Practically Imperfect in Every Way.

I’ve had a difficult relationship with “perfect” ever since I witnessed a measuring tape belonging to Mary Poppins refer to her as practically so in every way. We have the same initials, Mary and I, so the self-imposed pressure to emulate her was intense.

The vanity, pompousness, and willingness to abandon young children at the next good gust of wind were easy achieved. The subtleties of becoming airborne with an umbrella, sliding up bannisters, and drinking tea on the ceiling, however, were not. Knowing that I am unable to elevate myself by means of magic has been an endless source of frustration.

So when I hear people toss off phrases like “the perfect dessert for the Holidays” or “the perfect cocktail for Summer” I cringe and think to myself, “Oh, God. There’s that word again.”

Perfect.

I’m not sure I know what it means. Or what it looks like. And if I were a smart person, I would have given up on the word a long time ago. But I’m not and I didn’t.

Several months ago, I was asked to write a story for another website. One that belongs to someone I admire and adore and who has done so much for me. Someone who believes in my ability to tell a story. I wanted it to be the best thing I’ve ever written. I wanted it to be– you guessed it– perfect.

And, of course, it wasn’t and it still isn’t.

I’d examine the re-write notes, rip the whole thing apart and try to piece it back together. I sat with it every day, finding a phrase to polish here, a paragraph to tighten there. But it wouldn’t gel. There were days when all I could do was stare at it, cry in frustration, and walk away from it before I threw my laptop across the room.

I imagined my friend to be profoundly disappointed in me. I imagined his editor wringing her hands over my non-progress. But he isn’t and she doesn’t. In fact, she’s been tremendously kind and patient.

All the bad things are the product of my own, fertile imagination.

And this frustration and non-progress has infected every other part of my life for the past several months. I’ve pulled back from the world. I’ve lost endless nights of sleep. And when I sleep, I dream that I can’t move.  I fell into a wide, dark, depressive hole.

Photo of the author.

It’s been driving me batty. Or, to put it into proper food terms, nuts.

I’ve been good about seeing friends, who always put me back into a happy mood, but when I return home and come face to face with my computer screen, I sink back down again. I have a long list of stories to tell and recipes to make, but nothing’s been coming out. It’s one thing to be brimming with ideas, it’s another to be able to string them together into coherent paragraphs.

There are bigger problems in the world than writer’s block. I am in good health. I have excellent friends and a supportive family. But there are few things more terrifying to a writer than the sensation that he or she cannot write.

In my case, it all stemmed from wanting to write one, simple, perfect little story that would make someone proud of me and compounded by all the marvelous hype I’ve received over the past several months that have made me afraid to write anything less than wonderful.

And it’s all in my own, complicated little head.

It’s a fire-breathing dragon of my own creation. No, strike that. It’s more like a dragon that sneezes a cold, paralyzing mist. And the only way to slay it is to warm up enough to step out of its way and slit its throat.

The best way I can think of to warm up again  is to give up on this idea of perfect because it’s never done me or anyone I know the least bit of good. And, of course,  to keep writing (or painting or composing or skiing or whatever it is you love and want to be good at doing). More importantly, to keep writing and not be afraid to write something that isn’t great (like this post, for example). It’s important for me to remember that one must sharpen one’s skills sufficiently if one hopes to do any productive throat-slitting.

Because it clearly isn’t done through Mary Poppins magic.

So I’m letting go of perfect, not that I’ve ever attained it in the first place. I’m not even certain what it looks like. “The perfect dessert for the Holidays”? Something deemed perfect by one person is always going to be found imperfect by another. I have the feeling that perfection is merely the product of the imagination. And, perhaps, excellent marketing.

Is there anything in this world that is absolutely, objectively perfect? If there is, I would like to see it. And perhaps kick a little dent in it.

The only thing I can come up with is the Perfect Manhattan. What makes it “perfect”, however is isn’t so much that it has reached a sublime state, but rather, a vermouth-related compromise.

Now that’s the kind of perfect I’m comfortable with.

Happy Holidays from me and my dragon. Miss Poppins, however sends you no such greeting. She’s never been good with sentiment.

Poached Pears with Pistachio and Ricotta

Practically perfect. Maybe not for you, but for me.

Fruity, nutty, poached in wine, a little cheesy, and none-too-sweet. If there existed a dessert that suited me, this would be the one. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s the “perfect dish for the Holidays”, but it’s practically perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

Granted, there are three different components, but I like that about this recipe. It’s a pleasant exercise in “pulling it together”, you might say. And, fortunately, all of them are easy, elastic, and extremely forgiving, which is precisely the sort of thing I need to make these days.

Ingredients:

For the pears:

4 Bosc pears: firm and not at all what one might think of as perfectly ripe.
3 cups water
3 cups (essentially, it’s one 750ml bottle minus three or four good swigs for the cook) of decent white wine. I used an Oregon Riesling.
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
4 or 5 cloves

For the pistachio paste:

1 pound pistachios, shelled
1/4 cup simple syrup
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
A heavy pinch of salt

For the ricotta:

1 pound ricotta
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon of sugar
The zest of 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation:

1. In a large, deep pan (I’ve used an 11-incher), add all the ingredients listed under “For the pears”. Except the pears. Bring to a simmer and stir well enough to ensure that the honey and sugar have melted into the water and wine.

Gasping for air.

2. Wash, peel, halve, and core your pears. Slip them gently into the simmering liquid. Cut a round of parchment paper to fit neatly and loosely over your now-simmering pears. Cut a hole in the center to allow the inevitable steam to escape*. The letting off of steam is nearly as important in certain cooking methods as it is in certain life situations, or so people tell me. In fact, I hear that there are actually people in this world who cook to let off steam. As crazy as that sounds, every word of it, I think,  is true.

Let the poor, gasping pears poach for about 15 to 20 minutes. The goal is tender, liquid-permeated fruit, not stewed to the point of easy gummability.

3. Transfer pears, cinnamon stick, cloves, and star anise to a clean bowl and reserve. Reduce the  poaching liquid until there is a little more than one cup remaining, which should present itself to you as a lovely but light syrup. And when I say “lovely but light syrup”, I mean that it is both subtly flaxen in color and only mildly viscous. Pour over the awaiting pears, cover, and set aside until ready to use.

These pears will be just fine refrigerated for the next five or so days. In fact, they get more delicious the longer they stay in the syrup. Until they start to rot. But the window of eating opportunity is a wide one. 

4. Drop your nuts and salt in a food processor and give them a few quick pulses. Drizzle in your simple syrup and pulse a bit more. You should be able to gather up the nut mixture and, with little effort, be able to shape it into loose balls. It should look essentially like the guts of a piece of baklava, except green.

This precious little nut job is best consumed the day you make it, for texture’s sake. Its decline and fall from goodness is rapid. You have been warned. 

5. In a clean bowl, combine ricotta, sugar, honey , orange zest, and vanilla. Stir well, taste for desired sweetness, adjust accordingly, cover, and set aside in the refrigerator until read to use.

The ricotta mixture is at its peak after it’s been mixed up for a few hours. Left for two days in the refrigerator, you might notice that it’s been weeping uncontrollably. The best remedy is beat the hell out of it until there are no more tears, then act as if there has been no crying and no beating, and continue. 

6. To serve, place a heavy dollop of ricotta in the center of a much-loved but slightly flawed plate or bowl. Allow one half of a poached pear to casually rest upon the ricotta as if it were some sort of dairy body pillow. Do not, however, let it rest upon its side. Form a loose ball of pistachio paste and place it in the pear’s hollowed out core like so much nutty belly button lint. Lightly drizzle your recumbent nude with syrup, get out of your own way, and actually try to enjoy something you’ve created for once in your life without tearing it to shreds. Metaphorically speaking, of course. You’re going to have to tear the pear to shreds if you’re planning on eating it.

* This trick I learned from a man by the name of David Lebovitz. It’s alarming how many tricks I’ve learned from that man– most of which I would not be embarrassed to perform in front of my mother.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Holidays, Rants and Stories, Sweets and the Like and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Practically Imperfect in Every Way.

  1. I like the dragon analogy. The elusive idea of “perfect” often sets my internal editor off a serious nagging marathon. “Perfect” can take a very long hike — with my internal editor and your dragon.

  2. David Leite says:

    Read the chapter “Perfectionism” (pg. 28) in Annie Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird.”

  3. Sean says:

    This post is tinged with just the right amount of wabi sabi (not to be confused with wasabi) to lend it the sense of authenticity it needs. Well played.

  4. Anita says:

    You’ve told me of this dragon a few times; I’m sorry (in a way) that it’s still lurking around, but not entirely. For one, my favorite children’s book – The Laughing Dragon – has a fire-breathing protaganist. And also because it prodded you to write this perfectly charming post.

  5. Cassandra Gorgeous says:

    Michael

    Perfection is the death of art.

    If you’ve suffered this much over the piece, it deserves an audience. I really hope you showed it to the editor to see what she says. Feedback can spur creativity. I’m also reminded of that scene in Mad Men where Don Draper instructs Peggy Olson on creativity. He told her to work nonstop on a project, and then leave it alone: the idea will come. It has proven to be true many times when I write. I’d think about it, write, write, write, then leave it alone. The big idea always comes. Have faith. Life, like writing, turns on one good sentence.
    Good Luck, and Merry Xmas.

  6. Have you noticed that “perfect” doesn’t really mean anything anymore. When the waitress asks me if I want soup or salad my response merits a “perfect”. What does that mean?

    I wish I could replay the tape of the last time we met (the only time we met) and you counseled me on this very topic.

  7. amy says:

    I think we all struggle with a desire for perfection or at least a desire to show only perfect results or mastery to the world. When I get stuck there and it happens often, I find that decorating cookies with my frosting loving, never found a sprinkle she could not add more of daughter a tangible reminder that the process can matter as much as the result. Not always, of course, but often enough that the reminder is valuable.

  8. Robin Carpenter says:

    “a cold, paralyzing mist” – a horrifyingly accurate description
    A therapist once asked me if I wanted to work on my “harsh internal critic.” I was shocked and told her that I didn’t have one, because if I did I wouldn’t be such a depressed loser.
    You made a solid jab into your dragon’s throat this week!

  9. Stephanie says:

    What can you possibly strive for once you’ve reached Perfect? Toss that word right out the window (along with miz poppins) and replace it with ‘Progress’…as in ‘practice makes Progress’
    I feel better already ;)

  10. Dee says:

    Brilliant. Can you please write everything that I read from now on? Thank you.

  11. Casey says:

    Perfect timing, as I have a raging case of writer’s block right now.

  12. Bravo, Michael, such a great piece. You’ve captured that paralyzing aspect of being a perfectionist and a writer—and helped us all to keep slaying our dragon. It’s an ongoing effort, isn’t it.

  13. Oh I am right there with you. I have nearly 100 posts in draft that don’t make it because they aren’t perfect..and then they are past their prime. I vote we make a gallon perfect Manhattans. Thinking of you and your wonderful writing. *mwah*

    • A gallon of perfect Manhattans sounds lovely, but then we’d never, ever get around to finishing any of our posts. Perhaps if we promote A Drunken Post A Day Month, we might be able to accomplish something.

      *mwah*,

      Michael

  14. Thank you for helping to shatter that myth of perfection. It serves none of us to continue to strive for that which does not exist.

  15. Nicole says:

    It’s always surprising (in a very good way) to find a recipe at the end of one of your posts, Michael. I’d leave here perfectly satisfied after reading any one your stories, so it’s like an extra special bonus to find a wonderful recipe waiting for me at the end.

  16. Susan says:

    Hi Michael
    You are in your element when writing a recipe. You are relaxed and happy and very funny! I enjoy every part of your posts but your narrative in the recipe is priceless. Ricotta weeping uncontrollably – now that’s dare I say it – that’s hilarious!
    Susan

    • Bless you, as always, Susan. Writing the copy for recipes is probably my favorite part of posting. I don’t think everyone notices. Just those people (like you) who pay attention.

      xom

      • Dee says:

        I’m with Susan. The introduction is the heart of the piece, but the recipes frequently contain the cleverest bits. But on top of the wit, I really appreciate the precision of instructions like “The goal is tender, liquid-permeated fruit, not stewed to the point of easy gummability.”

        • You know it’s (not-so) secretly my favorite part to write. Especially when it’s an original recipe.

          Just wait until you see what I’ve come up with for my next post. Ah, the New Year…

          xom

  17. Lana says:

    My usually very organized analytic mind embraces the common sense of your argument, but no matter how many “I can do this” moments I experience throughout my day and zen sessions aimed to rid me of the evil indoctrination of perfectionism, I still respond like the most pitiful of Pavlov’s dogs as soon as the right button is pressed.
    But, I will keep on fighting because in the end it has to start a change, somehow:)
    I don’t want to dwell on so many opportunities I missed because of the dreadful perfectionist demon (destroying my high-school journals due to the “low quality of writing” makes my heart rip in a thousand pieces).
    I am really rooting for both you and me, and everyone else who feels the same on this steep, treacherous uphill battle. If I have to pull this post of yours out of the ether a few times a week, so be it – I need a friendly reminder:)
    Happy New Year! I’ll toast to vanquishing the dragons and demons, preferably with that perfect Manhattan! Cheers!

    • Dwelling on opportunities missed is enough to drive anyone insane. I had a book of (mostly comic) poetry that I destroyed out of self-consciousness, too. I really, really regret doing that.

      Cheers back at you, my dear Lana. With cocktail (soon to be) in hand.

      xom

  18. Michael, the phrase I have landed upon is “charmingly imperfect.” This post reminds me of a favorite cartoon from years ago… an artist is standing in his loft, frozen in front an enormous white canvas. The caption: “And it was to become his most important work.”

    • “Charmingly Imperfect.” I like that a lot. Perhaps I should make that motto and place it in the lower left quadrant of my family shield. How does one say that in Latin? Okay, I just looked it up: Blandicule Imperfectum.

      Happy New Year, Stephanie.

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  21. Kitten says:

    Deeply late to the party, but I have to tell you that I love you for your wine measurement.

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