Creative Cooking

Marble Mountain
Control Tower
Republic of Vietnam
circa 1965

Okay, this really is about cooking….just keep reading…

I had a great career with the Federal Aviation Administration as an air traffic controller.  After receiving my initial air traffic control training in the Marine Corps in the early ’60’s, I was hired by the FAA in 1968, and I went on to a very satisfying career which ended when I retired in 1995 after nearly 33 years of government service.

Early on in my initial Marine Corps training, one of my first instructors, after working with me during my first exposure to a radar scope. tagged me as a “natural”  And he was right.  It just came easily to me, to strap on a headset, sit down in front of the radar display, sorting out hundreds of aircraft seemingly going in multiple random directions, and confidently reform apparent chaos into a safe, expeditious, and orderly flow of air traffic

Current theory of the structure and functions of the mind suggests that the two different sides of the brain control two different “modes” of thinking..

Copyright © Greg Bajor
Used By Permission

It was in later years however, that I began to understand why I was good at what I did. I discovered that I was extremely “left-brained,” or what is known as “left-brain dominated,” which is one of the attributes that air traffic types possess which make them good at their jobs.  In fact, many medical professionals believe that atc’ers actually have a double-left brain emphasis.  It really makes sense when you think about it, because left brain activity is responsible for logic and is extremely detail-oriented. An air-traffic controller, stockbroker, trader, accountant, lawyer, logistics organizer and even mother’s who are able to organize housework, prepare dinner, keep an eye on the baby and always know what the other kids are watching on TV – all the while patiently listening to her husband telling her about his day at the office, while setting the table and serving up a delicious meal – this is pure, unadulterated all-at-the-same-time simultaneous left brain activity.  Think about the short-order cook at your favorite diner.  Orders and instructions coming at them from every angle, often nothing written down, but they calmly absorb the incoming multiple missle-like morass of information, and calmly go through their duties, delivering up plate after plate of delicious diner goodness without missing a beat.  Multi-tasking comes to left-brainers as easily as walking across the street.

So…you might ask….how does all of this apply to cooking?  It’s a fair question.

Well, the answer is, there are “left-brained cooks,” such as myself, who tend to think “linearly” (as in “line by line”) and love cooking from a specific recipe and a list of ingredients, and there are “right-brained cooks” who are more “circular” (as in, “hey, let’s wander around and smell the roses and the daisies, and oh, aren’t those colors just awesome,and oh, hey, that makes me think of an idea…”) thinkers often only having to simply see a food photo, and they’re off tossing ingredients into a pot, nothing measured, just a little of this, and a little of that, and soon a culinary masterpiece is created, and probably looks just like the photo that instigated it all.

Modern fruit salad and a “Russian cigarette”
pastry stuffed with cottage cheese
photo by Pierre-Alan Lepetit
Used by Permission

Right-brainers are constantly processing information attuned to the right hemisphere of the brain;  emotions, music, art and kinesthetic abilities. Simply viewing an inspiring photograph stimulates their right-brain chemistry, activates their neurotransmitters and their imagination kicks into gear conjuring up all kinds of flavors and tastes and creating  magnificent and tantalizingly tasty recipes literally by the seat of their pants. Although many of these creative genii (some would say “geniuses.”) are forced to  commit to ingredient lists and preparation instructions for their blogs, cookbooks, and television shows — at heart they hate having to do it and feel it is an intrusion into their creative processes.

Left-brain cooks love to follow recipes, but right-brainers find that approach rather boring.  One of my daughters has her own cooking blog, The Butter Dish, and you can see her “right-brained­-ness” displayed throughout her site.  Brilliantly created recipes, many from scratch, professional quality photographs, because not only does she have a good eye for pictures and such, she is also very creative and artistic.  If you look at the photo below, you can easily see which side my brain is operating on and which side hers is tuned into.

” The test of first rate of intelligence is the ability to hold to opposite idea in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to fuction” – Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940) American author

Left-brained cooks follow recipes, but will sometimes launch out into the deep and try something without the lifeline of a printed ingredient list.  On the other hand, “right-brained cooks” often create recipes, but also occasionally follow a recipe too.  Many cooks and chefs can be “integrated-brain” cooks; they actually have the ability to concentrate on the artistic side the right hemisphere of the brain which activates certain chemistry and yet while in the midst of this type of brain activity they can flip back and forth from one activity to another, often bouncing back and forth between “left-brain” activities and “right-brained” activities, hence they are “integrated-brain” chefs de extraordinaire.

So, what does all of this mean and how does it relate to the cooking world?

One thing that seems to help all of the “brainers,” no matter which side their brain is focused on, is experience.  After years of cooking, “left-brainers” gain confidence and will find themselves less dependent on recipes because after a while, cooking basics become tattooed on their souls.  Simple things, like what certain ingredients will do to a particular dish and so on.  Right-brainers too, benefit from experience, they know what works, what doesn’t work, what they like, what they don’t like.  So the years hone them and shape them as well which helps them to cook more intuitively.  Right-brainers seem more able to offer substitution ideas, and to encourage others to experiment, taste, adjust seasonings, add ingredients, and essentially fine-tune recipes to their own likings.  Ordinary stuff for right-brainers, but that kind of stuff can be really scary for the left-brain folks.

Left Brain: I am a scientist. A mathematician. I love the familiar. I categorize. I am accurate. Linear. Analytical. Strategic. I am practical. Always in control. A masters of words and language. Realistic. I calculate equations and play with numbers. I am order. I am logic. I know exactly who I am. Right Brain: I am creativity. A free spirit. I am passion. Yearning. Sensuality. I am the sound of roaring laughter. I am taste. The feeling of sand beneath bare feet. I am movement. Vivid color

Right-brainers will constantly be dreaming up fresh ideas and new, creative culinary masterpieces.  Left-brainers, such as myself, on the other hand, are constantly searching for new ideas and new creative masterpieces, but they usually won’t come up with it on their own, seeking instead to find that core recipe and than modifying them to suit their personal tastes.  At the end of the day, however, each will bring those ideas together, because a recipe is simply a recipe, and it doesn’t come to life until you pour your soul into it, and serve it up in all of it’s radiant glory.

And that makes us all members of the same family – whether we are linear or circular, left-brained or right-brained, or even integrated-brained, we all share a love of cooking, taking those itt-bitty elements and forming them into the finished result, and although the kitchen stove is a common destination for us all, how we get there can be circuitous. Somehow we are all part of the same team…we share a love of cooking, are willing to spend hours doing veggie prep, and we don’t seem to mind that a good dish might involve being in the kitchen most of the day, watching over your “baby” until it finally springs forth in all it’s radiant served-up wonderful-ness, and for us, the reward is that first succulent mouthful, or hearing family or friends saying, “ooh…wow..this is really good!”

Well, my name is Will, and that’s the way I see it….

IMG_1009P.S.  Once some years ago, I was at a conference where the speaker said he was going to make five specific points about the subject he was covering.  After covering the first four, he ran out of time and the session ended, and everyone began leaving.  What?  I was aghast!  My notes clearly laid out points one through four…but there it was…”#5″…with nothing after it!  So I chased the speaker down, asked him about it, and his reply was, “Well, I didn’t have enough time to develop that last point!”  Suffice it to say I didn’t let him off the hook until I had gotten “point #5” and…ahem…of course, added it to my very detailed notes.

Hey, it’s like when you have a “to-do” list…and you do something that’s not on the list…so you add it to the list, and then you cross it off. You want credit for it.  It’s logical, after all.   Yeah, I know, it’s really left-brained madness, isn’t it?  But, if you were in the air, flying across the country between 1962 and 1995…then it’s very probable that I was one of those guys on the ground who made sure you got where you were going safely…while you were sitting comfortably in your airliner seat, dreaming up new and wonderful recipes…see…???…it really is a team effort! 🙂

Creative Cooking Copyright © 2013 All Rights Reserved


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