Let Me Be Clear

I’ve been compiling a list of phrases I want to retire next year and “let me be clear” is right up there near the top. How many times per week can I listen to that phrase followed by a statement clearly intended to muddy the water and not lose my mind? If you said, 10,472 you’d probably be close.

There’s nothing wrong with the words or an intent to be clear. My problem is that the phrase is rarely used to mean the speaker wants to be clear. More often it means the speaker wants you to pay attention to a half-truth or full-fledged lie that creates the illusion they desire for you to see. So enough with deliberate misuse, misrepresentation, and misdirection already. Please stop!

Let’s all be clear!

Clarity is important. It’s crucial for a recipe. Without clarity, you may not end up with the intended result. But we all speak using unique turns of phrase. What’s crystal clear to me may not be clear to you. That’s where consistent format, industry-specific terminology, and formulaic rules can help – think grammar for instance. But no matter how carefully we craft, what content we create, which words we write, and how we verbalize sentences, our communication is subject to each consumer’s context.  

Clarity is even more important for health guidelines. It’s critical when writing conclusions drawn from data. And each time we pull back, hedge, or try to soften the message, we run the risk of confusing people.

So how can we communicate clearly?

I cannot possibly outline a way to avoid all misunderstanding, but I will give you five tips for drafting clear communication.

  1. Determine the scope and purpose of the communication.
  2. Identify and research your audience. Communication must be delivered in language that will be easily understood using an accessible method.
  3. Assume nothing. Draft every document, policy, and procedure as if nothing has preceded it and nothing will follow it. Write it as if it must stand on its own. Once the draft is done, document any overlap with other relevant documents. Keep a log of this overlap. Reference other existing documents and remove duplication when possible.
  4. Put all pertinent facts that live in your head in the draft. Once that all-inclusive version is written, review and pare down to essentials. It’s tempting to pare down first, but this creates one of the most common errors I see – critical information is left out. Since the information is known to you, you are less likely to recognize its omission upon review.
  5. Stick with the facts. Do not embellish or diminish them. Resolve conflicting statements prior to publication. Be conscious of word choice, but recognize that you may not please everyone. It is best to be concise and straightforward.

I realize this topic may be a stretch for this blog, but I feel really hungry for clear, concise communication that I can rely on for facts. I don’t think I’m alone in that. And, if you follow these tips, there should be no reason to say, “Let me be clear….” And not hearing that will work very nicely for me.

Part Art Part Science

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s part art and part science with just enough math thrown in. But you don’t even have to know that to be a good cook. You may visualize taste and instinctively know what to throw together. You may have apprenticed with your grandmother, mother or dad and have a visual reference for the thickness of pancake batter. There are so many paths that lead to great cooking!

If you don’t have much experience and cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, the book SaltFatAcidHeat by Samin Nosrat can bring you knowledge and confidence. Even if you’re an experienced cook and are good in the kitchen, you may improve your game using this tool. Besides that, the book has pleasing illustrations and quirky fold-out pages. It also includes pages on which to write notes. I always appreciate those.

While it’s not a traditional cookbook, this book does contain recipes – delicious ones. The Vietnamese Cucumber Salad (page 226) is so good, I could eat it every day for a week!

And speaking of salads, there’s a whole section in SaltFatAcidHeat on dressings. I’m fond of throwing together dressing rather than buying bottles of it from the store. I feel the same way about barbecue sauce. There’s less waste that way, and I’m rarely without the raw ingredients to make a dressing or sauce on a whim.

You may think there’s no way you’ll ever prepare your own salad dressing, but reading this book will make you a more likely explorer in that you will come away understanding the basic elements of good cooking. It shares the kind of knowledge that can bring more confidence and freedom in the kitchen. You’ll have read how to cook onions. And not just soften them until they’re clear, but how to brown or caramelize them. You’ll know how to fix a broken mayonnaise and create a dough that’s chewy and rich or one that’s flaky or tender.

I’m going to delve more deeply into the dough section while I adapt some recipes to make them dairy-free. Swapping out another liquid for milk changes a dough more than you might expect. And the fact that my dairy-free doughs are also gluten-free adds another layer of complexity. Understanding the science of dough helps me design artful ways around the obstacles presented by combining nontraditional ingredients.

If you want to delve further into the science of cooking, there’s literally a book entitled The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking. This book is filled with facts and has a very different feel than SaltFatAcidHeat. But both are great learning tools.

There are other books that approach cooking from a scientific perspective: Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking and The Science of Spice: Understand Flavor Connections and Revolutionize Your Cooking are two of those. If one of these doesn’t suit you, just look around a bit and you’re sure to find a guide that will.

Whether you enjoy the art or science of cooking, there’s always more to learn and more delicious dishes to make. That makes cooking the perfect job for me.

If only there were someone else to do the dishes!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Distillation

It’s a snowy day and I’m thinking about distillation. We’re having record cold weather – so cold my background noise is the sound of water dripping from the faucets accompanied by water boiling for tea. Today’s high may reach 14⁰ if we’re lucky. A quick review of the supplies on hand reveals several bottles of natural spring water as well as distilled water.

Distilling water was my first scientific experiment. It was eighth grade, and I was in Introductory Physical Science (IPS). I don’t know what the class was supposed to be, but in hindsight I’d describe it as the lab portion of the chemistry class I took a couple of years later.

We were thrown directly into this first experiment, learning the steps of the scientific method along the way. In groups of four, we were also learning about beakers, Bunsen burners, rubber tubing, glass tubing, and, I must confess, redoing experiments gone wrong. As we attempted to identify the distillates without resorting to tasting them, breaking down water into its basic parts seemed hard.

So much of life is like that. We get thrown into situations that require we learn on the fly, record the steps, master the tools, and learn the lingo all at the same time. It didn’t take a pandemic for this to be true, but like IPS, the pandemic has highlighted some weaknesses in our collective skillset.

By the end of the year, I had a top grade in IPS class. But that’s because I was willing to use my Study Hall to go back to the lab and try to distill water without the smell of burning rubber tubing if necessary. Mastery takes a willingness to fail, learn, and try again. Learning is the meat of that success sandwich, but there are other important ingredients.

Improving ourselves, our families, and our communities will require mastery of certain skills. Let me distill a few of them down for you:

Insight

Learning takes place not just in the understanding or retention of facts. Facts need context. Experience leads to greater levels of understanding the facts before us. Without this greater understanding, we may lack insight.

I don’t mean insight so much in the aha sense as in the ability to discern and discriminate between the subtle layers, distillates, of a situation. Without such discernment, it is difficult to find appropriate, durable solutions of consequence.

Empathy

Chemistry and physics don’t change if we have no empathy, but our application of the knowledge provided by them will. Likewise, the practice of medicine may be based on an understanding of physiology, anatomy, and chemistry, but if it is not practiced with empathy, there will be less healing.

As the pandemic has shown, vulnerable populations continue to be vulnerable. Our empathy seems to primarily extend to people with whom we identify. This doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t feel empathy for those who are different, it may only mean that we tend to ride along in our comfort zone without ever thinking of those outside our realm.

Some of us have trouble looking directly at things that are painful to see. It is hard to look horror in the face. But to live empathetically, we must learn to see the holes in our vision and figure out a way to fill the gaps.

Courage

Courage enhances both insight and empathy. It is the thing that allows us to stand by our principles, look horror in the face, protect our children, go out on a limb for our friends. Courage underpins innovative solutions to problems.

Courage comes in many forms and cannot be judged by any standard measure. Any time you do something although it frightens you, you are demonstrating courage.

Nimbleness

Some situations require swift, clearheaded decision-making. Feeling confident in your ability to choose well with or without input facilitates stepping into a role you did not anticipate.

Learning to compartmentalize without getting stuck also makes for more nimble decision making. Of course, it’s important to deliberately set aside time to process the feelings later.

Boundary Setting

No matter how much insight and empathy we show, no matter how good we are at making emergency decisions, and no matter how courageous we are, none of us can do everything. Knowing our own limits and setting boundaries that protect our physical and emotional health is critical. When we cannot, or do not, there is a price to pay.

The current pandemic will be followed by another one. While I cannot predict when or where it will begin or what form it will take, I can say with certainty that we can leave the future better prepared for it than we were.

To do so, we must develop skills that help us distill down the challenges, face those challenges, summon our courage, make swift and sound decisions, and set good boundaries. Then we must use insight and empathy to shore up the systems that support us, especially our most vulnerable.

Memory Soup

Welcome to today’s memory soup! Sunday’s Super Bowl made me think of Florida. This morning’s chill made me think of soup. It seems that red conch chowder marries the two. Apparently, this Caribbean dish is popular in Florida as well as the Bahamas. I’ve never eaten it, but I have eaten conch fresh out of the ocean.

Years ago, some friends and I took one of those overweight puddle jumper flights from Belize City to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. We took off over the water and slowly climbed with the stall siren blaring for what seemed like a solid five minutes. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a stall horn. I just knew it was an annoying, loud noise that wouldn’t stop. A few years later, during pilot training, I was overcome with a delayed feeling of terror when I recognized the danger we had been in.

Once we settled into our accommodations on the island, we found a guide to take us bonefishing. Bonefish, like redfish, flip their tails into the air and feed off the bottom in the shallows.

They aren’t easy to catch. When you can see the tails, all movement must be slow and quiet until you’re close enough to cast. A single errant throw of the line will scatter them away quickly. But when you hook one, it’s a fun fight until you land it.

After a morning of fishing, our guide pulled the wooden boat up to a pier and we got out. Several hours in the sun had left me thirsty and hungry. About four steps down the pier, we encountered a man using cupped fingers to happily dip ceviche out of a red Solo® cup. “Want some?” he implored.

While the thought of eating uncooked seafood from a cup into which a man is dipping his fingers is something I can’t even stand to think about now, at the time I just wanted to share what was making him so happy! The ceviche was made with conch the man had harvested that day. Soaked in fresh lime juice and seasoned with cilantro, salt, and hot pepper then mixed with tomatoes and cucumber, it was full of flavor and as delicious as this suntanned stranger had described. I’ve loved ceviche ever since.

Living in a landlocked state means saltwater fish and seafood must be flown in for them to be moderately fresh. That means we don’t eat a lot of clam chowder or oyster stuffing. We have to make up the difference with crawfish, trout, bass, and crappe. But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the occasional ocean catch. My neighbors have a big pot of fish stew on the stove right now. 

Now that you’ve sampled the memory portion, I guess it’s time for soup. What’s better than classic tomato soup? I like to use Pomi Italian Strained Tomatoes as a base, but there are other options. Dei Fratelli Condensed Tomato Soup is gluten-free comes in a restaurant or large family 50 oz size. Both of these can be used in lasagna, chili, pizza sauce, and marinara when you get tired of tomato soup.

There’s nothing better than homemade chicken stock, but it takes awhile so you have to plan ahead. Sometimes I decide I want chicken soup right now. For those occasions, I keep Imagine® Organic Free Range Chicken Broth in the pantry. I like drinking it from a mug as is, but it’s also a great base for chicken & rice or chicken noodle soup.

Potato soup is warm, filling, and doesn’t require any exotic ingredients. I can usually throw it together with what’s on hand: potatoes, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, butter, and milk or milk substitute…and water. It’s even better if I can scare up some bacon. Sometimes, I like to add cauliflower or corn.

With a pandemic stocked pantry, I have plenty of beans on hand. Black bean is a great option. I typically use dried beans, but you can use can beans as well. Carrot, celery, onion, bell pepper, garlic, broth, bay leaves, cumin, cilantro, salt, pepper, and lime juice are the other items needed.

And there’s always vegetable soup. I’m pretty sure the versions are unlimited. Sometimes I start with chicken stock and leftover veggies. Other times, I opt for fresh veggies in pot likker from greens. On a given day, my preferred version is any combination of vegetables that please me or empty the fridge.

Where are the actual recipes? That’s the great thing about soup. It’s a perfect culinary playground. You don’t need a recipe to make it delicious. You can use your memory and your senses.

If you’re not currently comfortable cooking by feel but want to give it a try, pull out any chicken soup recipe. Fill a soup pot with the recommended amounts of stock and water. Then measure the amount of salt recommended. Sprinkle the salt across the top of the liquid. Get a visual feel for that particular measure. Do the same with the pepper, garlic, and cumin or curry in the recipe (these are only examples). Next time you make soup, you’ll have a visual reference for what you need. Just shake it right out of the container.

Use your sense of smell at the same time. Smell after each addition. As you get comfortable, you’ll recognize that you can smell a difference when you add a bit more salt or garlic. As long as there are no raw ingredients of concern, taste after each stage as well. The more senses you use, the more information you’ll have.

While you’re playing, keep in mind that an addition of cooked chicken that’s already seasoned means you don’t need to add additional salt and pepper to season the chicken. The same goes for left-over vegetables.

I’ve thrown out my share of cooking mistakes, but it’s hard to destroy soup. If you over spice, dilute with additional liquid. And if you have difficulty deciding what to include, memories of soups you’ve previously enjoyed can help guide you. No matter whether you choose flavors from the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific Northeast or the American South, you’re sure to end up with comforting warmth.

After a year without travel, it would be great to swim in clear Caribbean water and eat fresh conch ceviche. That won’t happen for awhile, so I’ll just have to savor the memories along with a warm cup of soup.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”