Monday, October 09, 2006

Everyone duck! Here comes an analogy!*

Warning: You will have to read this first for my post to make any sense.

I think it's like this: Once a week for years and years and years you have gone to afternoon tea with a certain group of people. And every week there is cake. If you are lucky, it is the same type of cake every week.

So every week you have an opportunity to eat a piece of, say, chocolate cake and experience what it tastes like, and maybe think a little bit about what ingredients must have gone into it to make it such a good cake. You even develop your own ideas about why it is that sometimes the cake is a little dry, sometimes it's a little flavourless, and sometimes it's just right.

Then one day it's your turn to bake the cake. No one tells you how to do it, but you do your best and bring it in proudly, and everyone tastes it. People make encouraging sounds and give you a few suggestions for next time: that you might want to try using sugar instead of salt, or that it's more traditional to bake it evenly all the way through rather than to cook it fast until it's black and then saw off the burnt bits.

Then the next time it's your turn you bake something that is even closer to the usual cake the group eats, and the time after that it's even more like it, and so on, until your cake is as good as or better than the cakes made by the other group members.

Unfortunately for some people, there are also afternoon tea groups where there is no consistency in the sorts of cakes provided. One week it's a chocolate mud cake, the next a lemon cheesecake, and sometimes it's individual cupcakes with pink icing. This makes it hard to decide what you should bring along when it gets to be your turn. It also means you haven't had as much chance to work out exactly what makes each cake good or bad, or to try and identify the ingredients in it, since you might have only tasted each sort a handful of times. You might strike a similar problem if your afternoon tea group is consistent in its baking habits, but you moonlight and attend a different group of Wednesdays and a different one again on Fridays. For moonlighting (read: interdisciplinary) cake eaters, the concern might be that they have to bring the same cake to all three of their afternoon tea groups, and they don't know how to make a cheesecake that will appeal both to chocoholics and cupcake lovers.

In all cases, maybe the quick-fix solution is some cooking lessons or an afternoon spent browsing through a recipe book. But this isn't always going to be possible. It's hard to take cooking lessons from someone or read recipes written by them if they've never really thought about what they do when they are baking, but just do it by taste and feel and maybe even make six batches before they get one that comes out right. (And in the best afternoon tea circles, packet mixes are generally frowned upon.)

I think I might stop now. But my point is that Anastasia's post has got me realising that my afternoon tea group is about as eclectic as they come. And it has just dawned on me that my dissertation is a chocolate strawberry lemon cheesecake sponge with cream and peppermint icing. In a muffin tin.


* One which has nothing to do with ducks.


Anastasia said...

"my dissertation is a chocolate strawberry lemon cheesecake sponge with cream and peppermint icing. In a muffin tin."

i love this whole post but I especially love this line. yes, i know exactly what you mean!

betty said...

i really like this analogy. it turned out that even though i was well on my way to learning to bake the chocolate cupcakes i said i'd make, my advisor kept changing what he thought was 'good'. so i switched from cupcakes to crepes to cheesecake to cookies - each time consicentiously trying to do the right thing. and in the end m advisor was mostly mad about how little progress i made those chocolate cupcakes!

this is totally how i'm going to explain my quitting now. thank you!

LaKisha said...

don't you love writing? what i think: you finally get good at being a food critic, after-all you are trained for it, and then they ask you to bake!

StyleyGeek said...

Good point, Lakisha!

Jana said...


My dissertation was the dried skeleton of a fish hidden in a dusty wooden drawer.

StyleyGeek said...

You still feel like that about it?

I thought these scars eventually faded :S

Jana said...

The scars fade, but the idiocy remains. Yesterday, I caught myself wondering how much had been published on the concept of conflict in law. I spent the evening trying to find out. It turns out nothing much has. And then I started thinking, well, wouldn't that be an interesting topic for a Habilitation?