Sunday, December 23, 2012
Learning from two kinds of articles or books: recipes or mindless rules versus methods or ratios
In July 2011 Cam Barber in Melbourne blogged about how you should Get a method! Public speaking rules stop you thinking. Rules like open with a joke won’t work generally.
There are two kinds of articles or books we can use to learn about a subject. One is for beginners in search of a pinch of knowledge, and the other is for serious students in search of wisdom.
The more common kind are like most cookbooks. Those have a bunch of detailed recipes that we can mindlessly follow without really understanding what we are doing. There might be two recipes per page, or one with photos spread over four pages. If we have all the ingredients we can blindly follow their recipe for Tuna Noodle Casserole. We can open a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, two 5 oz. cans of tuna, etc. and produce a mediocre dinner.
The less common kind are at a higher level and are about methods or ratios. I’ve recently been reading one example - Tamar Adler’s 2011 cookbook An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. There are only 66 “recipes” in 250 pages (without pictures). The first chapter is on How to Boil Water. After 13 pages it has just one recipe - for (Italian) salsa verde. Another cookbook example is Michael Ruhlman’s 2010 Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.
My versions of Tuna Casserole are a method rather than a recipe. It can adapt to use whatever is in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. The oven preheats while the noodles and sauce get cooked. If I have fresh mushrooms, then they’ll go into a microwaved two-cup batch of white sauce made from milk, butter, and cornstarch. The white sauce gets cooked in an eight-cup glass measuring cup that then gets used to cook the vegetables (carrots, peas, red bell pepper) while the noodles are boiling in a pot of water on the stove. My baking dish also holds two quarts (eight cups), so that measuring cup finally gets used to mix in the right volume of noodles.
I use a similar method to cook up my speeches, and so can you.
The 1942 image of a woman with a cookbook and pot is from the Library of Congress