Cooking with Words

August 6, 2015
God never meant me to cook good food.  When it comes to spices, herbs, flavors and proteins, I’m a major disaster.  I mean major.  My home economics teacher recognized this when I put tablespoons of oregano in her braised radishes instead of the teaspoons she specified.  (Who braises radishes anyway?) My husband figured it out the night I added sugar to the meatloaf instead of salt.  He thanked me for inventing meat cake and took me out for a burger instead.   The fact is, the kitchen never excited me as much as the printed page does.  So instead of cooking the regular way, I cook with words.

One thing I have learned is that Great Cooks aren’t Born, They Are Made. Julia Child had to go to school, August Escoffier learned through an apprenticeship, and Justin Wilson was taught by his mother.  The same goes for cooking with words.  All writers start out as great readers, picking up skills by studying the best.  And like all students who’ve watched accomplished teachers, those would-be creators studied their texts,  picked up their tools and concocted….horrendous messes.  Good books and teachers can help you get started but nothing is a substitute for practice, practice, practice and lots of failure, failure, failure.
Maybe that’s why, at the age of (ahem) fifty-six, the only dish I make well enough to serve is a hot cup of tea.  I’ve been a hot tea drinker since the age of twelve when my mom told me about living in England. Getting tea right means using good ingredients, proper proportions (water should be hot but not boiling) and a clean, warmed tea pot.  I made bad cups of tea until I could finally make good ones and now I make those in my sleep.  And while I am no Gordon Ramsay at the key-board, I’ve written so many five-paragraph essays, I can churn those out as well.  
A quick word about those ingredients, word-wise: nouns and verbs are your friends.  Action verbs with some zing to them (i.e. howled, scrape, slinging, etc.) are great spice words but use spice accordingly.  It should enhance the dish, not dominate it.  I think conjunctions must be alcohol and I’ll probably need a twelve-step program for these, one day.  It’s easy and fun to compare concepts by sticking them together with a conjunction but if you combine too many, the sentences get blurry. Be careful with conjunctions.  Like Humpty-Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, I find adjectives are fairly manageable words as long as they’re spaced well apart.  Adverbs should be approached with great care as they can actually weaken a sentence.   If you’ve got a sentence drenched in words that end in “ly”, take them all out and read the sentence again without them.  Is the sentiment still clear but stronger without all those adverbs?  If it is, don’t say I told you so.
To become really good at anything requires a compulsive interest in the subject.  Great chefs don’t create a brilliant dish once and then never make it again.  They analyze how and why that creation works and create variations or re-invent it as needed.  They know how to make a great plate of food, but they’re always interested in making it better.   If you watch writers at work (which is so entertaining, your insomnia will be cured right away) they’re just as obsessive about getting the rhythm right in each sentence and paragraph. This may look as productive as someone re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but each sentence requires a lot of tinkering to make it sound just right  and they will re-read, re-write, and re-arrange their composition until they either give up, whimpering, or go back to rework it some more.  That’s an obsession but sometimes OCD is required if you want to compose something worth seeing (or eating).
So, I’ll never be much good in the kitchen, I think, except for a great cup of tea.  That’s all right.  I respect the people who work there and improve the world with their art.  I’m grateful for what they do. In the meantime, you’ll find me staring at a screen or piece of paper while phrases swirl round in my head.  Someday I’ll serve and say “Bon appetit!”

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