Pasta, Pappardelle, and the Perils of Overconfidence
March 23, 2023
by Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.
One of the earliest dishes I learned to prepare was spaghetti. My efforts involved opening up a can of Chef Boyardee, and heating it up in a sauce pot.
Soon I gravitated to boiling supermarket bought packaged dried pasta, warming up a can or jar of spaghetti sauce, placing it on top of the drained spaghetti, and finishing it off with a sprinkle of Kraft parmesan cheese.
Over time, I experimented with various brands and different types of dried pasta, added a variety of ingredients to the store bought sauce to make it more interesting, and topped off the concoction with selected types of parmesan.
This ritual progressed to making pasta with cottage cheese, or heating up olive oil in a pot or pan, adding the cooked pasta, and then some salt and parmesan to the dish.
Despite trips to Italy where not only did I eat some of the best pasta in the world, but once spent a delightful afternoon, in a small hillside southern Italian town, making pasta from scratch, under the direction of the aging aunt of one of my friends, my pattern of heating up dried pasta, and dousing it with prepared spaghetti sauce persisted for a number of years.
For example, once a week, when my wife would work late, and it was my turn to feed our children, boiling dried pasta and covering it with canned spaghetti sauce was my fall back/go to meal of choice to cook.
But over the past decade not only do supermarkets from Whole Foods to Trader Joes sell dried pasta made out of different ingredients (e.g., rice, etc.), and “fresh pasta” that one can cook at home, but I also started to deliberately improve my cooking skills.
To be fair, cooking fresh pasta presents a slightly different set of challenges, than cooking package dry spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, etc., but ones that appeared to be easy to master.
Recently, however, I decided to purchase and cook freshly made (and relatively expensive) Pappardelle (pasta), (which is about eight inches in length and laid out in consecutive U shaped rings), from a well-respected local purveyor of Italian food.
At the time I believed that the biggest challenge was deciding among which type of sauce (i.e., tomato, ricotta cheese, or mushrooms) that I would finish the pasta with.
But that was just the beginning of my temporary culinary decent into hell.
I assumed that I knew how to cook the Pappardelle. I had seen my wife cook this dish numerous times and thought it was a no brainer. Or how difficult could this be?
One of my biggest mistakes, however, was assuming that the pasta showed up on the plate the way it was nicely laid out on in the plastic container in which it was bought and that there was no need to separate the individual strands of pasta as they entered the boiling pot of water. I also reckoned that it was not necessary to put oil in to the water and felt confident enough that it was neither necessary for me to consult a recipe or a youtube video that would walk me through how to cook it.
The result was a big mess of cooked pasta that was all stuck together.
Always willing to deconstruct what worked and did not work for me in the kitchen, I asked myself why did things backfire on me, and what deeper meaning could I derive from this experience?
There are about three competing hypotheses.
First, my failure, could be attributable to my white, middle-class male sense of confidence. Although this may be true, I think this explanation does not hold much water (boiled or not).
Second, the outcome could be attributed to the way I conceptualized the challenge. This is the notion of framing. Since I had cooked both packaged hard pasta and fresh pasta before, I assumed that my biggest challenge would not be cooking the pasta, but orchestrating the sauce.
Third, and more likely is something akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect that suggests that people with low skills, ability, and expertise often tend to overestimate their ability. Yes, I am learning how to improve my ability to cook Japanese food (in particular Washoku), but that doesn’t mean that my knowledge and skills are immediately transferable to other types of food and cuisine.
In skills acquisition and performance, there are always blind spots, and this was one of them for me.
What lessons can be learned as I go forward?
In the future, although it’s important to experiment and not shy away from trying new things and methods, it’s also wise to not assume that just because I have some expertise in one area, that it is easily generalizable to another. More specifically, as DK experts will tell you, in order to minimize this effect, it’s wise to:
Recognize that you may have a bias;
Try to get feedback (in this case early on before you destroy the pasta);
Ideally this feedback is from people who are recognized experts in the relevant field;
Commit yourself to continuously learn more and improve your skills;
And most importantly be humble.
Italian Chef 1