Claire Saffitz and the Joy of Cooking Failure

Looking at the distinctive bright-red packaging of a Cheez-Its box, test-kitchen chef and internet crush Claire Saffitz reads a question.  “Which cheese am I?” She considers, then responds: “Maybe I’m white cheddar —‘Perpetually has a theory.’” 

She’s not wrong; in fact, “having a theory” is a central conceit of her show. Bon Appétit: Gourmet Makes, Claire’s internet cooking show, features Claire concocting gourmet versions of classic American processed junk foods: Pop Tarts, Twix, Bagel Bites, Girl Scout Cookies, Doritos, Sno Balls. The mood is nostalgic and the method is prolonged trial and error, as Claire uses her extensive knowledge of pastries and confections to reverse engineer the central ingredients of the day’s junk food, staging a speculative encounter between haute cuisine and low. It is not unusual for Claire to rig up devices such as a stirring robot (so that she doesn’t have to stir as she makes condensed milk) or to weld one thing to another to create a tool that does not yet exist. The foods she recreates are trashy, delicious — her “gourmet” versions, if her fellow test cooks’ commentary is any indication, range from spectacular to abyssal, and often are unrecognizable, bad copies of the treat she is trying to recreate.

The Cheez-Its episode, in my opinion, is the Platonic Ideal of this show.  As Vulture contributor Louis Peitzman notes (despite the fact that he only ranks it 10th in a comprehensive ranking of all the episodes), the Cheez-Its episode puts on display the tried-and-true hallmarks of Saffitz’s method: equal parts expert cooking and amateur craftiness. But more than that, condensed into Saffitz’s adventure into Cheez-It territory are the two aspects of the show I love best: theory and failure, and the failure of theory. Almost 15 minutes into the 22 minute episode, my favorite moment of bathos arrives: a dejected Saffitz matter-of-factly assesses a batch of gourmet Cheez-Its, “Basically, it’s an abject failure.”

Due to the immense, unpredictable popularity of Gourmet Makes, I am, of course, not the first to write about the failures that make up Saffitz’s narrative arc through every episode. While many writers praise Saffitz’s failures, they’re typically taken up in a sort of chipper can-do spirit that seems unwilling to let failures fail; instead, these writers insist, failures are just successes by another means. Over at Quartz, for instance, Daniel Wolfe finds (though he doesn’t call it this) a neoliberal, capitalist lesson in the show: “Bon Appétit’s Gourmet Makes is a great way to learn how to be productive at work.” I suppose he’s not wrong, as Saffitz does have a job, and we are watching her do it quite successfully in the many, addictive episodes available on YouTube. And at HuffPost, Monica Torres gleans useful baking and life lessons from Saffitz’s willingness to fail. Torres links Saffitz’s work to Amy C. Edmonson’s ideas about “learn[ing] from failures to improve performance”  in the Harvard Business Review.

I am, perhaps predictably, less enthused about the potential to learn from Claire’s failures to improve my earning potential. But I, like these other internet commentators, do love Claire’s willingness to fail, to mess up, to go down the wrong path, and sometimes even to give up. I love Claire’s capacity to call a Cheez-It a Cheez-It: “Basically, it’s an abject failure.” The failures to which I am most drawn in Gourmet Makes are those that don’t go anywhere: sad, beleaguered M&M’s; abortive, impossible Pop Rocks; weirdly shaped and not-quite-right Sour Patch Kids. These ugly culinary disasters are the objects of my most intense affection. These failures that go nowhere, and even those that take Claire to a more delicious destination, evince pleasure in the abject, enjoyment of the bathetic, the sublimity of the sad. 

For me, the failures—not the successes — are the point of Gourmet Makes. I guess, in part, this might have to do with the phenomenon of “relatability,” the idea that Claire Saffitz is, as US Weekly might have it, just like us. But more than that, Gourmet Makes offers an engagement with the idea that some failures might teach us something so that we can do better next time and other failures might not. They might just be failures — Pop Rocks that don’t pop, Gushers that don’t really gush. At the end of episodes in which Claire has checked out or given up even before she starts, we are faced with a sort of modernist anti-climax, a story that doesn’t conclude satisfactorily, in which the loose ends aren’t all tied up, in which the gourmet M&M’s look like monstrosities.

What we learn from Gourmet Makes is that sometimes we don’t learn anything at all, and Claire invites us to encounter this lesson with  unrestrained joy. Claire might not be happy with her abject failures, but I’m sure she wants me to be,  as I watch episode after episode of Claire’s dejection and recalcitrance as she (to give just one example among many) consistently fails to temper chocolate correctly. 

I can’t find a clear, productive purpose to which a failed Pop Rock can be put. A mottled, disfigured M&M has no role to play in the neoliberal machinery of capitalism. I find comfort in this. And in many ways, these useless food stuffs, the abject failures of the BA test kitchen become analogues for certain types of art, intellectual inquiry, and teaching (depending on the day). A class might not go anywhere, this short essay may suck, my attempts to revise and rewrite and rethink may not result in publication (or if they do, no one may read it), a work of art may not be beautiful, but they may give pleasure, spark joy (to use another idiom of the moment), or cause unrestrained glee anyway. 

In a certain sense, Claire’s sad M&M’s signify, for me, what Barbara Johnson argues theory cultivates: “the surprise encounter with otherness,” which “lay[s] bare some hint of an ignorance one never knew one had.” Learning from the M&M’s is to presume that ignorance is, as Johnson says, “a gap in knowledge.” Not learning from them, letting the effort go nowhere, accepting the abject failure as abject failure is to treat the M&M’s as “an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know.” 

Saffitz’s unappetizing M&M’s, in other words, evince not a gap in knowledge that can be filled, but rather the foundational ignorance that rests at the heart of all knowledge. The M&M’s insist that theory only succeeds if it fails, if we “become ignorant of it again and again.” Like the M&M’s, theory is failure. Claire seems to know this when she identifies herself as the White Cheddar Cheez-It, who “perpetually has a theory.” That theory probably won’t work out, but as Claire teaches us with exhilarating joy, anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Ashley T. Shelden: Definitely a White Cheddar Cheez-It