If nobody's perfect, as the old saying goes, how is it that there's so much perfect food?
Plug "perfect burger" into a Google search and you'll find numerous sets of directions to achieve the ideal, courtesy of sources as varied as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, ehow.com and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl's husband. Foodnetwork.com has pages of recipes with "perfect" in the title. (That's not counting all the dishes labeled "world's best" or "best ever," let alone all the "ultimate" offerings from Food Network chef Tyler Florence.)
Of course this only adds to the pressure hosts feel on holidays such as this Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer entertaining season. What if we don't offer the perfect menu? And what is that, anyway?
"The explosion of food blogging has really exacerbated the pandemic of perfect," says David Kamp, whose recent book, The United States of Arugula, examined the evolution of America's obsessive interest in food.
"It's a lot like someone talking about the mechanics of a baseball pitcher," Kamp says. "It's partly charming and endearing and partly bonkers."
Shall we blame that doyenne of the domestic ideal, Martha Stewart? A search of her Web site yields 27 recipes that claim perfection, from Perfect Roast Turkey (brine it first) to Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (with Emmentaler Swiss cheese and ciabatta) to Perfect Pie Crust (all butter). Playing recently on marthastewart.com: video of Stewart showing country singer Patty Loveless how to make Perfect French Toast.
Though she has, no doubt, spread perfection fever, Stewart is not the only one responsible - because it turns out that the cult of the culinary superlative has been active longer than I had thought.
How else to explain something called Perfection Salad, a molded melange of vegetables bound with aspic that dates to the early 1900s? It was cooking-school perfect, Laura Shapiro says in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, not because it was particularly delicious - that was beside the point - but because the gelatin presented a tidy encasement for the ingredients within. Perfection Salad, Shapiro writes, was "the very image of a salad at last in control of itself."
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language doesn't necessarily clarify what's perfect, at least when it comes to food. Perfect is variously defined as "lacking nothing essential to the whole"; "being without defect or blemish"; "completely suited for a particular purpose or situation"; "excellent and delightful in all respects." How, though, to account for taste?
"The trouble is, what is perceived as perfection by one person may not be perfection by another," said Shirley Corriher, a food scientist and author of the classic book CookWise. "Some people love flat, crisp cookies. Other people love soft, puffy cookies. What I try to do in explaining science is to try to enable you to get your perfection."
With an exploding number of food personalities and thousands of recipes online, the promise of perfection is, however, a selling point - a way to stand out from the crowd. My e-mail, for example, brings news that the folks at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese think the perfect cheeseburger requires Boucher Blue Cheese from Green Mountain Blue Cheese Farm - in where else but Vermont - along with pickled red onion and garlic aioli.
Wondering what it all meant, I headed to the kitchen to build as perfect a Memorial Day menu as my skills could produce. Close at hand were several cookbooks that deal in perfection, including Cook the Perfect ... , a new offering from London chef Marcus Wareing, and 1998's The Perfect Recipe by Pam Anderson, former executive editor of the perfection-obsessed Cook's Illustrated magazine.
I started with the burger, the main event at many a Memorial Day feast. Many of the "perfect burger" authorities seemed to agree that ground chuck makes the perfect foundation - and the more recently ground, the better. I stopped short of grinding my own, but did ask the butcher to freshly pulverize a chuck roast for me to grill as soon as I got home.
In his new primer What's a Cook to Do?, which offers instructions for "the world's best hamburger," veteran author James Peterson cautions not to spoil this good meat with "indifferent cheese." I heeded this warning and took his suggestion to "experiment" (can experiments be guaranteed to produce the world's best?) with a fine Roquefort.
My husband, the grill master in our house, followed Anderson's direction to grate the cheese into the patties instead of melting it on top. But he didn't grate it into his patty. When I asked why, I learned something new after nearly eight years of marriage - that his perfect burger does not include any kind of cheese.