Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing, Mushrooms, and Salad Dressing

When I was in 6th grade, we had to write a recipe for a salad. It wasn't a big project - just our weekly one-paragraph composition topic in our spelling books. It was meant to be writing practice and use some of the spelling words. The day that we worked on this assignment in class, we had a substitute teacher - we'll call her Ms. Andersen - and she advised us all to write what we knew. Ms. Andersen defined writing what you know as writing about what you like. She gave us the example that she didn't like mushrooms, so she wouldn't put mushrooms in her salad recipe even though a lot of people do like mushrooms on salad.

Now, I don't think that writing only about things you like is the best writing advice. It might be good starting advice, if you're just getting into writing and don't know what to say. But when you're writing fictional stories, you don't really want to be limited to only writing characters who like things that you like. You'd run out of story possibilities pretty fast.

But let's just say that in this case, I did want to follow her advice. I couldn't. Why? Because her advice came from the point of view of someone who liked the most basic ingredients of salad, who could write a recipe for salad that she liked and that other people would like. Ms. Andersen said that a lot of people like mushrooms in salad, but the fact is, mushrooms are not a basic ingredient that you find in almost every salad - they are not on the level of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, or onions. You don't always find mushrooms at salad bars, and I have rarely seen restaurant salads that contain mushrooms. (Of course, this happened 15 years ago, so perhaps mushrooms were more of a trend back then). When you dislike a salad ingredient like mushrooms, it's easy enough to leave them out. It's easy enough to act like everyone can do that with the things they don't like.

Shortly after Mrs. Andersen gave us the "write about what you know" advice, she added,"And don't forget to include a salad dressing." Huh. This was where my problem came in. I do not like salad dressing. Any kind of salad dressing. I will never touch a salad that has dressing on it, and that includes pasta salad, potato salad, and coleslaw as well. And yet our teacher who just told us to invent a salad that we personally would enjoy was telling us that we had to include a salad dressing. She mentioned the salad dressing in a "Cross your t's and dot your i's" tone, as if the dressing was a detail that we might forget, as if leaving out the dressing would simply mean that we had been careless rather than purposely not including it the way that she wouldn't have included mushrooms. It was literally impossible for me to follow both pieces of advice.

Now, not having dressing would have made the salad edible for me, but even then, I really just didn't like salad at all. I've never really liked salad, but especially not when I was younger. I basically only liked the "extra" stuff on top of the salad - cheese, meat, chickpeas, and croutons - and that was basically all I ate when we had salad. In terms of the basic salad ingredients, the only things I really liked were cherry tomatoes. Sometimes I'd eat a few cucumber slices and bites of lettuce (provided it was plain iceberg lettuce), but I wasn't really into it. The only way for me to truly construct a salad that I liked would be to make one that wasn't really a salad at all.

I thought about fruit salad. That was the only kind of salad I liked. I knew it would be a risk because our regular English teacher was pretty strict. But I was seriously tempted because of Mrs. Andersen's whole "Write what you know" lecture and her example about the mushrooms. If Mrs. Andersen had been grading the papers, I might have taken that risk, because I could always tell her that I hated salad and was doing the assignment the way that she recommended. But Ms. Andersen wasn't in charge, and when our regular teacher came back, she would never know about the "write what you know" advice and might give me a zero for not doing what the assignment asked.

So I wrote about a boring salad with just the basics and topped it with Italian dressing because it was a dressing I had heard of and could spell. I got a low grade on the assignment and my teacher wrote "Not creative" on it. It wasn't a comment I normally got on my work. I wasn't upset because I didn't care about the assignment, but I found it interesting that she could see right through my writing and knew that I didn't care about a single word.

I started to wonder what would have happened if I had taken the grade risk and written about fruit salad instead. I could have come with something much more creative. One year my mom made a fruit salad that used half of a watermelon as the bowl, so I could have included that. Fruit salad would have been the way to go.

What I took away from this experience was this:

The advice you give will not always be advice that other people can follow. The example of not including mushrooms works for certain people - people who like salad and who are generally non-picky eaters, but have one or two vegetables that they don't enjoy. It does not work for people who dislike "basic" ingredients of a salad, such as leafy greens and dressing. It does not work for people who just don't like salad at all. It does not acknowledge the fact that some of the people you're giving the advice to might be much more different from you than you're imagining.

If you're asked to throw together some weird concoction of foods you hate, you're going to end up combining things that most people wouldn't like together, like peanut butter on tuna fish. When you're forced to work with all ingredients that are icky to you, there is no way of knowing what "most" people will find appealing. If you want to learn what other people like, you can survey them and come up with a recipe that you think they will like, but you should not be expected to just know these things. You should not be expected to like the same foods everyone else likes, or to put together a good-tasting meal comprised of ingredients that you hate.

A salad without mushrooms is still a perfectly socially acceptable salad. But an expansion on the concept of "salad" to include fruit salad, jello salad, and even candy salad...that would have been good writing advice.

No comments:

Post a Comment