Thursday, March 20, 2014

Process Or Chop?

Last week, I was making meatloaf. Look, you can just shut it. I hear you all out there about the meatloaf, but I make great meatloaf. There's a secret to it. A secret which I'm not going to tell you, because then I would have to share the "King of Meatloaf" title (which goes with my "King of Hamburgers" and "King of Fish" titles (there are probably more titles (like "King of Mashed Potatoes," according to my son but, really, how hard are mashed potatoes?), but those are the ones that come to mind right off hand (oh, and "King of Eggs," probably, too))), and I'm just not willing to do that.

So I was working from this recipe that my wife wanted me to look at (don't worry; I modified that recipe and made it my own), and it called for a "food processor." No, not in the meatloaf! What are you, crazy? It called for me to use a food processor with which to cut things up. Like the bread. Why in the world would I need a food processor to make little pieces of bread? That is kind of crazy.

See, I used to have a food processor. I kind of hated it. Okay, I did hate it, which is why I don't have it anymore. Unless you're making salsa or, like, a smoothie, the things are basically worthless. Recipes don't usually call for vegetable juice, and that's about the only good they're for. I used to use mine for meat (and that's about the closest you're getting to my cooking secrets), and it was great for that until it was time to clean the thing, and that was... well, to put it mildly, cleaning meat out of a food processor is a bitch. Sorry, I have no other way of putting that.

At any rate, eventually, I got rid of the food processor. I'm not much for making my own salsa.

It annoys me when recipes call for a food processor. I mean, what does it matter how I go about cutting up whatever it is I'm going to put into whatever I'm making. What if I don't want vegetable paste but actual discernible pieces of vegetables? I mean, we don't all have a phobia against plant matter like Briane Pagel and my younger son (except my son's bias is mostly against green things, and he fully supports potatoes (see "King of Mashed Potatoes")). And what if, you know, I don't own a food processor. Especially if that's not by choice. And, then, let's just pretend I don't have a lot of cooking experience, yet, and I see that the recipe calls for the food processor, and I don't actually know that I can just cut the stuff up myself. Instead, I see that in the recipe and I think, "Well, crap, I can't actually make this."

It's even worse when that is something that's actually true. Which does not happen with cooking, but it does happen with my kids' school assignments upon occasion. So many of my kids' assignments center around the computer, and it bothers me to no end when teachers give computer-centric assignments because not everyone owns a computer. In fact, there is still a significant percentage of American households that don't have computers. And I'm not just talking about the need to get something typed up and printed out (although we don't own a printer, so that always bugs me, and we have to go out of our way to get things printed for the kids when they need something printed).

The other day when I was making the meatloaf, my daughter was also working on an assignment for school, an assignment for her English class. In theory, the assignment should have been to write a report but, instead, the teacher had assigned them to make a slide show. This was disturbing to me on so many levels. For one, the assignment specifically required a computer (not just the ability to print something out (although I would guess that at least some of the students who do work on the computers at school do not have access to that work when they are at home; what are they supposed to do?)). For another, it required her to do things I know nothing about.

There should not be any kind of assignment from an English class that I know nothing about. Of course, I knew nothing about it because it was not really an English assignment. There was virtually no research involved as she only needed captions to go with the pictures. There was virtually no writing involved as she only needed to write the captions to go with the pictures. The actual work was finding the pictures she needed for her topic and putting them into the slide show thing. That's not the kind of thing that goes in an English class.

But, see, the thing that nailed it for me is that while I was chopping stuff up for the meatloaf (and I have to say that the clean up from chopping things is so much easier than cleaning up a food processor), she couldn't get something to work with her slide show, and I was completely unable to help her with that. Which is when I began wondering how the assignment was helping her to develop and kind of English skills.

All of that to say:
It's not always important to listen to the "how" of doing things. People will continually want to tell you the "how" of it, whatever the "it" is. Here is "how" to write a novel. Here is "how" to be an author. Here is "how" you should write. Here is "how" to pick your nose. What's more important, though, is to look at the result you want and figure out your own "how" on how to get there.

Which, I suppose, is where I have the issue with my daughter's assignment. I don't know what it is they were supposed to learn. It was classified as a "research project," but the "how" of presenting said (almost non-existent) research seemed to be the actual goal of the whole thing. Then, I have to ask: Why was that the goal of an English assignment? But I digress. Again.

So, anyway, if you need to have vegetables be in small pieces, what's the best way for you to do that? If you want to write a book, what's the best way for you to do that? You don't need to go out and buy a food processor just because a recipe says you should use one (especially if you don't like them to begin with (I mean, heck, some people still write on actual paper instead of using a keyboard)), and you don't need to have an office and office hours to write a book. Sure, there are some things where you need to follow a specific "how," like putting pictures into whatever slideshow thingy my daughter was using, but, sometimes, we come up with new ways to do things because someone doesn't know the "how" of it comes up with something new. Personally, I'd rather be that guy.


  1. Congrats on your King of Meatloaf (and so many other things) status. I literally cried when my hubby bought me a blender. (It upset my feminist sensibilities.) But over the years, I found it invaluable in making tomato sauce and lentil soup, which I do a lot. I often find technical stuff I can't do, but thank goodness there're always search engines and helpful posts somewhere to help me. Have a great weekend! :)

  2. Cleaning food processors and blenders never really bugged me.... just put water and soap in the container and set it a'whirlin for a few minutes, and then it's far easier to clean. *shrug*

    But I do get the actual message of this post, and it's a good one. The only thing I can think, in regards to your daughter's assignment, is that they don't have an actual study period for computer skills/home ec/etc, and have to cram these increasingly important life skills into unrelated classes.

  3. Hey Andrew, I hate having to chop vegetables, but I would never use a food processor for it. As you say, they end up a mush. If I have a heck of a lot to chop I use a Vidalia Chop Wizard. I love it so much I blogged about it once.

    They might be increasing her computer skills but certainly not her English skills and why don't you have a printer? They are so cheap these days.

  4. Ugh, the only meatloaf I can tolerate is the singer and only sometimes.

    You don't know how to make a slide show? They taught us how to do those back in the mid-90s in school. Contemporize, man!

  5. I have this little "magic chopper" thing from Pampered Chef. I usually don't go to those "sell something" type parties, but I happened by one and I'm particularly happy with this product! Do to life constraints, I'm a fly by the seat of my pants kind of writer. I guess my writing style is like my magic chopper: it cuts things up into little writing bits when I need to, then I toss everything together into the stir fry that is my WIP once I have enough fodder!

  6. So first, I don't hate ALL vegetables. Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch is a vegetable, right?

    Second: The one area I agree with you is that requiring it to be a computer slide show, as opposed to hand-drawn poster or something, might be a bit over the top. But the idea that an English class could or should require you to work in a different medium to explain something is not a bad idea.

    I don't know if I fully understand the assignment. It sounds like kind of a book report, using short captions and pictures. I think that's AMAZINGLY valuable.

    When I help clients prepare for cases, especially divorce cases, I say to them: "Imagine that your entire life together, you have taken a polaroid picture every ten minutes, of whatever is going on at that time. Now, when you go into court, you get to show the judge TEN of those. Which ten will you pick?"

    The ability to boil a complex (or not so) narrative down to a few words and images is critical in many areas, and also demonstrates an ability to understand that narrative.

    We got Mr Bunches' report card yesterday. One thing he struggles with is recounting what happened in a story. Because he's autistic, he can recite a movie verbatim, but the question is "Does he understand what he's reciting?" On his latest progress report, he was said to give brief, and nonsequential, descriptions of stories. So I tested him. I said "In the movie The Emperor's New Groove, what happens?" and he said:

    "He turns into a llama. Then he turns back. And he asks Pacha for help."

    Which is actually a pretty boiled-down summary of it (albeit out of order). I didn't ask him to elaborate, but you can see that the first step in comprehension tests is often the ability to recapitulate the story.

    So maybe your teacher should have said "Using a computer slideshow or magazine-cutouts or handdrawn pictures or similar" do the assignment, but the basic idea of the assignment is one I'm behind.

  7. Oh, also? I can mess up mashed potatoes. All you have to do is lose focus. I make terrible mashed potatoes. And awful egg salad, too, both of which merely require boiling and stirring.

  8. You lord over us with your fancy titles and you won't even share your recipes. You monster.

    At least your daughter is learning the important skill of pointless work. She's going to have to get used to that.

  9. Lexa: We have a little hand blender which is pretty useful upon occasion, but I don't use it when making tomato sauce. I like it chunky. Of course, I use small tomatoes, too.

    Alex H: That doesn't work when it's meat, though. Meat has to be rather painfully cleaned out.

    They do use the computers a lot, but they don't have a designated time for things like programming.

    Jo: Well, after the last printer broke, I just never replaced it. And we don't really need it often enough for it to make a real difference. Most of the kids' work just gets turned in electronically.

    Pat: Well, you've never had meatloaf made by the King of Meatloaf!
    I've never had any reason to make a slide show.

    randi: Hmm... I've never considered stir frying my writing...

    Briane: I think Cap'n Crunch didn't make the cut. But, you know, pizza did, so the world is good, right?

    I would have been behind the assignment if I could have figured out the point of it beyond making the slide show. I think.

    And, at one point, my mom banned my brother from the kitchen after he ruined two of her pots from failing to correctly boil water.
    Boil water, I said.

    Jeanne: I am a monster. An ogre monster. And King of Fancy Titles!

  10. Hey Andrew, I've never had a food processor....and I still do a LOT of writing with a notebook.....not the little computer that's called a notebook, I mean an actual notebook....a lined one...and a pen. Infact, it may seem dorky, but I have a notebook and a pen in my purse at all times and throughout the day will jot down things I observe or think of.
    For me it works well, AND it's easy to clean.

  11. Eve: I am doing and more writing with pen and paper, lately. I'd say more, but I think there's a post coming about that at some time.

  12. Sounds like the class was learning how to do Powerpoint, which I have successfully managed to avoid using, even after 20+ years in the office.

    It may be good that they're learning now not to be afraid of it, but yeah, maybe that goes in a different class? I just don't know which one...

  13. RG: I'm all for learning to work the tech and stuff but not under the guise of doing a report. Especially when the report part doesn't exist.