Wednesday, January 9

rearranging vowels and spices

if I may share a confession (of sorts) concerning my occasional absentmindedness--

I too often copy recipes without bothering write down their titles.

in my fat yellow folder of recipes, you can find lists of ingredients and instructions all over the place. if those lists are in my handwriting, there's a 87.4% chance there is no name at the top, and you'll have to read in patient puzzlement before you can even make a guess as to what these instructions are supposed to result in. here is an example:
can anyone guess what foodstuff we're after here? maybe I should offer a prize if anyone does.

titles or titlelessness aside, the way I transcribe recipes, whether from books or blogs or wherever, is a little bit unique. at least I don't think I've seen anyone else write a recipe the same way. my usual approach involves a list of ingredients, attended by some carefully layered sets of brackets. sometimes the brackets are curlier than others. you can see this in the sample recipe above, as well. the brackets and the instructions vary greatly in placement and notation. it might be "} combine" around the 4 cups flour and ½ teaspoon cayenne, or it might be "} whisk together" around the 1 large egg and 6 tablespoons water. these lists and brackets amount to a strange kind of shorthand, and I admit sometimes it fails to make sense to my three-months-later self. but then other times it works out just fine (upon reflection, it seems that the key difference is the size of the paper upon which I'm trying to cram all the information I need. paper size is for some reason fairly crucial to the level of clarity).

as I pondered the weirdnesses of this transcription method, a quote popped into my head, from deCerteau and Giard in The Practice of Everyday Life.
 “...the study of cognitive processes shows that new information is received and assimilated, that is, becomes appropriable and memorizable, only when the person acquiring it succeeds in putting it into his or her own form, in making it his or her own by inserting it into conversation, into usual language, and into the coherenecies that structure his or her previous knowledge. Failing to pass through this stage, new information will remain fragile and at any moment likely to be forgotten, distorted, or contradicted.” (253)
I find this thought quite applicable here. of course it makes sense that reincarnating things is one way you really learn them. to rewrite, re-organize, and re-interpret instructions, cooking and/or whichever kind, is an important step. reading them is completely inadequate if you want them to actually teach you anything. you've got to use them for something. assimilate them. wire them into your head and make them part of you.

I've done this kind of thing before. surely most of us have, probably without thinking about it much. recipes are just the most common example in my little life. there's also the slippers pattern.
my littlest sister pointed me to this pattern, one she has printed out and annotated and used to make lovely slippers for herself and all her greatest fans for years and years. after having her teach me all the right stitches again and again, I finally attempted the pattern myself.

one of the very first thoughts I had looking at all those long strings of "ch 1 and 1 sc in first st, 2 sc in next st, 1 sc in next 9 sts" was: I want to translate this mess into something more familiar. since that first thought, I have become gradually more and more fluent in the vowelless dialect of crochet patterns. but still. I think if I invented this art, I'd invent different abbreviations for it.

not everyone does this same kind of drastic restructuring with the instructions they use. maybe you are more likely to print off the blogpost or just bring it up on your smart phone while you work. but even without re-writing, we all interpret and re-interpret the stuff we read. the way I interpret and transcribe a recipe or a pattern for a scarf is just my own way of fitting new knowledge into "the coherencies that structure [my] previous knowledge." another cool thing is that the addition of new knowledge will probably change the previous structures, and that will have an effect on how all the future knowledge gets added.

it would be cool to study how people do this in other ways, or in other media, perhaps. does my readership have any thoughts? is there work that you do or ways that you've noticed your own transformation of new-to-you information? do you take patterns or how-tos or maps or instructions and rewrite them, re-frame them, or re-organize them?


Leucophyllum said...

I believe that is a recipe for onion rings.

SBIESI said...

I write my recipes that same way! :) I usually write the instructions outside of my brackets though. For example, if I have a recipe for pancakes, I'll group all the wet ingredients and outside the bracket I'll write, "Mix". Then outside of the dry ingredients, I'll write, "Mix . Add to wet." Saves so much time and paper space. ;)

Janeheiress said...

I completely agree that reincarnating (or transforming) something is the only way to really internalize something. That's why it's so hard for me to read nonfiction--I never remember anything! With fiction though, my mind plays so many games with it that I retain it better.

Awesome that you do that with recipes, though!

amelia chesley said...

ah, shelley wins the non-existent prize. i should've chosen a trickier one, perhaps.

maybe we co-evolved this recipe writing process, shara. or maybe i just learned it from you. who knows?

and mel-- the role of narrative in this transformative process would be another cool thing to look at. hmmm.