Jessica Helfand | Essays

You Never Go Down The Candy Aisle

I used to believe that the true secret of extraordinary success in the kitchen lay in skillful grocery shopping. I was doomed, it seemed, the minute I hit the market, where I was hardwired to revisit the same aisles, to buy the same ingredients, to make the same dishes, over and over and over again. 

It was like Groundhog Day, but with cheese.

And then, one day, Nigella Lawson appeared on television to reveal what a well-stocked pantry truly looked like. Thrilled beyond measure, I sat down to take notes, only to be blindsided by the results. “Naturally, candied lavender,” she purred, “is an absolute must.”

Now I was really doomed.

My mother, who was beautiful and funny and brilliant in every way, was acually a rather distracted cook. She was also thin — naturally thin, the kind of thin where she forgot to make meals sometimes because she didn’t actually appear to think about food very much. Our family lived for many years in Paris, where you could eat extremely well pretty much anywhere without ever setting foot in your own kitchen. Curiously, many of my food memories of Paris that do involve our kitchen are sort of strange, like the time Carmen, our Spanish babysitter, stayed with us for a week while our parents were away, and upon learning that my sister and I liked to eat toast for breakfast, proceeded to torch the entire loaf and put it in the dish cupboard, whereupon we were obliged to eat from the cold, charred pile for the next five days.

I was surrounded, it seemed, by distracted cooks.

There is a story — possibly apocryphal, though I tend to doubt it — that when I was about four years old, I accompanied my mother to the supermarket where she deftly steered me to what can only have been the aisles where she herself was a repeat visitor: the produce section, the butcher area, and so forth. As ours was a sugar-free and high-protein sort of household, this meant my mother pretty much avoided anything sweet, prompting me to proclaim — rather indignantly and at the top of my toddler lungs — you never go down the candy aisle.

Which she didn't, and which reinforces my point: might we posit that a willing embrace of all the aisles in the supermarket result in a more diversified pantry, and consequently, make one a better, bolder cook?

The more I consider the idea, I do think there's a great opportunity for some kind of cooking rehabilitation service for people like me, built on the premise that being a good cook has less to do with deboning a duck or flipping a frittata, and more to do with navigating those alien aisles filled with mystery ingredients. I also dream of someone creating an app that lets you plug in what you actually have in stock, funellng it through some sort of alchemical algorithm that spits out the possible options (candied lavender + burnt toast + and vodka: GO!) much the way Anagrammer does for people who cheat at Scrabble. (Not that I would know.) 

And by the way, I'll bet Nigella's mother always went down the candy aisle. 

This post is part of multi-site online conversation looking at food, curated by Good magazine's Nicola Twilley.

Comments [11]

You don't need fancy ingredients to make good food. You need fancy ingredients to make other people jealous at dinner parties. "Candied lavender"? Really?

But an app that takes the sad contents of my kitchen and remixes them into an edible result…I require it.
Colin Santos

I should say, supercook.com is exactly that site. you can choose what you have and what ingredients to exclude. it's pretty awesome!

So THAT's how you got 2 Bingos in our last Scrabble game! game on girlfriend!
Laura Tarrish

Or go to tastespotting.com, search for one to two key ingredients, and enjoy the food porn while finding a recipe. :)

That said, if you're looking to be a more self-sufficient cook, I think it is only time and experimentation that make the better, bolder cook. Limiting the initial selection can help (at least for me, dizzying variety is what makes it hard to decide what to buy or make for dinner)—maybe shop seasonally and locally—test out 30 asparagus recipes during the spring when they're in season.

As for candied lavender...I must mention that candied violets are delicious, but haven't I tried lavender. (btw, the photo at the top of the article is for candied violets, not lavender.)

oops...found a typo: i meant to say, "...but I haven't tried candied lavender..."

I find that going to recipes first always forces me outside of my shopping comfort zone... I'll discover unique and/or new recipes that I want to try and I won't shy away from the ones with unusual ingredients. It gets you down the different aisles, that's for sure!
Courtney Scott

I'm pretty willing to bet that Nigella's mum never went down any supermarket aisles, but that's just an aside.

What I find most bewildering about supermarkets, especially in the US, is that they don't stock ingredients, as such. I know this is a familiar complaint from the frontlines of the foodies, but it is very true. You want salad dressing? They have a thousand different kinds. You want good oil and decent vinegar? Not so much.

I love you, Jessica.
debbie millman

I believe that being able to experience a wider variety of produce and flavour gives a cook a basis upon which to learn to combine flavours and perfect techniques. Conjuring up receipes that wow the taste buds follows with experience and practice and the development of a palate for flavours. Being a non smoker helps as nicotine masks flavour more.

Jessica your a Futurist at heart.
Candied lavender + burnt toast + and vodka = Elettricità sessuale
Thank you.
Carl W. Smith

Fabulous as always, Jessica - I'm always up for a well-apologia to justify why I'm not constantly cooking. If you make (or commission?) that ingredient-app, you will be sitting on a pile-o-cash, that you can then freely apply to eating in restaurants. (As I would, and shamelessly.) Isn't there a recurring segment on that radio show The Splendid Table, that operates on this premise? Listeners call in, rattle off the contents of the mostly-bare, haphazardly-stocked fridges, and then the experts spin a delectable dish out of it. Now I must find this. On a mission, Jude
Jude Stewart

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