Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doing Things

I always used to think of salad dressing as something that came in a bottle from a factory. I never thought that you could make it without special tools and training. The idea of normal people making it themselves simply did not occur to me.

If I had thought about it, I would have realized that this was a foolish assumption. People have been eating salads for thousands of years, making salad toppings from scratch in farm kitchens. The industrial process is just an extension of that.

But I never thought about it. The assumption lay in my mind, unacknowledged, subtly constraining my behavior and choices.

Recently, I saw a friend on a sugar-free diet making her own salad dressing. It was very good. But for some reason, I thought of this process as a magical skill, requiring a deep knowledge of spices, and something that I would not be able to do.

Last night, I stopped by the store to buy some fresh fruit, and ended up grabbing a bag of spinach on impulse. When I got home with it, I wondered what I would do with it. I wanted to eat it, but did not have any dressing or hummus or other salad toppings. I was looking through my cabinets for inspiration, when I had the idea of making my own dressing.

I had no idea where to start, so I went to my bookshelf and grabbed a 'Better Homes and Gardens' salad cookbook from the 1960's that I had gotten at a yard sale years ago. A depressingly small percentage of the book was about fresh vegetable salads; the majority was devoted to jello-based concoctions and mayonnaise-laden 'potato salad' monstrosities. One of the pictures featured, prominently, a tin of anchovies.

I flipped through the bits on vegetable salads and dressing, picking up some basic tips and getting an idea of what should work well together.  It had what I was looking for: a page on making vinegar-based dressings; the cookbook called them French but nowadays we would call them Italian.

The recipe called for 'salad oil'. I had no idea what that was, so I figured that olive oil would have to do*. I got an old jar and poured the olive oil and some red wine vinegar into it. I did not bother measuring anything; that would have been too much work, and would have required washing all the measuring cups and spoons afterwards.

I started throwing and shaking things in the jar: powdered garlic, minced dried onions, dried chives, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme**, and some powdered hot central american chilies.  Then I added a lot of chopped walnuts, screwed the lid on tight, shook the jar for about a minute, and then poured it over the spinach.

The resulting 'Mayan Walnut Vinigarette' was good. Not as good as my friend's dressing, but better than most commercial dressings. I credit the lack of sugar. I ended up eating half of the bag of spinach.

The important thing is that, with a little bit of instruction and a fairly simple spice cabinet, I was able to make my own salad dressing. It was amazingly easy. Any experienced cook could do the same thing, and probably do a lot better than I did. A procedure that seemed mysterious and out of reach became something that I could do quite easily.

Our minds are littered with these kinds of unknown assumptions. It is simply impossible to think carefully about everything in the world; you have to have assumptions and mental shortcuts to cope with a complicated reality.

But often it pays to challenge these assumptions. The process of buying bottled salad dressing is really inefficient. You have to buy a glass bottle, which then gets thrown away or recycled. You have to keep the thing refrigerated after you open it. The dressing is not really fresh, and it will not be exactly the way you want it.

The key to living a good life is to do things. When you try doing things, you will build up skills that will let you do more things. Watch other people and learn from them. Consume a variety of things. I am not sure why I knew that walnuts would be good in a spinach salad, but I guess I must have seen and/or eaten a fancy nut-laden salad somewhere.

It is both very easy and very hard to free yourself from bad assumptions and explore new possibilities. If you just try to think things through, it will be almost impossible. But if you interact with lots of different people, and see them working and doing things, you will discover a world of possibilities.

* It turns out that 'salad oil' in a recipe means 'any kind of vegetable oil you feel like using'.

** The last four were all in a single bag, a 'Simon and Garfunkel Spice Mix' that I got from Amazing Savngs.

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