Cry Baby Cry

Often times it is easy to get stuck in a rut, and these ruts are mostly due to habits we have picked up along the way. This applies as much to life in general as well as to things like lab work and cooking. My wife and I are fairly good cooks and we make a wide variety of dishes usually without the aid of a recipe. You just sort of learn what goes together well and then basically combine things to make your own dishes. Some are better than others but after while we find we keep repeating the same things over and over until everyone seems particularly sick of them and cooking becomes more of a chore, rather than a creative endeavor. We scan the internet occasionally for new ideas for things to cook, but these are usually uninspired and inferior versions of what we routinely make at home. So how to get out of this rut? This is where cookbooks come in.

Unlike the internet which has a mixed bag of recipes of unknown and untested provenance, a good cookbook is where someone who has devoted their life to cooking and is inspired by cooking can show off their stuff. And while some cookbooks are more like a reference that tell you how long to steam artichokes or how to clean squid, others are works of inspiration, and usually, if I think back at some of our favorite recipes, they originated from a handful of particularly good cookbooks. That is why I find it helpful to occasionally revisit the original recipe of a dish that I’ve prepared a million times. Recipes have a tendency to evolve over time, such that after a while, the way you cook something is somewhat different and not necessarily better than the way you started cooking it originally. When you revisit an old recipe you have big revelations like “Shit, I forgot I was supposed to marinate the lamb for 24 hours, no wonder it tasted like fucking cardboard!” or “Grapes!? This recipe never called for grapes! How the hell did I end up putting grapes into my meatloaf?” Today I was getting ready to make some delicious lamb and beef kofta for dinner when I decided to double check the original recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks. This is “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden. I bought this as a used paperback as a college student and it has been nothing short of amazing. You can find pretty much any Middle Eastern recipe you are looking for – anything ranging from medieval Persian recipes to Syrian sheep’s brain salad. Most recipes are actually very accessible and usually have only a handful of ingredients, like the chicken with chick peas, onions, turmeric and lemons. But anyway, back to the kofta. Kofta are little kebabs made with well-spiced ground beef or lamb. The recipe was pretty much as I remembered it, except for one crucial difference. It called for an onion, but grated rather than chopped. I have to say this was a revelation. Grating an onion just causes it to release so much juice and flavor, which then infuses throughout the ground meat, making everything moist and oniony. Yet grating an onion is not for the faint of heart. Occasionally when chopping a fresh onion I get stinging in my eyes and a few tears. When you grate an onion – holy cannoli – it was an unending torrent of stinging tears coming out of my eyes. I cried. I mean I really cried. But it was totally worth it. I’m totally going to do this from now on whenever I  make burgers and such. But in any case, my point is, is that it is always good to go back to basics, because often you miss important details the first time around which make a huge difference.

This is also true in the lab. Whenever one of my lab peeps comes in complaining that they can’t get something to work, I always tell them to check the original recipe, be it a methods section in a paper, a protocol book or a lab manual. Lab protocols tend to drift over time such that we teak thing here and there to make things work more optimally. But occasionally these tweaks add up over time, such that what we are doing is very different from the original protocol. It also turns out that many of these tweaks are completely unnecessary and just make the whole procedure way more complicated. I mean if you switch a specific incubation time and things suddenly work, are you really going to go back to the old way even if you are not sure that the incubation time had anything to do with your experiment suddenly working? No fucking way. Many of these experimental tweaks and turns basically border on what I call “lab voodoo”, and we just do them because at some point they seemed to help . But by the end, the protocol is so twisted and disfigured that if it stops working it is impossible to troubleshoot. Which is why it helps to go back to the beginning and try again. It also helps to read some old papers. Recently I re-read some not exactly-classic papers, but papers that set the experimental framework in my field and the whole impetus for my research. And there was so much in there that I can’t believe I missed the first time. There are so many unexplored leads, and hidden experimental gems, that after re-reading them I came out with a buttload of new ideas I wanted to try.

So keep this in mind next time you find yourself in a rut. Go back to the source and start over, you’ll catch all the things you missed the first time around and remember some you had forgotten. This applies for cooking and lab work, your mileage may vary in real-life situations.

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6 Responses to Cry Baby Cry

  1. Pingback: The Why of the How | Chemical BiLOLogy

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  3. David / Abel says:

    Always a pleasure to come read your wisdom – thanks to Arlenna for reminding me not to miss this one.

    Another take on the going-back-to-the-beginning mantra was told to me by my postdoc advisor: when Doug Hanahan made one of the original buffers for high-efficiency transformation of E. coli, people came from all around UCSF to get some of his “brown buffer” but he either couldn’t reproduce the recipe or didn’t take adequate notes. That’s when his boss told him to go back to the beginning and test out every variable, leading to this JMB paper:

    I recently read a similar thing when going back over the history of the S3 clone of HeLa cells. Richard Ham postdoc’d with Ted Puck in Denver and could grow the cells well there but when he got his own faculty position in Boulder – 26 miles away – he couldn’t grow the cells for the life of him. They later figured out that Denver water had just enough selenium to support growth whereas the healthy, hippie water in Boulder didn’t.

    While I go off even more on a tangent, I tell students to always ask why certain components are in their buffers. Just yesterday I revisited why we use benzamidine as a protease inhibitor in cell lysis buffers. But if you just use the kit, well, you don’t get that joy of learning.

    I’m done now. Time to go chase some kids offa my lawn.

  4. tideliar says:

    Fucking bang on mate! Brilliant post!

    I’m gonna call it “grating onions” from now on!

  5. This is a GREAT post! I should direct my students here when they get stuck trying to replicate results.

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