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Food For Thought: Fixed Function
When is a spoon not a spoon?
One of the things I learned early in my career is that real creativity is rarely appreciated.
In the 90s “brainstorming” was a trendy buzzword, up there with “out of the box” thinking and terrible sports analogies. There was a sense that even the most conservative companies and institutions had to DO SOMETHING to avoid losing their highest performers to the growing world of the dotcoms with their foosball, free lunches, and bean bag chairs.
But if you’re the sort of person who’s ever proposed a truly novel solution, you learned pretty quickly that creativity wasn’t truly appreciated. The boss’s eyes widen, they take a deep breath, and “you know, that’s a really good idea, but…..”
Why does this happen? Why are people often reluctant to try something new, even if it has potential?
Last week I told you how much I enjoy other newsletters, and that one of my current favourites is The Groove by Maria Brito. One of Maria’s newsletters was inspiration for my recent newsletter about remixing recipes. And wouldn’t you know it, I was inspired again by her recent discussion of functional fixedness, the cognitive bias that limits our ability to see beyond the obvious and/or traditional uses of the things around us.
That was always one of my big problems working with and for large institutions. There was always a stickiness about who did what and entrenched reasons for things to work a certain way. There is a process. Boxes must be ticked. There was often only one way to do something because that was the way it had always been done.
I didn’t make up the rules, my friend. They were here before me and they will outlive us all.
I tolerated that mentality for a long time, but it was part of what drove me into the cooking business.
Unless you are working for a chain restaurant or a long-term care home or hospital, working in the hospitality business is a rather different experience from that of a cubicle-dweller. Your ideas might actually make it on the menu once the chef trusts you. Once they know that you understand the basic menu and that you won’t spend a their money on a lark you might just get some latitude.
But what does this have to do with you as a home cook?
Both cooking and eating are routine tasks. We have to interact with food several times each day, and even if we aren’t preparing meals ourselves we still have to make dozens of decisions about what, when, where, and how to eat each day. As I have written before, we develop heuristics, thinking shortcuts that allow us to make these decisions without having nervous breakdowns from indecision.
But even the most useful routines and shortcuts can turn into ruts if we don’t make effort to try something new at least occasionally. Weekly meal planning, a standard shopping list, and a rotating list of family favourites may save you some time but they can lead you towards burnout if you enjoy cooking as a creative endeavour. But where to find the time?
Consider an escape, however small, from your functional fixedness. What if you took the things you already have in your kitchen and thought about how they could be used in a completely new way?
Consider the humble spoon. We think of a spoon as a utensil for scooping up liquid or very soft foods, but what else can it do?
Sure, you can twirl your pasta and measure your baking powder, but what else can you do? Think beyond the obvious and traditional. Flip it over and think of its shape as convex not concave. Think about the shape of its edges and the handle. Consider the possibilities and before you know it you have a bottle opener, a dough crimper, a mold for sugar and chocolate. You can even curl your eyelashes.
Chefs are known for being able to improvise with various kitchen tools. A vegetable peeler can make chocolate curls. The handle of a ladle can unclog a drain. I don’t recommend it (unless you feel like getting stitches or worse), but a knife can be a pry bar, a hammer, or a can opener in a pinch. A sharpening steel or an electric mixer will spin caramel into beautiful decorations.
And it’s not only tools that can be repurposed if you’re willing to use your imagination. We all know that tomatoes are technically fruits, but what if you used them as such? Why not try a sweet tomato tarte tatin? Or a roasted cucumber sandwich for lunch? Make jam out of carrots, because why not? You can wrap nearly anything, savoury or sweet, in a spring roll wrapper.
If you’ve willing to throw out your assumptions about a tool, an ingredient, or a technique and consider its properties rather than its assumed function you can reinvent the way you look at your kitchen and you might just stave off burnout for another day.
So this week take a moment to stop pick something up and ask yourself “what else?” Throw out the rule book along with the self-imposed bureaucracy of the mind and consider “when is a spoon not a spoon?” You might just come up with something completely new from the all-too-familiar.