Monday, May 19, 2014

Food and Reading: Why the Two Go Together

When I first met my wife, she didn't like steak. Actually, she didn't like any kind of "slab of meat" whether it came from a cow or a pig. Her previous experience with slabs of meat had been mediocre at best. Basically, her parents, when she was growing up, didn't know how to cook meat and, inevitably, what she would get was a tough, unspiced, piece of leather-like substance that needed a laser to cut it. Which she didn't have. Which meant she had to saw on it with a knife for several minutes per bite. But that was okay, because it took so long to chew that she had plenty of time to saw off the next piece.
We at a lot of chicken at the beginning of our relationship.

But, see, I didn't understand her position about the meat. My experience with the same kinds of "slabs of meat" was completely different but, then, my mom was a cook. She had this metal mallet thing with different sized spikes on either end that she used to pound steak with before she cooked it. There was never anything unchewable in our house. Mostly, I never even used a knife when I was a kid unless I wanted to spread peanut butter (and, no, Briane Pagel, I never put peanut butter on steak).

However, there was even more to all of this than even I knew.

Every once in a while, we did get steak or pork because it needed to go in something, like steak fajitas and, because we had it, every once in a while, I would just cook steak or pork chops. At first, my wife's reaction was "wow! this is good!" BUT "I don't like meat." She was so invested in the whole not liking meat thing because of her notion about how it wasn't good that, for a while, every time we had it and she liked it she thought it was some kind of aberration. Some accident. The next time would be back to how it was when she was growing up, so she actively campaigned against there being a next time.

But I'm a guy, and I like slabs of meat. Which is where it gets kind of interesting because, to me, a slab of meat was a slab of meat. So the slabs of meat we ate were, well, fairly cheap slabs of meat. Which is what I'd grown up eating and I liked just fine.

Of course, I didn't have a hammer like my mom had so, although the steak we had always tasted good, it was sometimes a little tough. Still, it was enough to cause my wife to eventually change her opinion about slabs of meat.

I'm not sure exactly when it happened or why, but, at some point, we tried a slightly more expensive cut of meat, New York strip. Probably, it was on sale. The difference was amazing! I mean, AMAZING! Oh, my, gosh, the better cut of meat held the flavors of the spices so much better, and it was incredibly tender all on its own. Then we tried a rib-eye cut and it was even better! I love the rib-eye!

See, I didn't know, except theoretically, that there was a difference in the experience of the meat. Previously, the rib-eye I'd had had not been well-cooked or well-spiced, so it didn't actually compare well to the, basically, crappy cuts of meat we'd been having at home. My wife, also, was astounded. We don't eat the cheap cuts of meat anymore.

The point here is that sometimes (frequently) we don't know that something is, well, crappy until we've had something better. The thing we're used to just... is. We think that's how it's supposed to be and as good as it's going to be. It happens with food, and it happens with books.

With books? What?

Yes, it happens with books.

Frequently, we get stuck on reading particular types of books or just one or two particular authors. Sometimes, there is better quality stuff out there, but we've established whatever it is as part of our "reading identity." For instance, part of my reading identity during high school (and something I carried into college) was that I was a reader of Piers Anthony (and, really, I hate to keep using him as an example of this, but it is what it is). I read everything he put out. I even tracked down a couple of out-of-print books he'd written early in his career because my goal was to read every book he ever wrote. A goal I gave up during college when I finally started branching out in my reading and discovered that there were so many better books out there. Or, at least, books I liked more.

Which is why you should taste new things. Like, every time you have the chance, taste new things. What's the worst that's going to happen? You won't like it. Big deal. So you don't eat (read) that thing again. And on the other side, you will find things that you absolutely love. Or can learn to love. I didn't used to like broccoli, after all, but that might have been because my mom always boiled it (in the South, anything that's not fried is boiled); the point is that now I really like broccoli. A lot. But it did take some getting used to.

So don't get into a reading rut. Try new books. Try new authors. Even if you like what you're reading, now, you might find that it's really just the cheap cut.

Also, remember, we are still taking submissions over at Indie Writers Monthly for your time travel stories!
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  1. I've read a huge variety of authors and genres in the past five years, although I've always been willing to try someone new.
    We usually had the good cuts when I was growing up, including Kobe beef now and then. Ironically, I almost never eat beef of any kind now. Not because I don't like it, but because it's unhealthy.

  2. When I go on vacation to somewhere I'll probably never go again I like to order the most interesting sounding thing on the menu. Because trying new things can be fun. And a lot of things I wouldn't eat as a kid--especially vegetable related--I eat now. Except mashed and baked potatoes. I will not eat them. Ever.

  3. I have always experienced wide varieties of food and if there was anything I didn't enjoy, I tried it again 2 yrs. later and then 2 years after that until eventually I usually ended up liking the food. As for reading. I have been reading for a very long time and have tried most genres and lots of authors. I am still finding new authors I enjoy too. New foods also.

  4. Have you ever had steak from a local farm? We hadn't until this winter and, oh man, I'm spoiled for life. I have a hard time thinking about even buying 'good' steaks from the grocery store now. They are amazing.

    I'm guilty of sticking to buying the same authors I know, for the most part simply because I have such limited reading time. When I pick up a book, I want to know it's generally one I will enjoy. The Kindle library has turned me on to a few great authors though, so thank you Kindle for broadening my reading for entertainment horizons.

  5. I'm a steak purist. If you're going to make steaks, do it right the first time. Give me grass fed New York strip or bust.

    With books, I'm not quite the same. I don't need to be a purist, because I like reading a bunch of new things. There's a lot of gems among the books that people might otherwise discard for being beneath them.

  6. Perfect analogy, Andrew!!!

    I get bored pretty easily, so I'm definitely a fan of switching things up. Not only with food, but with reading too. Such great advice.

    And now I'd KILL for a steak from Ruth's Chris right now… *dies*

  7. Alex: Yeah, that whole thing about red meat being bad for you isn't really true. That was based on faulty assumptions that got popularized. The newest research shows that red meat is almost essential for us when we're growing up and, then, when we're older. There should be a greater emphasis on veggies, though, through our prime adult stage.

    Pat: Is there a story to the potato thing? That sounds like there's a story.

    Jo: It's good to keep trying new things.

    Jean: We do sometimes buy locally grown beef but, generally, it's just too expensive.

    ABftS: I think you'd change your mind if you tried some of my rib-eye. Seriously.
    Although I think my wife does prefer the NY.

    Morgan: I've never been there, but I'd bet money that what I cook is better.

  8. Cooking steak in the oven is the only way to do it. Gotta get that slightly pink center. Yum.

  9. Your wife's experiences sound all too familiar to me.

    I read so many bland, uncreative books growing up that it was a shock to my system when I read something really good. I can't imagine what kind of writer I'd be if I stuck with the "boiled broccoli". I'm thinking not a good one.

  10. I'm going to live comment this post.

    1. "Slab of meat." NOW YOU'RE TALKIN'. That should be an actual dish at a restaurant.

    2. My mom had one of those mallets, too. I used to pretend it was Thor's hammer.

    3. Peanut butter on steak sounds strangely delicious. I might try peanut butter on a hamburger.

    4. I'm actually not much of a steak eater. When we were kids on special occasions we got to choose whatever we wanted for dinner, and I usually picked steak because that was what my dad and my brothers picked and it was expected that that was what men would eat on special occasions, but I always was a little disappointed in it because to me steak is just okay. I'd have much rather had pizza. Or a burger. But I didn't want to disappoint my dad by not liking steak.

    5. Ah, I see where you're going with this. I agree: people should be willing to try new things, especially in reading. I think I have pretty eclectic tastes, although I tend to avoid some things (mysteries, thrillers, romances, e.g.) because they're so unlikely to please me.

    But your analogy breaks down a bit. Your wife wasn't unwilling to branch out into something new. She was unwilling to keep trying something that had never been worth eating, until you showed her something that was.

    I think a better comparison would be if your wife had read, say some Piers Anthony books and not liked them, and then was unwilling to ever read fantasy again until you showed her, say, J.R.R. Tolkien.

    Either way, your point is valid: people should read good books without worrying so much about the label.

    Another point you could make: don't assume that because you know all the steps that you can do something. Your wife's mom knew all the basics for meat: Get slab of meat, cook for a while, serve.

    Your mom, though, knew how to turn meat into art. That's a good writing analogy there: there's more to writing than simply heating up a slab of meat. You've got to turn it into something people want.

    "Turn meat into art." Dang, I'm getting hungry just reading this comment.*

    *I get 5 extra points for the use of Dang. Read the rules.

  11. Michael: I get the slightly pink center on my grill top. I don't do steak in the oven.

    Jeanne: When you read a lot of one genre (like I did with fantasy as a teenager), you end up finding out that it's all basically the same.

  12. I just realized I commented as Sweetie. Now I'm signed in as me. *Sigh*. Shared computer.

  13. Briane: I'm out of time, so I can't live comment back. Really, my wife is unwilling to try fantasy because so much of it she hasn't liked. She actually hasn't read Tolkien herself, although her dad read it to her when she was a kid. Beyond that, Harry Potter has been about as far as she's willing to go with fantasy after reading some, um, Piers Anthony... that I, um, recommended to her based on my high school reading of it.

    And you don't have a good experience of how many -years- it took to get her to really try red meat. I made it sound shorter than it was, but it was years.

    "Turn meat into art." That's a good line. I wish I had thought of it. And that's good analogy but a slightly different focus than what I was doing with this post. One is about the eater, one is about the cooker.

  14. No, you're right. I guess I slopped my own metaphor over yours, like steak sauce on a burger... DANG. I'm going to go eat.

  15. Exploring a genre is fun, though...

    I know that's not really your point. Being open minded and open to the potential for quality in a broad range of genres is important. Even in exploring a genre, the good stuff may turn up where you least expect it.

  16. Man, do I love a good slab of meat, and the MINUTE The Engineer figured out that I was better at grilling anything than he was (due to my extensive Food Network education) he gave all grilling duties to me except burgers, and all has been well (well not well, it should be medium rare, but that's another story.)
    Loved the analogy, and yes, we should always try new genres. I have an example...but this seems like a PG blog and the genre starts with erotica...and 7 words later ends with aliens. OK, the word before aliens is werewolf.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  17. Briane: Eat some for me, too!

    TAS: Well, sure it is, until that becomes the only thing you ever read. I mean, there is really no need to read 5000 romance novels without ever trying any other genre of book.

    Tina: Werewolf aliens? There's a genre for that? A sub-sub-sub-sub-genre?

  18. As a former picky eater who has learned to really savor quality food and flavors (thanks in large part to my hubby) and a person who is constantly telling my 5YO that she has to try new things, I can really relate to this post. Good stuff, Andrew :)

  19. Jessica: My younger son is extremely picky with food, so we are constantly having to say to him, "Just try it. What's the worse that will happen?"
    Of course, he wants to say, "It will kill me."

  20. Very well put. Unfortunately it works in reverse too. I've some spectacular books that have ruined some of my favorites.

    Writing always seems to be evolving as if it's a living, breathing thing. Kind of exciting really.

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

  21. emaginette: You mean you read a new book that showed a previous book you liked as being inferior? Because, if that's what you mean, that was the point.

  22. By the way when I cook steak, I use my cast iron pan which I get VERY hot and then sear the steaks on both sides (no fat in the pan) I then cook them to our desired doneness which in our case is blue rare.

  23. I definitely agree with you there. We do ourselves no favors by setting such limits.

  24. Jo: I used to use my skillet, but the grill top works better. I can do more than one at a time that way, too. I do heat the grill top very hot and sear both sides before I turn the temp down, so that part sounds the same.

    TAS: No, we really don't. Most people I have ever known have only read one type of book, and that seems like such a small world to be in, especially when there is so much out there to explore.