Tortoise Tuesday: Scholarly Conventions in the Kitchen

The first thing I learned in my mother’s kitchen is that you never, ever, sample measured ingredients. Unless, that is, you wanted to lose a finger. My mother is a master baker, and after nineteen years eating her breads, cookies, and pastries, I am convinced that there is nothing she cannot bake. But no matter what she bakes, the recipe is sacred. The first time she makes anything, she follows the recipe to the letter. The results aren’t always satisfactory, even when (as usually happens) everything goes as it should. Countless times, we’ve sat together at the table while she took tiny bites of a piece of cake, saying things like “well, the top-crust wasn’t quite what I would have liked,” or “the crumb would have been better with an extra egg yolk, don’t you think?” And then, of course, she would go back and make notes in the margin of the recipe in crisp cursive handwriting, and the next time she made the cake, it would really be her recipe, not the cook-book’s. But when it came time to bake, whatever the recipe is, she follows it.

I always wondered about this when I was little: my mother was such a fantastic baker, why didn’t she just improvise? Wasn’t she good enough to change the rules on the fly? At one point when we were baking together, I asked her just that. My timing wasn’t the best. She was beating egg-whites, and instead of answering the question, she kept her attention firmly on the electric beaters and told me to wait until the eggs were done. When the egg-whites were finally beaten, she told me (a bit hurriedly, since as she said, she needed to add the sugar quickly before the egg-whites fell) that cooking well is always about control. No matter how improvised a dish seemed to be, the cook could never lose control of the steps involved in its preparation. Changing things up, she said, was all just perfectly-prepared spontaneity. Then she motioned me to pass the 1-cup measure for the sugar, and the conversation ended abruptly as we both went back to baking.

A similar statement can be made about going against conventions in scholarly writing. When an author deliberately disregards a standard convention, the results are often striking. A single prosy sentence at the end of a paper can capture the author’s meaning better than a paragraph’s worth of explanation. But conventions, like recipes, are there for a reason, and wantonly ignoring them can lead to disaster. (Just imagine trying to read an analytical essay written in the same style as a Hemingway novel.) In writing and baking alike, control is key. The trick, of course, is to make your audience think you are completely free of constraint, while in reality, every break with convention is a conscious choice. As I learned from trying to improvise my way to a chocolate cake, you can change a recipe as you like, but it usually helps to know what you’re changing before you start, not after. Begin with something you know how to do, and modify it gradually until you get what you want. And of course, never take from the measured ingredients.

— Isabella Khan ’21