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The Joy of Autodidacticsm or Cookin’ Up Some Good Learnin’

January 5, 2010

If it seems as though anyone could do it, it’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t take any special knowledge or skill. This is why some people become parents without really understanding the ongoing demands of the job. This is why others of us begin “simple” home repairs that turn into disasters requiring professional help. This is why students write papers without understanding the basics of mechanics and sentence construction. It’s why they may think they can put together a paper or project without gathering meaningful research. Anyone-can-do-it-ness was also a problem for the contestants on Worst Cooks in America, a cooking competition that premiered Sunday evening on the TV Food Network.

As my husband and I watched people present their revoltingly unappetizing signature dishes to the judges in hopes of being selected for the competition, some of them crying as they bemoaned their inability to cook anything edible, we turned to one another and said in unison, “Cookbooks.” Ignorance of easily-located basic information was rampant. One man served asparagus with the tops cut off, feeding the judges the woody part of the stems instead because he thought they looked better. Another boiled a whole chicken, disguising its flabby and disgusting skin with Swiss cheese and sauce. Still another contestant added pineapple to her pasta dish “for crunch,” while the completely incomprehensible dish of another contestant featured uncooked turnips, hollowed out and stuffed.

Cooking beyond opening cans, microwaving, and using boxed mixes, refrigerated dough, packaged noodles, and other mostly-pre-prepared stuff requires specialized knowledge, well-practiced skills, motivation, interest, and dedication. Ingredients must be gathered and prepared before beginning, what Anne Burrell, one of the host/chefs, told the aspiring cooks is called mise en place, a French phrase that translates literally as “putting in place,” meaning having everything ready before beginning to cook. This is good advice for students too.

Another requirement emphasized again and again in the show by Burrell and her co-host Beau MacMillan was the need to taste a dish regularly as it is being prepared and then again before serving, adjusting seasoning and making sure that everything is properly cooked. This is also excellent advice for someone who’s preparing something for consumption by a teacher or classmates. Putting together academic work without checking it along the way to make sure that it makes sense can produce inedible/unreadable papers and incomprehensible presentations. The final check before serving/submitting is crucial too.

Proper tools are needed. Quality ingredients matter. It’s difficult to prepare tasty food using sub-standard materials. Ditto for schoolwork. Finding quality ingredients or doing significant research takes time. Above all, attention must be paid. Commitment and caring are required. Interest is mandatory. Otherwise the lack of all these things will be evident in the finished product.

“I don’t know how I’ll learn to cook if I don’t make it onto the show,” an aspiring cook told the camera. I do. If you really want to learn, you’ll do more than wring your hands and whine about your lack of skills and knowledge. You’ll take responsibility for your own learning. You’ll practice. You’ll persist. Student success hints can be found everywhere. Even a TVFN cooking show can provide food for thought.

What do you need to take responsibility for learning how to do?

You will never get out of pot or pan anything fundamentally better than what went into it. Cooking is not alchemy; there is no magic in the pot.
• Martha McCulloch-Williams (1913),
Dishes & Beverages of the Old South

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