Monday, March 19, 2012

The New Virtue Challenge

Let's start this off by saying one thing: I'm not the best cook.

Sure, if given a decent recipe, detailed ingredients list and half a day, I can generally muddle through it and make something vaguely presentable, or even tasty; but I'm far from comfortable in the kitchen. This has always been something that's bothered me a bit. Furthermore, as I've grown older, and -largely thanks to my wife- cultivated a better appreciation for good food; it's something that bothers me more and more. But, whenever I consider the idea of actually improving my culinary skills, I sort of hit a brick wall.

How? Where do I start? A cooking class? Just continue to muddle through recipes on my own? I'm not sure. I do know that, in general, when it comes to learning something new, I'm the sort of person who does better when I've got some sort of structure. Which, brings me to my first self-imposed challenge on this blog: The New Virtue Challenge.

"The 'New Virtue Challenge?'" You ask, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Well, let me explain. Or, rather, let Anthony Bourdain explain. Recently, I've been reading his latest book, Medium Raw. In the sixth chapter, "Virtue," Anthony addresses the fact that... well... let me just quote what he has to say, as only Mr. Bourdain can:

...But, I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one's own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.

Back in the dark ages, young women and girls were automatically segregated off to home-economics classes, where they were indoctrinated with the belief that cooking was one of the essential skill sets for responsible citizenry—or, more to the point, useful housewifery. When they began asking the obvious question—"Why me and not him?"—it signaled the beginning of the end of any institutionalized teaching of cooking skills. Women rejected the idea that they should be designated, simply by virtue of their gender, to perform what would be called, in a professional situation, service jobs, and rightly refused to submit. "Home ed" became the most glaring illustration of everything wrong with the gender politics of the time. Quickly identified as an instrument of subjugation, it become an instant anachronism. Knowing how to cook, or visibly enjoying it, became an embarrassment for an enlightened young woman, a reminder of prior servitude.

Males were hardly leaping to pick up the slack, as cooking had been so wrong-headedly portrayed as "for girls"—or, equally as bad, "for queers."

What this meant, though, is that by the end of the '60s, nobody was cooking. And soon, as Gordon Ramsay has pointed out rather less delicately a while back, no one even remembered how.

Maybe we missed an important moment in history there. When we finally closed down Home Ec, maybe we missed an opportunity. Instead of shutting down compulsory cooking classes for young women, maybe we would have been far better off simply demanding that the men learn how to cook, too.

It's not too late.

Just as horsemanship, archery, and a facility with language were once considered essential "manly" arts, to be learned by any aspiring gentleman, so, perhaps, should be cooking.


Let us then codify the essentials of this new virtue:

(Final emphasis mine... to explain the challenge's name, obviously.)

What follows this introductory text is Mr. Bourdain's colorful description of what he thinks the basic cooking skills are. Or, rather, should be. I'm not going to quote all of them fully, because it's really the meat and potatoes* of the chapter and I've already transcribed enough of the book here; but here's the boiled down* list, as I read it:

• Chop and onion/basic knife skills.
• Make an omelet.
• Roast a chicken.
• Grill and rest a steak.
• Cook vegetables.
• Mix a standard vinaigrette.
• Shop for produce and know what is in season.
• Clean and filet a fish.
• Steam a lobster, crab, mussels or clams.
• Roast meat, without a thermometer.
• Roast and mash potatoes.
• Steam rice, and make rice pilaf.
• The fundamentals of braising, starting with beef bourguignon.
• Make stock with bones, plus a few simple soups.
• Know a few simple dishes that form the cornerstone of your own cooking repertoire.

And, this... this is my first challenge to myself. Of the items on this list, there is only one thing that I feel like I can say I'm able to do with any degree of confidence (Hint: It's not chop an onion!). So, I'm going to teach myself how to do them all.

I'm going to tackle each item on the list in turn (though maybe not entirely in order), and like Sarah and I did with our Round the World travels on Strange and Benevolent, I'll record the entire process here. Why do it here? Why do it online? Well, because if blogs weren't made to detail and record random, self-inflicted challenges, then I'm not sure what they were created for. Plus, with any luck, it will keep me focused and honest about the whole thing.

It probably goes without saying that I'm doing this without the permission of Mr. Bourdain. Hopefully, if he knew about it, he would approve, in so much as I'm taking his suggestions to heart. At worst, he'd mock it. And mock it well. I have a good deal of respect for Bourdain, and appreciate his heady mixture of travel and food enthusiasm. (And, increasingly, I appreciate his views on being a father and growing old with a degree of grace. Though I'm sure he'd mock me for saying that too.) Still, to make up for the fact that this whole thing is riding on his coattails, I've put a little Amazon link to the right there, so people can buy his book and assuage my guilt.

OK. I'll leave things at that for now. In the coming weeks, as I hopefully begin to tackle these challenges, I'll begin to unpack them more. What qualifies as "basic knife skills?" How many soups is "a few?" How will I even know when I've mastered shopping for produce? Is there a timeline for this whole thing? How is someone who is notoriously skeptical of seafood supposed to tackle a couple items on that list? I don't know. I'm working these all out as I go.

Needless to say, there will definitely be an element of research to most of these. And, an element of
exploration. Sounds like the perfect place to start this blog to me.

*"Meat and potatoes"? "Boiled down"? I promised the food puns were unintentional.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is the Explorer in Residence?

So, what exactly is this blog? What is the Explorer in Residence?

Well, short answer: I'm not 100% sure myself.

Long answer: This blog is still sort of a work in progress. An idea that's been bubbling in the background of my mind for some time now, and which I've finally decided to sit down, examine and figure out what it is. First, some history...

Back in 2007, my wife and I took a trip around the world. Over approximately 7 months, we visited 17 countries. Some briefly, some for a month or more. The exact figures aren't important, and if you are curious to read more about it, my wife and I detail our adventures extensively on my other blog, Strange and Benevolent. It was a singular and life-changing experience, and one that I took a lot away from. But, in particular, there were a couple of loose concepts that will hopefully for the backbone of this thing.

#1 The Value of Looking at Things as an Traveler:
Travel makes you mindful. When at home, going about your day to day routine, it's easy to sort of ignore or disregard the "normal" things going on around you, the places you see every day, the people you interact with on a daily basis, the rituals and the experiences of normality. But, when you are traveling, and there is a sense of "newness" to everything, you take time to notice the little things. The differences and novelty of the experience make you more mindful of your location, situation and the experience.

There's two side effect to this. First, experiencing something new is a thrill. And, being a thrill, you tend to regard it as an adventure, instead of a routine or a hassle... even if it would be otherwise frustrating. If you have a tedious commute every day in your normal life, you tend to resent it. It's something you just try to get through. And, as soon as it's over, you do your best forget it. But, if you are stuck on a rickety night-bus from McCloud Ganj to Delhi, even if you are tired and overwhelmed, it will be an experience you'll look back on as an adventure, and maybe with a chuckle.

Which brings me to the second side-effect: Since, when traveling, you are constantly mindful of what is going on around you; and since, when at home, you are always trying to "get through the day," both have a strange effect on your memory and how you experience time. There are vast swaths of my life that I can barely remember a detail or two. They were largely routine, and without note-worthy events, and most of those countless, anonymous days have been boxed up and stored away in some distant backwater corner of my mind, like the Ark at the end of Raiders. And, that's a little sad.

By comparison, while details have become fuzzy in the five or so years since we got back from our trip, I can remember at least some details from every single day of those 7 months. Sights. Smells. Sounds. Something about the act of being mindful and the novel nature of what I was experiencing on a nearly daily basis helped keep those memories from being condensed and packed away, never to be seen again. So, in a way, those 7 months probably sit in my mind the way 7 years of day-to-day life would. They loom large.

So, returning home, I couldn't help but think: What would happen if I could treat every day like a day I was traveling? Would it be possible to be mindful and look at the people, places and experiences of my "normal" life with the same novelty and thrill that I looked at the people, places and experiences I had while traveling?

To be honest, I sort of dropped the ball. I did make some stabs at it, most notably my Commuter Cam Project, where I took a camera with my on my walk to work, took pictures and then documented the journey. You can see my attempts here and here. I actually really enjoyed the experience (and was excited when other people took up the challenge). But, in general, too often, I've allowed myself to be sucked back into that zombie grind that seems to dominate the average week.

#2 I Can Be A Better Person

First off, let me just say that I don't think I'm a bad person by any regard. In fact, I'm pretty darned pleased with myself, and my life, overall. That said, when traveling, I found that I'd often get peeks of another me. A me that didn't have 30-odd years of baggage, self-imposed expectation, etc. When traveling, I wrote (well, blogged) prodigiously, read daily, wasn't ashamed to break out a book or sketchbook in a public place. Gave myself license to think about big concepts... history, politics, religion, philosophy, my place in the world. Introduce myself to strangers and make new friends. I picked up new skills (Tibetan cooking, driving on the left side of the road, ostrich riding) and problem solved in ways I'd previously thought unimaginable. In short, I challenged myself.

Sadly, when I got back home, and got back to working, a lot of that feel by the wayside again. I fell back into my old routines and ways of doing things. So, in a way, this blog is an attempt to rectify that.

I want to challenge myself again in those ways. Learn new skills. Push myself artistically. Think big and figure out not only "what do I believe?" But, also, "why do I believe it?" And, this blog is going to be the place for me to do it. This won't be a place for my to go on diatribes about what I think the world should be like, but it will be hopefully a place for me to parse out what I believe to be true, and why I think it. And, most importantly, it will be a place for me to challenge myself.

So, to return to my opening lines: While I have a feeling about the general direction of this blog, I'm still not 100% sure what form it will take. I have a feeling it will probably involve just sort of feeling my way along intuitively. Posting things that feel applicable, labeling and tagging those posts, and seeing what ideas and themes will emerge. What bubbles to the top. I also want to use this as a place to form challenges to myself (and to anyone else who cares to join me in them). In fact, I've got my first self-imposed challenge already on deck... but that will wait until my next post.

So, what does the name "Explorer in Residence" mean, anyhow?

Well, to be honest, you'll have to ask National Geographic. I "borrowed" the title from them. This is what it say on their website, about their Explorer in Residence program:

The Explorers-in-Residence Program was created to enhance National Geographic's long-standing relationship with some of the world's best explorers and scientists. With the support of the National Geographic Society, explorers-in-residence develop programs and carry out fieldwork in their respective areas of study. Our explorers' groundbreaking discoveries fuel the kind of critical information, conservation initiatives, and compelling stories that are the trademark of the National Geographic Society.

I first came across the title "Explorer in Residence" while watching this video on TED (watching TED videos is a minor an obsession of mine) by Wade Davis:

It's a pretty amazing talk, but what struck me first off was the fact that a person could have the title "Explorer in Residence," and that -short of being a knighted "Sir"- it was probably the coolest title you could call yourself by. I wanted that title. But, since my credentials don't measure up to Mr. Davis' quite yet, it would be unlikely that National Geographic would be bestowing the title on me any time soon.

Then I realized: I own my own business. And, as the business owner, I need a title. So, I was no longer just "Designer and Illustrator," my official title was "Designer, Illustrator and Explorer in Residence." Problem solved.

Plus, I just sort of like the pun of the whole thing, when applied to this blog. My goal, such as it is, is to be an explorer. An explorer of my city, my life, my world. But, at the same time I'm also leaving a very, shall we say, residential life. I'm a married, homeowner with two small children.

I am, truly, an explorer in residence.