Mise en Place + Smile As You Measure, Sift, Fold, and Mix…

My mother was an OK cook and I can still happily recall some favorite meals – primarily for sentimental reasons no doubt.  Some of her dishes still puzzle me.  To this day, I can’t quite figure out why she added fresh ginger to her spaghetti sauce.  Add it to teriyaki sauce, sure, but spaghetti sauce?  When it came to baking, though, she was a natural and a master.  Fresh lilikoi pie, the moistest banana bread, the flakiest biscuits, and the towering chiffon cake – these were the basics in her repertoire and she didn’t need to pore over a recipe too long for any of these.  She measured the ingredients, for sure, but sometimes recipes were altered and modified just to see what would happen.  Her handwritten recipes are precise and easily followed even now, if that is all there is to baking, but she also scribbled notes in the margins.  Add a little more of this or a little less of that.  I often wonder as I attempt her recipes these days just how much is a little more.  I can’t ask her so I just shrug my shoulders and guess.  The most important things I learned from watching her bake, though, are not about preparation or technique or any other baking acumen.  I believe now that in those moments she was actually teaching me things that went beyond the baked goods themselves.

First, prepare. Get everything ready. Check on the ingredients. How many times have you tried to make something only to find out that you are out of sugar?  Sure, some of us have the nerve to go ask our neighbors for that proverbial cup of sugar, but not me.  No baking powder?  You can’t substitute baking soda or any other white ingredient (cream of tartar, for example). Slice your peaches ahead of time and not right before the recipe calls for you to mix the fruit with the sugar and spices.  Soften your butter well before blending it with the eggs and flour.  I know my mom probably never heard the phrase “mise en place” (everything in its place), but that’s what she was teaching me as she baked.  And mise en place, I realized later, doesn’t and shouldn’t only apply to cooking and baking.  Adopt it for all things you do.  Second, and most importantly, she always said you have to enjoy what you’re doing as you measure, sift, fold, and mix.  Be in a good place because all of what you’re feeling ends up in what you’re making. [Read or watch Like Water for Chocolate for a similar experience.]  Pay attention to the moment. Pour your heart into what you’re creating; enjoy what your hands are making.  Revel in what you’re doing.  What happens as you roll out that dough for your pie if you’ve got steam coming out of your ears because your husband, when asked for his opinion about a dress you bought, said it reminded him of a football uniform? Or if you’re replaying a difficult conversation from work in a seemingly endless loop in your head as you’re whipping egg whites?  Frothy and foamy?  Nope.  My mom would tell you that what came out of the oven would not be something you’d want to share with others.  Heck, I’ve had things even the family dog wouldn’t touch. To bake something worthwhile you need to be prepared AND you need to be caught up in the task at hand.  You need to be feeling it.

So, how does my kitchen time with my mother apply to you?  When you see that our application is live and you know you want to get going on pulling everything together, first stop and take a breath.  Think about the “recipe” you are attempting.  How do you want to put that application together?  What’s your time line?  What “ingredients” are needed?  Create your own mise en place specifically for your application process.  At the same time you’re doing this, consider my mom’s second lesson as part of your game plan, too.  Make sure your heart is in it.  You’ve planned it out, but anyone can come up with a plan and execute the steps in that plan.  You have to feel it, too.  When I read your file I want to know that you’ve given it your all, that what I’m reading is authentic and that can only happen if you’ve put your heart into it.  If you’ve set aside next Saturday to work on your personal statement and you wake up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, stop right there.  Go find something else to do.  Rework your time line instead.  If you start early on this application, you’ve got days, weeks, and even months to make this work.  Don’t worry.  Be in a good place each time you work on pulling your story together because you know that story side of your application is so very important.

As is my usual tradition with the first blog to kick off the season, I like to recommend a song that gets you thinking about California.  California Dreamin’  is an option, but it’s hard to think of a winter’s day at this time of the year, so I should save it for a January blog.  Hotel California continues to make the short list, but it’s a bit on the dark side and I don’t feel like going there right now.  In fact, I’m just not feeling the California song thing so I am going to change it up and instead point you to a song a 1L mentioned in his optional essay this year. Spend a few minutes with Alabama Shakes and their song, Hang Loose.  I dare you to not smile as you listen.