Perfectionism and Ranch Dressing

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fabulous New Yorker essay “The Bakeoff,” he tells the story of the development of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.

The couple who owned Hidden Valley Ranch, near Santa Barbara, had come up with a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and parsley flakes that was mixed with equal parts mayonnaise and buttermilk to make what was, by all accounts, an extraordinary dressing. Clorox tried to bottle it, but found that the buttermilk could not coexist, over any period of time, with the mayonnaise. The way to fix the problem, and preserve the texture, was to make the combination more acidic. But when you increased the acidity you ruined the flavor. Clorox’s food engineers worked on Hidden Valley Ranch dressing for close to a decade. They tried different kinds of processing and stability control and endless cycles of consumer testing before they gave up and simply came out with a high-acid Hidden Valley Ranch dressing — which promptly became a runaway best-seller.

Customers had never tasted the original Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. As such, they were oblivious to the fact that the high-acid version tasted different. The important factor was that Hidden Valley Ranch dressing tasted better than what was already available on supermarket shelves. The fact that it couldn’t match the “ideal” fresh version was irrelevant.

This anecdote came to mind when I read through some of my old writing. There are more than a dozen such offerings that I never posted because they didn’t live up to what I intended, and there are at least as many that I’ve posted that, at the time, seemed substandard or disappointing. Going back and reading again with fresh eyes – and no memory of whatever wordplay I was aiming for – made some of those formerly disappointing entries seem adequate. Some passages I thought were clunky, muddled, or unclear got the point across perfectly. (At the same time, some of the writing that I found exciting at the time was forced or stilted or maybe just didn’t age well. A step back cuts both ways, I suppose. Also, my use of parentheses seems overbearing in retrospect.)

Creating something – whether it’s writing essays, stories, or poems, cooking a new recipe, or crafting something elegant from sandalwood – is a difficult, often heart-rending process, and it’s understandable to want every effort to be perfect. Perhaps the best thing a person can do, rather than endlessly reworking and editing and adjusting, is to say, “Good enough” and then try again with something new. In all likelihood, you’re the only person who’ll be able to tell the difference.

 

Hidden Valley

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One thought on “Perfectionism and Ranch Dressing

  1. I can attest to the truth of this post wholeheartedly. Three of the five most popular posts on my blog are ones that I wrote and posted with minimal effort and little thought as to what their impact could be.

    And also…some of the least popular ones are posts I was convinced would be huge hits ended up being total flops. The opposite is equally true sometimes.

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