It was a quarter after seven in the morning and the men stood in line impatiently. They had been promised a pancake breakfast at seven o’clock. There were a few men there–well, at least one that I knew of–who were thinking about that extra quarter hour of sleep they could have enjoyed, instead of standing here waiting with plates in their hands. “What’s the holdup back there?” one of the grumpier fellows asked through the serving window of the kitchen. John replied lightheartedly, “Hold your horses! The batter still needs to thicken a bit before I put it on the griddle.” The seventy-something year old man grinned out across the group of men as he continued to mix the soupy concoction with a wire whisk. “Thicken up? What do you mean?” came the question from one fellow, himself the veteran of a number of pancake breakfasts. “Well, if I stir it long enough, it will thicken up to the consistency it needs to be,” came the explanation from old John.
The laughter from the guys in line wasn’t helpful, but the man who asked the last question stepped out of line and into the kitchen. “You stir gravy to thicken it, not pancakes!” he exclaimed. Grabbing a box of dry pancake mix, he sprinkled it liberally over the liquid. Within seconds, the mess in the bowl was thickened to the density that John wanted. He poured the batter onto the griddle and moments later, the men were sitting at tables with buttered and syrupy pancakes disappearing quickly off of the plates before them. Later that morning, they left still laughing about the idea of stirring batter to thicken it.
It was probably close to the same era that a certain redhead I know–mentioning no names, you understand–stood at the counter beside her stove at home. It was in a day when the couple under discussion had very little cash to spend and that night’s meal was to be creamed chipped beef over toast. It was an inexpensive meal, one which required only a small package of thin-sliced sandwich meat in gravy, poured over a couple pieces of sliced bread toasted to a golden brown color. As she cooked, the redhead remembered the ingredients she needed for the dish without any difficulty. She always liked to add just a touch of Worcestershire sauce after the meat and gravy were simmering in the pan, so she reached for the tall bottle of brown liquid. Pouring in a few drops, she replaced the cap and, waiting a few seconds, took her spoon and touched it to her lips to check the flavor. She sputtered as she tasted it. Vanilla! The dish was permeated with the flavor. Vanilla in chipped beef! What a disaster! There was nothing else to do but eat it. You didn’t throw out food when every meal was planned to fit a slim budget like theirs. They got it down, but not without a good bit of grousing from the man of the house. Thirty years later, the redhead still gets teased when he sees her pouring Worcestershire sauce in a recipe.
Can I let you in on a secret? Both of these people knew what they were doing. They had experience. We’ve all been there. We’re performing a task with which we are familiar and we’re just coasting along. There’s nothing but smooth sailing ahead of us and we put the whole affair on autopilot. Before we know it, we’re in the middle of a storm and we’ve made a wrong decision, or heard one word wrong, maybe even just misunderstood the look in someone’s eyes. John cooked at home with his wife frequently. The only thing he did in error on that morning was to remember one thing wrong. He recalled what he always did with gravy. The mix needed to be thicker, so he stood there and stirred–and stirred–and stirred some more. The problem was that he was making pancakes, not gravy. If you stir pancake batter too long, it gets thinner and makes the finished product rubbery. The two recipes look very similar in the mixing bowl, so it was an easy mistake to make. In her haste, the beautiful redhead simply grabbed the wrong bottle. Still an easy mistake. The brown liquids are about the same consistency and are identical in appearance. Surely that can’t make that big a difference.
“Keep your head in the game!” I’ve heard more coaches yell that phrase at their athletes than any other. Frequently, players who are doing the same old thing they’ve done game after game, practice after practice, tend to get careless. Easily distracted, they continue to go through the motions, but they miss subtle changes in the direction of the play, or the signals from their teammates. I don’t know about you, but this happens to me all the time. I’m no athlete, but the things which I do repeatedly become “old hat” to me. With no worries about missing a trick, I plod along automatically, until suddenly, I find myself neck deep in trouble, wondering how in the world I got in this fix.
“Stay focused.” As we steadfastly move forward, keeping in mind both the goal and the means by which we will attain that goal, our attentiveness to detail is of paramount importance. It only takes one wrong turn (or a missed one) to make us lose the route completely. Strange as it may seem, it is much easier to maintain our vigilance and keep to the path than it is to find it again, once it is lost.
I’m purposely being vague regarding any application here, because this principle encompasses so many different things in life. Sure, it is important in cooking, essential in sports, even critical in navigating, but especially in our everyday life, we absolutely must not lose sight of the purpose for our pilgrimage through this world. Our daily walk up the path ordained for each of us must be purposeful and resolute. Over-stirred batter causes delays; ingredients added in error taint the mixture.
Do I sound too legalistic, too overbearing? I don’t mean to say that there’s no time for levity and for enjoyment. These too, happen along the path, but they only add to the recipe. After all, what’s a good dish without a little spice? The interludes which we’re allowed simply make the finished product better and more palatable, unless we stay there and never move on.
Stay focused. Be practical, but resolute. Stir when you need to, but know when to add the proper ingredients also. It doesn’t hurt to look at the labels of the ingredients once in awhile, either.
Oh! You might check the Book of Recipes frequently, as well. None of us ever gets so good that we can’t benefit from what the Master Cook has to say about the mixture.
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.”
“Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion.”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.