I am in the middle of a super book by Ann Patchett called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The book is a collection of essays and is about, among other things, her life as a successful writer. Though I have never been a fan of “how-to” books, I do love the idea of hearing, from successful people, how they achieved their goals, what work they put in, how they prioritized, how they stayed motivated, how they kept putting one foot in front of the other to make it to the top … of whatever heap they happen to have ascended. These field guides to success are not elusive. With any challenge there are people who have mastered it and decided to go back and tell everyone how they got there. Chefs. Mountain climbers. Investors. Snipers. They don’t keep it a secret. It isn’t a mystery. (The fact that these authors have not seen their success usurped by one of their readers makes me think that few people are willing to take good advice and run with it.)
My favorite part of Ms. Patchett’s book is contained in an anecdote I have reread several times. The story goes like this: She was at dinner with friends, one of whom was a double bass player who also wrote compositions. The two of them were commiserating about how hard it was to get their day jobs done, in both cases, to get the lines written, in the midst of their other “to-dos”. She goes on to say, “But then he told me a trick: he had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.”
She says she was gobsmacked at the idea that the more time put in, the more completed work came out. “Of course,” you might say “that is obvious.” It seems simple and logical here and, if no other lessons, that is one we can all take away from her book, and her friend, and probably Warren Buffett, Tom Brady and Usain Bolt. The more time you put in, the more you get done.
But when we look at our days how often can we use a reminder of that lesson? How often do we confuse being busy with being productive? For instance, I came to writing through cooking. Cooking is my absolute passion; food, ingredients, methods, and inspiration follows me daily. To share that passion, to share my unique experiences, to communicate my ideas and my recommendations I have to be an adept writer. Cooking comes easily, simply, automatically to me. Writing, on the other hand, takes more effort. It is more difficult. It takes longer and needs more input. And that is the rub.
I may sit down to write a recipe and an essay and get no more than 20 minutes in before something distracts me. My iPad dies. My computer dies. My phone calls out to me….Twitter. Instagram. Facebook. Amazon. (I literally just took a 5-minute break after typing that to order an external hard drive and rolling coat rack from Amazon) and text messages from friends: Am I selling my car? Yes. Are we going to make Baked Alaska next week? Yes. The car dealership doesn’t have the replacement part they said they would, I’d have to try again later in the week. Am I free tomorrow morning at 11am for a presentation? Yes.
These distractions are all there. Beckoning to me. Whispering my name. “Check me.” “Buy me.” “Get reassurance through me.”
It is such a strange mix because I love writing. I love seeing words come alive as they are strung together to create evocative images. I love going back and reading something I wrote six months earlier and being proud of the story I told. It is more challenging to me because writing doesn’t run through my veins like cooking does and I may sit at my laptop, convinced that there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to be the best writer I can be. I may sit, staring at my computer screen, willing the words to come and begging my muse for inspiration, just a drop, just anything.
But if I put a sign in sheet at my computer, or at my notebook, what would I find? How much time am I actually dedicating to writing? In the past six hours how much time will I have been conjugating sentences in my mind? Putting letters on a screen? One hour? Thirty minutes? I too often manage to stretch out what should be a lovely, meditative activity into a long, dreadful, boring sequence of events and distractions and merely punctuate my time with my true love – sharing words as essays on eating, drinking, living and loving.
When I am cooking I am fully in the moment. I am using all of my senses – I am carefully examining the ingredients, making sure everything is well rinsed, clean and well prepped, properly cut. I squeeze the lemons, pinch the peas between my thumb and forefinger, I roll the eggs to peel them feeling the thin shell crack under the pressure of my palm, toss the limes in the air while I consider next steps, rub my hands along the rough edge of the potatoes. I smell the onions as I gently slice through them aiming for a perfectly uniform cut so that everything cooks at the same rate. I smell the apples. I inhale the fish searching for that seawater aroma. I listen to the onions as they fall into the pan with a tiny thud and then sizzle in the hot olive oil. I smell the garlic as it turns nutty and begins to brown, the bread as it burns. I taste everything as I go. Fresh mint from the patio – I take a leaf and chew it – I lick my finger and taste the pepper as it goes into the final dish noting the difference between tangy Tellicherry and smoky, spicy Lampong.
At every single stage of cooking I am plugged into only one thing with no distractions accepted. I move between stages of washing produce, setting up cutting boards, measuring out ingredients, wiping the counter, and raising flames under thick black cast iron pots with a patina of age and layer upon layer of soup, stew, meat, fish and vegetable. Every move I make is deliberate and efficient. Every step is documented for me, by me or just catalogued in my memory to pull out and reference at a later date. I simultaneously have an end goal and am grounded in the moment.
Cooking becomes both the reason for my writing, and also my escape from writing. It is an odd master that way.
I stumbled across this soup recipe in exactly this manner. It was an escape from a to-do list or maybe an essay that wasn’t finished. I needed a start and a finish and I wanted to see the results of my work immediately. This was the perfect antidote to a blank screen begging out for words to fill it. If you want to see if this works for you too, this is a super simple way to give it a shot.. This soup can be made with fresh or frozen peas, can be made fully vegan or just cheats “vegetarian” (the way it is written) or can be served hot or cold. It’s good for any climate, any time of year and to serve just about anyone.
Customize it to your liking…the only requirement is that, while cooking, you also try to engage your five senses. Whether it is a rushed dinner on a Monday night or a starter for a dinner party on a Saturday night, when you are in the kitchen, try to be there and only there. In the moment. If necessary tape up that piece of paper. Instead of writing the time you start and time you finish write, “Leave me alone. I’m cooking.”
The more time you put in, the more good food will come out.
- 70 grams butter
- 50 grams diced red onions (4 heaping tablespoons)
- 550 grams peas (fresh or frozen)
- 4 stalks of mint (about 21 leaves)
- 36 oz chicken stock
- fresh ground black pepper
- pinch cayenne pepper
- Place a saucepan over medium heat and add the butter. Once it foams add the red onions and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes until the onions are translucent around the edges but not completely soft. Add the peas, stir briefly, then the chicken stock. Cook for about 20 minutes until the peas are cooked through. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper, a small amount of black pepper and a small amount of salt. Taste for seasoning.
- Add the fresh mint leaves, stir them through the soup, then turn the heat off under the soup. Blend in batches being careful with the hot liquid. Base your blending time on whether you want a soup that is completley creamy or a little chunky. Personally I prefer a little chunky. Rinse out your saucepan and return the blended mixture to the saucepan. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.
- Serve with warm crusty bread and a cold White Burgundy.
- You can use olive oil and vegetable stock to make this fully vegan. Substitute 2 Tablespoons of olive oil for the 50g of butter.