Just Thinking: Food is for eating, not to behold

Every time someone posts a home-cooked meal photograph on social media, my self-esteem plunges. By now, it’s so far below sea level I’d need a dragline to extract it.

I say this even though I’m not a bad cook. I’m not even a cook.

What I am is a person who can combine vegetables, a protein or two and a starch into something that can be sprinkled with cheese and served from a casserole dish, a low-sided frying pan or a pasta pot. It usually tastes pretty good and looks colorful, depending on the number of vegetables I throw in.

Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett

Throwing vegetables into dishes is my specialty. I say this modestly. If I ever write a cookbook, I’d name it "Throwing In Vegetables" because that’s the motif running through every meal I make: Add as many vegetables as are available in the refrigerator and then toss in a few more from the freezer. My 16-vegetable soup might hold the record, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Some rice dishes I’ve made also are in contention.

I once looked for recipes, but my children still were small when I realized that recipes are like novels: The details may be new and different, but they’re all based on the same story: Good versus evil, sometimes with a quest thrown in like a parsnip thrown into soup. That’s when I started giving recipes a cursory glance and going with the vegetables plus starch plus protein formula (V + S + P).

Just Thinking: Some facts just don't need to be faced

It goes without saying that my husband and I satisfy the rule about eight fruits and vegetables a day for ourselves and several other people to be named later. (I’m never sure if “eight fruits and vegetables” means eight each or eight altogether, but either way, we exceed it.)

You’re probably thinking I’m some kind of health nut, but no. I’m merely a vegetarian, not because I have moral objections to eating meat, but because I realized years ago that of all the foods available to me, I was least excited about animal parts.

While I’ve never uttered the words, “I’m dying for a steak,” I have, in fact, said, “I’m dying for a baked potato.” So I stopped eating meat, on the grounds that a person can’t eat everything.

My point, though, is that while the meals I make at home are obnoxiously healthy and annoyingly crunchy (underneath the cheese), I never have prepared a dish so staggeringly beautiful and elegantly plated that I thought to post a photograph of it on my phone.

My meals taste all right. They even look all right, mostly. But they don’t look like "Cook’s Illustrated" or "Bon Appetit." Some of them might slide in under the headline “Comfort Food for People Who Don’t Care,” but that would depend on the dish.

That’s OK. While I admire people who can fry an egg, serve it with toast and make the result look like it would cost $27 without coffee, the ambition to do this myself eludes me. My plates don’t say, “This breakfast is too pretty to eat.” My plates say, “You wanted an egg? Here’s an egg.”

One of my sons-in-law can plate like a chef. He can arrange a simple burger so that the top of the bun rests against the side of the patty, like Vanna White showing the Wheel of Fortune audience the car contestants might win. A person can hardly bear to disturb the tableau to have lunch.

To be clear, I don’t heave food at my guests as if it’s feeding time in the Big Cats house at the zoo. But when it comes to arranging edibles on a dish, I’m simply not that motivated, especially at that point of the meal-preparation process.

While I might begin with wild ambition and derring-do, I inevitably wind up thinking, “Oh, dish it up and let’s for heaven’s sake eat.” This kind of attitude will never get me on the cover of "The Art of Eating.” Then again, I don’t believe eating is an art. I believe it’s a necessity. That, when it comes down to it, is my great failing.

Email Margo Bartlett at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: Just Thinking: Food is for eating, not to behold