost thirty minutes to cook. Thirty minutes for eggs!!! They required my full attention and constant stirring with only quick bursts away from the stove to make sure the biscuits and asparagus were not burning in the oven. Those eggs required a lot of trouble. They were not difficult, but they required trouble. I went to trouble to make those eggs. The end result is more that the sum of its parts, and the difference can be experienced and tasted.
I also believe trouble is the advantage home cooks have over commercial food establishments. “Home Cooking” restaurants strive to mimic the moments where someone lovingly took trouble to prepare a meal for us because the meals that require trouble are the meals we remember. The sad news is, very rarely can the experience of home cooking be replicated in a restaurant. Would you be a happy customer if you ordered scrambled eggs and had to wait thirty minutes? Most likely not.
The trouble is the gift.
I am seeing a cultural shift, a trend in food preparation that caters to the ever-shrinking attention spans and desires for instant gratification. I see it in the “quick and easy” dinner menu, over-promising and under-delivering. I see it in the thirty-second cooking video, shown in fast motion, skipping steps and sharing the end result before you’ve even read the recipe title. I see it in the cooking show, produced to remove all preparation steps from the performance, making it seem completely realistic to throw together meatloaf and get it into the oven before the commercial break. Trouble is being edited out of our field of vision.
Friends, this is not reality. This is not the economy of delicious homemade food.
Yes, there are ways to work smarter, short cuts that do not compromise quality. I’ve built a home kitchen and a business around these tips and tricks. But there is not a substitute for going to the trouble that cooking requires. You can’t side step the trouble. It’s part of the process and produces the gift.
We shy away from trouble like it’s the plague. We “just” do things, explaining when complimented that “it was no trouble at all.” Learning to accept compliments is another conversation, but embracing the trouble is what I want to highlight here.
When you cook for someone, whether it is yourself, your family, or your friends, the food is an important component. It matters. But the real gift you are delivering is the trouble you go to when you choose to slow down, prepare real food from real ingredients, and serve that food to whomever sits at your table.
Trouble is the kind of thing you can taste. It’s rarely the skill of the person cooking that determines the quality of the finished dish. More likely, it is the trouble they went to while cooking. Yes, you do become better at cooking with time and practice, growing more nimble and comfortable with the steps. But also yes, you can produce delicious food when you take the time to go to a little bit of trouble.
Trouble doesn’t have to imply excessive amounts of time or energy like spending thirty minutes on scrambled eggs. I have tasted the gift of trouble in a fresh salad a friend brought me during opening week at Hurley House when I hadn’t had a real meal in days. I have tasted the gift of trouble in a cup of crisp-cold sparking water (no ice, just the way I like it), delivered knowingly and silently by a co-worker in the middle of a particularly challenging day. Trouble can be simple gestures that communicate care and elevate the everyday. The gift isn’t the eggs or the salad or the water. The gift is the trouble.
This is the heart of hospitality. Not to perform amazing feats in the kitchen, slaving for the sake of approval or esteem, but to intentionally go to trouble for the sake of expressing love.
More than anything, I want to encourage you to go to trouble in whatever ways that makes sense for you. It’s not a contest or a comparison. It’s a pursuit, an intention, a gift.
Go to trouble. Don’t apologize. Don’t swat it away. Embrace it, give it, enjoy it, and taste it.