About once a week I take down the biggest mixing bowl I have and start pouring, dropping, and even occasionally measuring things into it. A carton of oatmeal; a bag of whole raw almonds; a couple of handfuls each of pumpkin and sunflower seeds; wheat germ, flaxseed meal, and/or sesame seeds, if I have them. I stir them around, then add spices (cinnamon and ginger, a little salt), oil, and sweeteners — lately, equal parts honey and agave syrup. Stir it up, spread it in two rimmed baking sheets, and put it in the oven.
What I just gave you is a method — a method, in this case, for making granola. I make my own because I like the way it makes the house smell, because I like knowing what’s in it, and because I’m frugal (some would say cheap). I make it because I am a creature of habit, and one of my habits is granola with fruit and yogurt for breakfast. I make it because it’s something that I can do relatively easily and feel as if I’ve accomplished something for the day.
When I first started making granola I followed a recipe. The one I like, if you’re interested, is in Nigella Lawson’s Feast, a lovely but flawed cookbook. Nigella’s cookbooks (I’m on a first-name basis with my favorite cookbook authors) are wonderful for folks who are comfortable in the kitchen, but she’s often a little breezy with her directions. My copy has notations on many recipes — “takes longer” next to the time she suggests baking something, for example, or “add baking powder?” on a cake recipe that seems to lack any mention of leavening. Feast suffers in places for want of a detail-oriented copy-editor. The granola recipe, though, is precise and quite wonderful, easily yielding a week’s worth of chewy breakfast cereal in under an hour.
The reason I no longer follow the recipe is not very complicated: I’m lazy. The recipe calls for applesauce, for example, and I don’t always have it in the house. If I want granola, I tend to want it right away—I’m not going to run to the store before I can even get started. My sister started using a multi-grain cereal mix instead of oatmeal, and since her substitute is always on the shelf at my local Trader Joe’s, I now use that, too. Nigella’s version has more sugar than I need, so I cut back. Mostly, though, it’s a matter of making do with what I have in the house. Not enough almonds? Double the pumpkin seeds. No sesame seeds? Try flax seeds instead, or leave them out entirely (really, they only get stuck in your teeth). You get the idea.
Beginning cooks—or cooks taking on new tasks in the kitchen — need recipes. But cooks who are comfortable in their kitchens often move on from recipes to methods. I remember this when I bake with my son (something we used to do almost every Saturday morning). He’d reach almost instinctively for The Joy of Cooking—a big, encyclopedic cookbook with detailed instructions for everything — while I’d adapt what he found to work with what we actually had in the house. After several years of doing this, he’s become a reasonably confident recipe-adapter himself. He looks in the cookbook, then starts asking me whether we can substitute, say, chocolate chips for peaches, or vice versa. Sometimes we can (the peach biscuits were amazing); sometimes, as with the peach ice cream recently, I nix the plan. But his confidence is growing, and I expect that one day he’ll figure out how to rework that peach ice cream recipe, too.
Lately I’ve been thinking the same thing may hold true for beginning writers as well: many want recipes, formulas — the five-paragraph essay (for example) — while their more accomplished peers have learned to see those “recipes” as simply “methods,” as one — but certainly not the only — means to an end.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with following a recipe. Indeed — and here’s where my analogy breaks down — sometimes for the most complex meals, nothing but a recipe will do. For the most complex writing, however, recipes are limiting, constraining. Methods are what free the writer to move beyond five lockstep paragraphs, with the thesis at the end of the first one, to exploratory essays, personal narratives, and the like.
As I prepare to teach my first-year seminar this fall, this is the kind of analogy I’m exploring. I’m thinking about what recipes I can provide my students, and how we can move from recipe to method. What analogies for writing have you found productive?
In case anyone wants it, here’s a slightly more detailed version of my granola method:
Preheat oven to 325F
Spray two large rimmed baking sheets with nonstick spray
In a large mixing bowl, combine (roughly) 6 cups of raw oatmeal, or raw multi-grain hot cereal, with about four to five cups (total) of the following: (whole, raw) almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds. You can also add wheat germ and/or flaxseed meal—if I use them, I add maybe ½ cup total volume there. Maybe a handful or two of sesame seeds or flax seeds, if I haven’t used flaxseed meal. Stir all this around: you should have 10-12 cups of dry ingredients at this point. Add three teaspoons of spices — I use cinnamon and ginger, with more ginger than cinnamon, but you may want to reverse the proportions. A dash of salt goes in now as well. Mix very well.
Here’s the only place I’m precise: measure two tablespoons of vegetable oil into a one-cup measure. Swirl it around a bit, then pour it into your dry ingredients. Now, measure one cup of liquid sweetener (I use honey and agave syrup, but maple syrup is great if you have it, or you can use half a cup of liquid sweetener and half a cup of brown sugar) into the oily cup. Your sweetener will slide right back out of the cup into your mixing bowl without leaving part of itself in your measuring cup. Again, stir as well as you can—you won’t coat every bit of the dry stuff with the wet stuff, but do you best. Spread it all out on rimmed cookie sheets and put into your 325 oven. After 20 minutes, take the pans out and stir the granola around; if your oven has hot spots, as mine does, you might want to rotate the pans now as well. Once the pans are back in the oven, another 15-20 minutes should do it. Stir it around once or twice as it cools to keep it from sticking to the pans, then store in an airtight container when completely cool.