Tuesday, December 7, 2010

teaching cheese

I don't think I'll ever be an expert on anything.
I got an award at my college graduation which was explained to me as the "thanks-for-asking-the questions-that-other-people-are-afraid-to-ask-in-class" award.  That's right, being the person who doesn't understand things and admits it is my super power.  Everyone's got to have one, I guess, and I'm just a perpetual amateur.

I know I know, and here I am giving all this recipe advice.

Joey and I were talking a little ways back about blogs, and about various kinds of advice and this seeming age of amateurs.  There are a whole lot of ways to put one's two cents in these days, and boy do we use them.  No longer is it the case that we can know that someone is for real just because their words are in print--Looking online for recipe help we have Alton Brown and Martha Stewart.  But we also have some housewife over in Montana who is really good at cookies, or that man in Maine who started a blog about fermentation.  And those resources so often offer us a whole different kind of help.  Yes, we can find our recipe, but we also see how it was made in a kitchen that might be a lot like ours--how long this recipe takes when there are two kids begging for snacks the whole time, or what went wrong and how it was all salvaged.  It's all more like being in a friend's kitchen and cooking together, and this can really be a good thing.

Of course the whole amateur thing has a flip side too.  But I assume if you hang out online here and there or even more, you've done a bit of thinking on this maybe?

So when I said I would teach a cheese class as part of a series of events to raise money for the girls' school, my first addendum to the offer was--but I'm still learning too.
Because yes, I am relatively personable.  I'm a good shoulder to cry on when you're cookies don't come out right, and if you need to figure out what to do with the celeriac, I could give you ten ideas.  But I'm no pro.
Last night our friend Hedley came over and cooked us dinner.  It was an amazing feast: salmon chowder, latkes with dill fromage blanc and horseradish fromage blanc and apple sauce, and roasted brussels sprouts and salad and there was enough food to feed us ten times over.  It was pretty amazing.  And most of all I got to do my favorite thing, which is to sit on my couch and watch a friend cook, and I was struck as I often am when I'm cooking with Hedley--I really need to improve my knife skills.  She learned how to cook in restaurant kitchens, and there she is surrounded by her mise en place, and of course it all works, and it all works quickly.  She's a fantastic cook--she doesn't overload her food with too many contrasting flavors like is so often the case, and this salmon soup was so good, just dill and a perfect balance of salt and pepper.  We joked about how my cooking show is going to be called "screw the mise en place (you know you don't do it anyway)"  but I'll get better, I swear, and I promise I'll keep working on my onion chopping and my mise en place-ing.  
And when it comes to cheese, I've been keeping my education going.  I started way back with ricotta, and the separation of curds and whey just got a little addictive, and I had to keep going from there. I finally got over to the cheese queen's kitchen this fall, and  I'm sure that hard cheeses are somewhere in my future, but right now I'm content with cultures and soft cheeses draining in my sink, and what's even more addictive than the curds and whey themselves is the look on people's faces when they watch it happen, when they feel the rennet thickening the milk.  And so the thought of twelve of those very faces in my kitchen won me over.  But because I am not a pro, the curds are not always predictable for me.  Really that's seems to be the case even for pros, because that's just the nature of cheesemaking, but I don't always know why the curds aren't curding or the cheese isn't stretching and that's the difference between them and me.  And of course, as the course grew nearer, the curds were especially not predictable, and so I teamed up with my friend Janet and we tried to figure out what was happening.   
And we did.  It was a heat thing--it's always a heat thing.
And so, when those twelve people were gathered around my stove, and I was cutting curd and saying a prayer to whichever God seems to be looking out for me, it all worked.  The curds were perfect, and they stretched like they were born to do it.  And Joey made pizza on crust that I had made the day before, and we used pizza sauce that I had canned in August, and hopefully people went home with some inspiration and sense of how to make cheese, and I thought, not so bad for a couple of amateurs!

But it's a tricky one, that fine line.  What makes an amateur into a pro?  Is it money?  Or is it their ability to do something so well that they can make it work with their eyes closed?  Or maybe school is what makes it happen?  I don't know...but when Joey and I were having that conversation, we pinned the fact that so many of us amateurs are useful because on the whole we tend to be especially enthusiastic.  And all the skills in the world won't help if someone doesn't walk away from an interaction inspired to go and try that thing themselves.  

I was once told to do what I love for free, and then do something else for money.  "That way you'll keep loving it," was how it was explained to me.  I'm not so sure what the answer really is, but I like that the internet is full of so many people sharing what they love. And I like it even more that most people don't pretend to know more than they do, that somehow we're all in here learning together, and that's it's okay, even a good thing to be constantly learning and not quite the master of anything.  I guess it's more about sharing than teaching.  

I don't know if I'll ever get to mastery of all of this, but I'm curious to know how that works.  Do you feel like you're a pro at what you do?  At what you love?  Are they different?  And how does that process work for you?  

Just a little something to chew on... and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject if you're inspired to share them.


  1. Sticky questions for a Tuesday AM! You sound like you know a lot more about cheese making than me, so in my world, you're an expert.
    But, I think if you are trying to be an expert, than you are always aware of how much you DON'T know, which makes you feel like less of an expert.
    Did that make sense?
    Good luck, either way.

  2. This subject is so interesting...I am often amazed at the amount of time that I spend worrying about not being an expert and wishing that I were "better", wishing that I knew the answer to every question that is asked of me on a daily basis. I have been a practicing physical therapist for 10 years and I know that I will NEVER know it all. One minute I think I'm doing great and then I am confronted with a complex patient or a pesky student that asks me some harebrained question and I panic!!! (later i sneek off to my books or consult a peer but I SO wish that I could have known exactly what to do or say at that very moment with utmost confidence) I feel the same way about parenting and spend most of the time thinking about how much I suck at it...ahhh..I could go on...NEED CONFIDENCE!! But really, I know a couple of people that pretty much know everything and honestly those people are the most boring people ever!!
    So I agree with Anne. When it comes to food prep of any kind (and a few other things too)...you are my expert :)