Susanne Dunlap

Writing and Cooking

In Writing Craft on September 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm

I think I’m a pretty good cook. I know how to follow a recipe, and once I’m comfortable with it I experiment with changes and additions, and usually they work out fine.

But I’m not a professional chef. And that can create some taste disasters when I veer too far away from my established practices.

Here’s an example: I opened up the steamed mixed beans I bought at Trader Joe’s on Sunday, thinking that the idea of beans was great, but that they were probably really bland. I saw on the package that you could saute them with garlic and olive oil and use them as a pasta topping. That sounded good.

Now, I happened to have some leftover brown Basmati rice that I wanted to use up, so I thought, “Let’s saute that in with the beans, like an Italian fried rice or a dry risotto.” And I added some sliced up mini-heirloom tomatoes, a few leaves of fresh basil, and some salt and pepper. So far so good.

Then things started to go south. I also had some leftover microwaved Brussels sprouts that weren’t so great to begin with, but I didn’t want to just throw them away. And then I thought “Italian,” and reached for the Balsamic vinegar and the ground romano cheese that was in the drawer of my fridge. I mixed it all together until the sprouts were tender.

My concoction tasted HORRIBLE.

If I’d been a chef trying something new, I’d have thrown the whole thing out and started over. I’d made the mistake of adding bad ingredients, and also not tasting as I went.

But being rather cash-strapped at the moment I wasn’t willing to give up on my concoction, since there was a hefty amount of it left over. So I refrigerated it, postponing a decision for a day or two.

Today, when I saw that container staring at me, my conscience pricked me. Either I would have to throw it away and put it out of its misery, or try to salvage it. I opted for one last-ditch effort to make it edible and started nosing around my refrigerator.

I spotted a bag of pepper jack cubes right next to the container of bean muck. I don’t use cheese cubes much, and rarely eat pepper jack (a sale purchase), so I thought, what they hey? I dotted six cubes around the top of my failed recipe and popped it in the microwave for 2 minutes until the cheese melted becomingly.

And guess what? As long as I worked around the unfortunate tasting Brussels sprouts, it was pretty good!

So what’s the analogy?

If you’ve never written a novel before, first start with good ingredients: an interesting premise, a location you love, characters that get you excited.

Chances are, you’ll make a mess of it somewhere along the way and want to just trash it and start over. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do.

But sometimes, putting a little time and distance between you and your failed experiment will lead you to a solution that not only salvages it, but takes it to a whole new level.

Oh, and don’t be afraid to be merciless about editing out the Brussels sprouts.

  1. Brilliant analogy! I wish I could write like I cook – I feel much more confident in the kitchen – but it’s probably because of all the practice I’ve put into it all these years. We have inventions like my Chicken Thursday, that we never eat on that day, of course, which have become firm family favourites.
    I can relate to your disaster-turned-palatable-dinner, especially on the occasion when I turn leftovers into a solitary lunch, now that I write full time from home. Bubble and squeak, English-style, is my favourite for left over cabbage! Add anything you like and presto!

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