Saturday, August 29, 2009

On baking and learning...

I have long been a decent cook, and generally somewhat adventurous. I try a recipe and see what I like about and what I don't and then I start making changes, sometimes I make small changes and sometimes I change the recipe so much that it barely resembles the original, but it gives me a place to start and a result to work with. I'm confident enough in my abilities to know that when I venture off the path I can get what I am looking for eventually.

This week and weekend I have been playing baker, making my first ever tries at zucchini bread. Is it good, is it bad? It's hard to judge, but I think I have been doing quite well, working with the recipes that I was given to start with. One a cranberry-walnut concoction, another lemon-pecan, and one blueberry. Each one good in it's own way and quite enjoyable, but none of them quite what I had in mind. In my mind I remember a spice flavored bread, dark colored and a semi-smooth texture. When you bite into it you can taste the spices like cloves and allspice and ginger. Cinnamon is a given, but finding just the right recipe has been pretty futile. So I designed one from what I have found. I'm still tinkering, but I know I'm on the right track. Now it's a matter of refinement.

So I'm learning! I love learning, I like to know new things and to have new experiences. Many people put high stock in learning, but only in specific kinds of learning, what some refer to as, "book learning". Book learning is something specific, that you are taught by a proscribed method for a limited amount of time and here in America you have to pay for anything beyond public school. You can take a test and see what you have learned, and gauge your understanding by telling your teacher about the process. I love book learning, but I have found that book learning will only get a person so far, because books are limited to the experience of the author(s). Far too many of these authors lack the actual experiences that they write about, but rather use the anecdotal experiences of people that they interview, relying on imperfect memories and glazed over truths. Some of the experiences are documented in written accounts such as diaries and journals, and ever increasingly in pictures or video. But we all know that with the advancement of the recording industry there is corresponding advancement in editing and thus, how do you trust these documents? There is also the limitations of the teachers experience. Perhaps they have failed at the field that they are teaching, thus leading to the old adage, " Those who can't do, teach." Cynicism prevails and we find that truly the best teacher in life is none but experience.

Experience comes in many ways, sometimes by design, and sometimes by accident. We often don't even realize that we are learning something new as we go through our day. It isn't always something big, not a revelation such as understanding the theory of relativity, but perhaps you learn that if you stir your coffee with a ball point pen you get ink in your coffee. Or you learn that you need to use the brakes on your car harder to keep the brakes properly polished, or less hard to keep them from glazing. Hopefully we survive the bigger lessons, like don't drive to fast in the rain lest you hydroplane and lose control. But the point is that one of the best teachers is simple experience. Experience is something that we can apply to our daily lives. We know how hard to squeeze the toothpaste, not because we learned a formula in a book, but because we squirted toothpaste all over our hands when we were young. We know not to grab the handle of the frying pan without a pot holder because we got burned when we were young, or perhaps because we tried it as we were learning to cook. Employers come in 2 varieties, those who look for experience, and those who don't.

Those who hope for new employees with no experience want it this way because they are hoping to teach them their own set of bad habits for whatever job it is they are being hired to do. Often times this is for what could be considered a semi-skilled position, meaning you need to have certain basic skills to start with, but not so much skill that you could teach the job to your boss. Basically this is how manufacturers especially, keep employee costs down, because they don't have to pay a wage commensurate to the job they wish done. They can teach a literate dope off the street how to push a button and make a few measurements, and call them a machine operator, when it reality they should have a Machinist doing the job who can work mostly on his own and make the necessary adjustments based on his level of experience.

Then there are the higher-end employers who value experience and are willing to pay for it. The thing that immediately comes to mind is security firms, this is why they often hire retired police and military, because they have the experience required to keep the assets they are assigned to safe. But aside from this there are literally thousands of fields of endeavor that benefit from experienced employees, from finance and politics, to machine shops and auto mechanics. Experience show us the little things that we can't learn from a book. It teaches us by letting us make mistakes, and if we are smart, we don't make the same mistake twice.

Cooking is something that benefits from experience. If you make a mistake, you adjust and try again. Sometimes you can eat your mistakes, sometimes you can't. You've wasted time, food and money, and you just might go hungry. If you know what your mistake was you can avoid making it again, you use your experience to affect your future, and as you add to your experience you become better, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

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