Sensational LivingĀ®

October 2004
Ā© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Just the other day I was purging some cooking magazines that had accumulated with the original intention that I would use them for reference "some day." Well, I hadn't, and as part of my ongoing goal for simplification, I purged these particular volumes from my shelf, and sat down to quickly browse them and extract any relevant information. In the process, I found a metaphor for life that has become this article!

One of the very first articles I encountered was a rant by the editor of an Italian cooking magazine about another publication where a recipe author allowed the interchange or substitution of "romano" for "parmesan." First, he was incensed over the abbreviation of the names of these two cheeses: He insisted that they should be cited as "Pecorino Romano" and "Parmigiano Reggiano." Secondly, he was REALLY incensed that anyone would dare to suggest using the two cheeses interchangeably. This magazine article was from 1994, and the writer did acknowledge that perhaps the abbreviated names were permitted to assist the comprehension of American cooks.

As someone who has been using these cheeses since the late 1970s, and enjoying them from my mother's cucina since the mid 1960s, I just shook my head. Did this man not realize what a major accomplishment it was to actually get people to grate cheese on pasta rather than shake it out of a can (Cough! Gag! Choke!)? Did he not realize that with the robust sauces preferred by most Americans, the subtleties of Parmigiano Reggiano are easily lost? Did he not know that there is actually an entire group of parmesan cheeses, of which Parmigiano is but one variety (albeit an excellent one!), and that there are at least three types of romano cheese, based on the type of milk used (Pecorino romano is made exclusively with sheep milk)? These are all rhetorical questions; as an expert on Italian cuisine, of course he knew all of these things.

He chose to be angry, irate and insulted. He chose to let his pride dictate his diatribe. He chose a series of rigid culinary interpretations over a more flexible style. In doing so, I would argue that he put his own case backwards. I would also argue that in our general lives, anyone who chooses their own Path of rigidity will have less success than those who are moving more flexibly.

Let's stick with the Italian culinary lesson though. The silliness of this type of rigidity in cooking can be illustrated with just a few bullet points:

In short, recipes originated in isolation, but were shared, and each sharing generated more versions and variations and adaptations. Those who were mindful of the inherent characteristics of their ingredients were most successful. Eventually, the ongoing evolution of the original led to creations given new names, which in turn went through similar transformations by other cooks and chefs. Mindful flexibility has led to an abundance of riches.

This is certainly true of life. Rigid dogmatism by its very definition will maintain the status quo. Flexible substitutions will create an unparalleled diversity of perspective. Those cultures where the inhabitants have been free to express themselves, to live as they wish, to believe as they wish, to do as they wish (as long as no one else is harmed), have thrived (at least until some other culture became jealous).

I tend to think of rigidity as being symptomatic of being stuck in a parent-child relationship. Young children need to be provided with rules, guidelines and boundaries so that they have a firm foundation in life. On the other hand, adolescents poke, prod and even break those rules, guidelines and boundaries as they march toward independent adulthood. Such flexibility on the part of adolescents often causes chagrin to parents, but a quick survey of other species will show that this substitution of flexibility for childhood's rigidity is a natural part of growing up and reaching maturity.

As we reach adulthood, which behavior mode will become dominant? Will we retain the independent, flexible, "outside the box" nature of our adolescent years, or will we return to the more rigid, mind-the-rules foundation of our childhood? Or will we be able to integrate both approaches into our lives? The duality of this last option is by its very nature flexible; it's just a flexibility tempered by experience, wisdom and respect, so that we have the ability to adapt to any situation that arises.

The primary trap occurs when our behavior is tempered by fear! Fear of failing has prevented so many people from pursuing their dreams, and that saddens me. I remember, as a teenager, someone projecting his own fears onto me with regard to my selection of a career; he told me that I would never succeed unless I followed his career advice. To this day, I don't know where I got the strength to follow my own Path, but fortunately I did. Also fortunately, I repeatedly proved him wrong, and in a recent conversation with him, he admitted that my work and life would leave a greater (positive) impact on the planet than his own life, and I could detect traces of sadness and remorse that perhaps he had not lived his life as fully, as flexibly, as he could have.

Don't let your life pass you by because you were afraid to substitute flexibility for rigidity. If you fail (whatever that means), consider it an opportunity to learn and grow! Failing just means that you are human! Live your life to the fullest extent possible! And by all means, substitute romano (make that Pecorino Romano) for parmesan (oops! That should be Parmigiano Reggiano!) to create your own culinary masterpiece! If your creation doesn't taste good, learn from it! Your life (and your cooking) is in your hands, so take charge of your future!

I truly welcome hearing your stories of how you have taken charge of your lives (and recipes), particularly in opposition to the (unsolicited) advice of others. You can reach me at 773.508.9208 or email me. I love hearing about the successes (and substitutions) of others!