Book recommendation in the kitchen – “Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman

I knew about this book from Enrico, but until yesterday did not consider it really interesting for everyday cooking. From the cover and the short description, it appeared to me a funny way of writing down recipes: 3-2-1 Pie Dough (3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water), and so on.

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But when I read the introductory chapters, it became clear that Ruhlman unveils a more fundamental, deep layer of culinary knowledge. Ratios among ingredients belong to the core of each recipe, no matter how complex. This book takes ratios out in the light, so that the reader can spot them in recipes, and can make the important connection between the ratios of ingredients and the recipe’s outcome. You can still read this book as a set of simplified recipes and follow them blindly, but you would miss its core message: aim at understanding the ratios and how they relate to each other when they share the same ingredients, and you will be freed from following recipes closely. You will be able to improvise your own dishes, because you have learned the ability to predict the outcomes of a combination of ingredients.

But I’m opening this book with doughs and batters because these are where ratios really shine and help any kind of cook, from novice to expert, understand the way the fundamental building blocks of cuisine, flour, water, and eggs behave given varying proportions of each. Indeed there is a dough-batter continuum that runs from thick and elastic to thin and delicate to soft to pourable that became a revelation to me when viewed through the lens of ratios.

I came to this book after my experiments with baking bread (that I am quite proud of) and biscuits (that I am not). Digging for more biscuit recipes did not help much, because I was missing the ability to collect feedback from intermediate steps. Such a book sheds light with a different angle, that enables me to take the step (back?) that I need to make any reliable progress.

This is also a good argument against persistence, as in “repetition of an action without understanding the differences between repetitions”. I could have resolved to attempt baking biscuits until I had found out ratios on my own, or some other trick. But I prefer to get a lesson that I can understand and apply without waste of time and ingredients.

You can follow Ruhlman on his website and Twitter.

Happy cooking everyone!

Painting, how to start something new

Last week at the supermarket I saw a 18-set of acrylic paints and bought it at once – but I didn’t open them right after coming home. I wanted to find a good subject, read a bit about painting techniques, find the right paper/cardboard. A week passed and I realised I would never start painting, if I waited to make something great at the first try! So I just opened a few colour tubes and doodled on a piece of paper, with a broad pencil:

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I felt happy with the result, because I tried various ways to hold the brush, various densities of paint (with more or less water), I mixed the colours, overlayed some of them. I think that setting small goals for a first experiment is more rewarding that starting with a proper subject, that has high chances to turn out ugly 🙂

I hope this helps you in starting with the art/hobby that you like so much, but feel intimidated – “what if I try and I don’t like what I can do?”. Starting with a test of tools and techniques, or just some free doodling, is a good way to break the “white canvas fear” and give you courage to practice further.

Happy art everyone!

Book recommendation – “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

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Walden is a such a famous book, whose reviews and analyses sum up to many times the length of the manuscript itself. My review is mostly about the waves it generated on the lake of my mind. I finished reading the book a couple weeks ago, and initially felt sorry not to have read it before; but I am glad I had read it now, because I enjoyed many more aspects, that the younger me would not have taken into consideration.

Thoreau narrates two years of his life in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachussets, in 1845. He built a minimalist cabin with his own hands (with an accurate description of the process, and a precise account of costs and time), practiced a little agriculture, fished and hunted, interacted with the few people who lived or worked there. He recalls many moments of contemplation of the surrounding nature, that he describes in his lyrical prose, that sounds now maybe oldish and pompous, but immensely reverent.

His survival experiment is both simple and extreme. Simple in its practical steps, extreme in the meaning it can convey to the society as a whole. He returned to civilisation after two years, not because the life in the woods ended up as a failure or a delusion, but because he realised that he had learned the lessons he needed. Through his experience, I feel more easy on my own decisions, especially the ones that sound drastic, because they show a true need for changement, even if for a given time of my life, and as such should be heard and handled.

From Chapter 18 – Conclusions:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

Thoreau’s experiment made me immediately think of the more permanent one (so far) of Simone Perotti, who left a promising career to dedicate himself to seafaring and art. His book Adesso basta [Enough of it – own translation] is definitely an angrier and irrevocable refusal of civilised modern society, but I feel that he and Thoreau had something in common when they realised that society (and career in particular) could not give everything they needed. You can follow Simone’s blog, regularly updated, and savour his terse and shiny Italian prose. I remember reading his book in a time where I was angry and disappointed myself, and it only made me angrier to hear relatives and friends that such a definitive refusal of society was not possible. I think I got to that point anyway, but slower and with unneeded waste of energies.

A more similar meditation parenthesis is the diary of Sylvain Tesson, Dans les forêts de Sibérie. The author settles for a few months in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, with even less human presence than Walden Pond, and a less forgiving climate. I enjoyed Sylvain’s reflections, blooming from unbroken hours of silence, of stillness. They look so similar to Thoreau’s , despite the 250 years and half of the world’s distance between them. I’ll make a more detailed review when I get back the book from my mum 🙂

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Baikal lake, by Aleksandr Zykov

These experiences made me think about how societal occupations changed in time (jobs, pastimes, duties), while the reflections of the mind, when it is given an appropriate amount of time off, converge in so many countries and ages. Is that the common ground of our humanity? I hope so, and even if there is no solid fact behind it, I like to see it as a fil rouge that is suitable to connect us all.

Book recommendation – “South Pole Epic” by Daniel Burton

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am too impatient to review it!

I knew about Daniel‘s expedition from the Wikipedia page about South Pole biking expeditions, when I was looking for references for my previous post about Antarctic expeditions. We (I and my bike-addicted boyfriend) subsequently read a bit of his blog and had to buy his book:

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We started reading it and were initially puzzled by the choice of third-person narrative. I was moreover not that happy with the occasional bumpiness of sentences, and the simple choice of words. But the epic of the adventure captivated us fully,  and made these choices look minor.

The main difference that I noticed from Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen’s narratives is the un-heroism of the protagonist. Of course this is also due to the fact that the three former explorers lead huge teams of people, had any sort of communication difficulties, were on uncharted land most of the time, and missed one hundred years of progress in technology and materials. Daniel’s epic is on another dimension. It is a personal challenge on an Antarctica where he follows ski, truck and snowcat tracks, and is able to use a satellite phone and connect to the Internet every day.

What I like most about this book is the apparent draft-like flow of words. Some could find it “unfinished”, but that’s what makes it more personal, closer to what actually happened. All the moments when Daniel has issues with his bike or with the insidious terrain (crevasses, sastrugi, katabatic wind, soft snow, whiteout…) are told with the knowledge of that very moment, not with the serenity of who knows how the adventure will develop. Many times he loses hope that he will make it, and he tells it quite simply. He mentions a lot of little details that make the reader understand that he is a man like many others, but with a great goal, determination and preparation. It makes me feel like meeting him in person and listening to his recollection of the adventure, with ordinary words, with occasional irregularities in the narrative, with emotion and affection.

I also liked that the first half of the book is about the preparation of this bike trip, from the first ideas that popped up in his mind to the economic difficulties, the support of his family, the endless logistics, the technical details of the bike and clothing. It makes it useful to someone who would like to repeat his feat, there or elsewhere with similar climate.

Definitely a book that I recommend! You can read his blog for excerpts of his adventure.

On persistence

I have long delayed writing in public about this topic. It felt like I would show weakness and that would prevent me to find a new job. It still does; stating that I don’t understand the idea of persistence, at least from the explanations I got so far, sort of implies that I am not capable of it and that I am a poor choice for almost any occupation.

At this point, it’s not my main worry anymore. I have tried for a long time to simulate persistence, usually just enough to be believable, but my acting always failed in some detail or another, and I have moreover been labeled as faker. When I managed to play it well enough, it ended up in painful cul-de-sacs, where that very persistence took me way off the roads I would enjoy, and even backfired at me.

I remember very vividly when I took the conscious decision to keep fighting a given battle. That went from reading a book until the end even if I didn’t like it, to continuing my PhD, looking for software jobs, staying in a staggering relationship. I braced and kept walking. That’s what I learned to do, that’s what I think others meant when they said: you have to persist, even when results don’t show up immediately, because they eventually will. I remember the emptiness in my heart growing bigger with each milestone I achieved on those paths, feeling a vague, stormy warning that I was on the wrong way, walking every day further away from myself. At some point I gave up and took the decision to quit an increasingly painful path.

Technically, most were suicidal choices: I left one safe road after another, especially involving my career, so that I made myself an unsellable horse. I have a CV that is a patchwork of so many disparate topics, that recruiters and interviewers first ask what sense do they make all together. They always ask, one way or the other: can’t you make up your mind? My answer is: no, because that’s not the point. My search is not on the magic topic of my life, but on the magic way I can work on anything, therefore each experiment makes sense to me, even if just helped me to understand that that was not my way.

I remember feeling so light, and so indifferent to how  wrong I could be, each time I decided to abandon one of those paths. I think that it means something to me, even if it looks crazy. Such craziness is excused when it leads to noticeable accomplishments afterwards, it is even cherished as a sign that these people are as human as everyone else, after all, or even that those crazy choices were a proof of their genius. This is not (yet? haha) my case, I have no ambition to become famous. For now I am just crazy.

So, persistence. I have never needed it to reach my previous goals: I never felt I needed to use will-power to achieve something. Either I was able to do it and did it, either I was not, and I learned it, or I didn’t do it at all.  Maybe I never had the opportunity to practice positive persistence. Maybe I have applied persistence to problems that didn’t benefit from it and now I unjustly blame it.

Do you want to bring your opinion on this? I’ll keep the discussion flowing in the comments with much interest.

Update: I just found a post from thehobbitbadger that expresses concern over the media’s love for perseverance stories – totally worth reading.

 

 

Drawing streak – the end

I have not posted any more doodles in the last two weeks, as I felt that the streak had came to an end. I had more and more trouble finding subjects for my doodles, delayed them until bedtime, and did not experiment with techniques anymore. The daily doodle had became a chore, instead of a positive exercise. It’s time to find another routine.

I have then thought about which activities bring me joy and let me improve my skills. There are not many in my planning, that is nevertheless full: most of what I do is walking on known paths. How can I reach the appropriate ratio of known to new?

The known. Upon own reflection and some hints from Moshé Feldenkrais’ method, I realised that the mere repetition of a movement or a routine does not automatically bring improvement. The real step forward is guided by awareness of what is being done, that gives the ability to evaluate changements in the practice. I struggle with that quite often, just like a wanderer feels he’s walking in circles in a wood, unable to know if he is making progress in any direction. So, after a long time “just practising”, I feel that I need meaningful feedback on what I draw and play. As I am not good enough a judge for myself, I think I need someone with a better trained eye and the ability to filter and reorder the list of what I need to improve. When I do that myself, I usually notice a pile of things to work on, feel overwhelmed and delay/quit, or start with the most apparent but the most difficult hurdle with little success. I am able to give myself feedback, but on things I know really well, so I don’t find myself able to be my own guide on uncharted land.

The new. It is not enough for me to go through the usual exercises every day, but I find it very difficult to just pick up something new and try to do it. The biggest blocker for me is not knowing if I am doing the new thing right, or at least, in a way that I can improve without needing to unlearn it first. This is again a feedback issue: I need more experienced eyes than mine to guide me around new topics. I have had the chance so far to find great guides in their domains, who showed me their way. I walked with them and enjoyed learning completely new skills, not much for a genuine love for those topics, but rather for the way they were presented.

For all these things I benefit so much from my drum lessons: I enjoy the balance of challenges, strenghtening of known routines, and simple enjoyment of a well-played sequence, that my teacher builds up for me. I bask in the gentle attention to all my movements, and the measured feedback – measured on what I am able to realise and improve in that moment.

I have never understood how someone could approach new activities by “just try doing them, you’ll get better on the way”. I used to see that as immensely arrogant and self-sufficient, especially when it was proposed as the main way to learn. There are however a few activities that I can improve on my own feedback only, and a few more if I content myself with slow/random improvement or minimal goals. For faster pace and higher targets, I need additional external advice. When I said that, some people thought I meant that I needed to trust that external feedback – but it is not a blind trust, it is more an acceptance of informed hints. I have left teachers and schools when I realised we didn’t match, and we both experienced frustration, and felt that our energy was more dissipated than transformed.

There is also a difference between learning how to do an activity that involves only objects, and one that involves sentient beings (animals and people). With objects only, you can make huge progress by learning from others, because the steps are reproducible and the progress is measurable, and you are the only variable element. With animals and people, it’s another story. Your situation is unique: the combination of minds can be understood only by who is in it, decisions can be taken only by the involved parties. External advice can be immensely useful, but never binding. I re-read Lynne Gerald’s post about expert advice, and found it so spot on.

Ha! Lots of reflections came out of my doodling crisis. Hope they help clarify other unclear corners and let me start afresh. And help you readers as much as you help me by sharing your thoughts online, that’s why I write here.

 

 

When the hippo swims

Today I lead a reflection about hippos. When I think about these huge animals, I visualise them when they walk around on the ground, feeding, trotting on their short legs, their big, round bodies wobbling gently around. They are commonly seen as clumsy, ugly, inelegant and even ridiculous. I drew one, trying to render its mass, its roundness, its disproportions, its sheer force.

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When hippos enter water, they transform. Water is able to support their bodies so that the small legs don’t bend anymore under the weight, and become small flippers. Their round bellies appear even rounder, and are gently kneaded by waves as if they were grey, breathing bread dough. Swimming hippos appear more like whales. I imagine how a hippo could find time and fun just playing in water, swirling around, enjoying these moments and bubbling from his big nostrils.

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I don’t know if there is any positive thinking lesson around it. I am not able to tell myself: no matter how clumsy you feel in some situations, you can be a wonderful mermaid in others; but if this helps you, that makes me smile 🙂

( Higher resolution pictures are available on my Flickr – and if you would like me to further work on these sketches, just drop me a note! )