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Baking Essay Index

Dear Science,

[one_half][T]hree years ago,one of my favorite musicians produced a record whose title was inspired by a note he scrawled in the studio:

Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.

My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):

Ouch.

As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.

In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.

It can wear on a person.

Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.

More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.

* * * * *

I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.

I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.

Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.

But it leaked again.

This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.

* * * * *

If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.

When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.

Dear Science,

You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. [/one_half]

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Categories
Essay Index

I am a baker

[one_half][I] am told that my sensei was one of the original Navy SEALs. A short, wiry man with graying curls, bright eyes and an angular face. He could not have weighed more than 130 lbs. But if I were unfortunate enough to get caught in his vise-like grip, I would soon receive just enough weight applied to my ribcage to feel as if I were being choked by a giant. This time, I was determined not to let that happen. Starting on the ground, I proceeded to attack, making repeated, futile attempts to turn him over from the tuck position. One mistake, and maybe 3 seconds after that, I found myself in the familiar position of tapping out.

Sensei stood up, straightened his gi, and looked me directly in the eye.

“I remember when you were weak. It used to be easy to move you around! Now?” He smiled, raising an index finger. “Not so easy.”

I was exhausted and soundly beaten. But all the same, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had started practicing judo five months earlier. For the first 3 weeks, I could not get through the warmups without vomiting from exertion. Now I was stronger, faster, more physically intelligent, and better conditioned than I had been in my entire life.

As with many of my hobbies and obsessions, it was difficult to explain to people why I did it—why I kept going back to that dojo. I lived in New York and had a big job at a big bank, with the love of my life waiting for me at home. And yet I chose to spend 10 hours a week in a stuffy, windowless room, returning home with bruises, duct tape-wrapped toes, and a gym bag full of my own sweat.

To me, judo had nothing to do with wanting to fight, work out my aggression, or examine the state of my masculinity. What I valued about the experience was that it completely changed my perspective about what I was capable of doing.

If you are a grown man who is unathletic and cannot play basketball, you will likely not learn how to play during a pickup game in the South Bronx. You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years. I learned early on that I would be praised for the things I did well. Wanting approval, I pursued those things. And when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be good at something, I usually didn’t want to find out.

The revelation I experienced with judo was that, as a white belt, it did not matter whether you were a cop, wrestler, or out-of-shape equity derivatives trader. You were going to get your ass handed to you, respectfully, and effortlessly, by the black belts. There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero. And the entire dojo, from the yellow belts to the senseis, wanted us to learn.

Shortly after whipping myself into shape and purchasing a year-long membership to the dojo, I hyperextended my knee and never returned to the mat. I left as a white belt. But I also left knowing that I had transformed my body in ways that I had not thought possible. I entered the dojo detesting the idea of being a beginner at anything, because it meant that I could be dominated, shamed, or dismissed by others. I left embracing it.

A year later, I quit my job and went back to college. I volunteered in two labs and took undergraduate courses in math, chemistry and physics. I learned how to swim. I am now working on a PhD in biophysics. Someday, I may perhaps be convinced to sing.

As I see my daughter grow into her person, astounding as any parent imagines his child to be, I catch myself wanting to brag and outwardly gush over her achievements—exactly the behavior that I believe nurtured my fear of failure. I’m ultra-wary of raising a perfectionist, and I don’t want Esme to avoid new experiences the way I did. So I try to temper my praise and replace it with enthusiasm. But I think the best way that I can teach Esme to embrace being a beginner is to continue being one.

Over the past several months, I have put myself in the awkward position of being a beginner over and over again. I am exhausted and beaten. But I can now say that I’m a writer. Not a professional or seasoned one, but I write essays and tell stories, and I work at it every day. Similarly, I am now a relatively social person, connecting with people in ways that were inconceivable in my loneliest moments. I have also found that I am a beginning recipe developer, instructor, and producer/director of video.

And as of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I am proud to now call myself a baker. [/one_half]

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