grade and grace


    Two things have spoken to me this week: music and muffins.

    As I’ve mentioned before, part of my daily ritual at the restaurant is to make the English muffins that serve as the buns for our hamburgers and shrimp burgers. The recipe takes time, so as I’m walking in at eight each morning I start picking up bowls and whisks and measuring cups so I can get the dough going immediately. The recipe breaks into five periods of activity, with corresponding periods of waiting:

    I mix warm water, yeast, and honey; then mix in four cups of flour and then two more; then I mix together the eggs, salt, and oil and add that to the flour mixture; then I mix in another cup and a half of flour.

    Then I wait for about thirty minutes until it gets bubbly.

    The second period of activity involves adding five more cups of flour and stirring for about three minutes (to activate the glutens).

    Then I wait until the dough doubles – also about a half an hour.

    Stage three involves kneading the dough, which includes probably adding another four to six cups of flour and working the dough for five or six minutes.

    Then I wait until the dough doubles again, also about thirty minutes.

    The next step is to roll and cut the muffins and put them on baking sheets.

    Then I wait about fifteen minutes to let them rise again.

    Finally, I toast the tops and bottoms of the muffins on the flat top (with a bit of butter) and put them in the oven for about eight minutes. If all goes well, the muffins are ready when the kitchen opens at eleven for lunch. Though the recipe is clear, each stage calls for choices. I have to decide when the dough looks and feels right; when I stop mixing or kneading has an effect on the final product. This week I have paid particular attention, trying to make the muffins better. Yesterday and today I achieved a muffonic convergence, as I like to call it: pretty damn perfect muffins.

    “This is why I love this job,” I said to my cooking partner, Cort. “You get to feel like you’ve done something well and then move on to what you need to do next.”

    Even though the art I create is incredibly temporary – I put the plate together and you eat it, all in the span of minutes – it is also incredibly gratifying because it is quantifiable: I know what a great plate of fish tacos ought to taste and look like (in that order) and, even though I make about twenty taco plates everyday at lunch, each one requires attention as its own unique creation.

    I work in a kitchen, not on an assembly line.

    As I’ve also mentioned before, much of our non-culinary conversation during the day swirls around music, either bouncing off the songs playing on the boom box, or rising up out of our past experiences. Somewhere in the course of the day, Billy Joel took his turn as our topic and about the time I was going to say that my brother, who is a musician, said way back in the early eighties that he thought Joel’s music would be enduring, Dave said, “You know the reason he keeps touring and trying so hard is he’s pissed he’s never gotten the recognition as one of the great guys of rock and roll.” (Which makes this clip interesting.)

    I never told the story about my brother. I spent the rest of the shift thinking about Billy Joel feeling as though he has somehow come up short. I thought about his song, “Angry Young Man”:

    I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
    I found that just surviving was a noble fight
    I once believed in causes too
    I had my pointless point of view
    And life went on no matter who was wrong or right

    And there’s always a place for the angry young man
    With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
    And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes
    So he can’t understand why his heart always breaks
    And his honor is pure and his courage is well
    And he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell
    And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man

    OK, one more thing I’ve mentioned before in this blog: I live with my own sense of worthlessness, with not feeling as though I’m enough. One of the big reasons I’m no longer a high school teacher is I hated giving grades. The essential element of teaching, for me, was the relational connection I made in the classroom. I asked the kids to take risks, to be themselves, to trust me.

    And then I gave them a grade: “Thanks for trying; you get a C.”

    I couldn’t do it because of the way I internalized the grades I received along the way – and I do mean I received: they weren’t grading the paper; they were grading me. Cooking is different for me. I realize those for whom I cook may not like everything, but they aren’t grading me. The payoff, for me, is in the creation and presentation of the dishes (when I’m at work) and in the sharing of the meal as we sit together around the table when I’m at home.

    The difference is as subtle and as profound as my typing grace when I meant to type grade in the previous paragraph. One letter changes everything.


    The grace is find in my job comes from being able to claim my competence, to to grow and learn, and to both flourish and fail with abandon. It not that failure is without consequence it’s that I’m doing what I love, so I can weather the storm. And so I heard Dave’s words about Billy Joel with sadness because he’s doing what he loves and lives with grades more than grace. In his biggest hit, Joel wrote:

    Don’t go changing to try and please me
    You never let me down before . . .
    I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times
    I love you just the way you are

    Billy, if you’re listening, you’ve given some of the best words and music to the soundtrack of our lives. Your songs are alive at our house in ways I can’t even begin to tell you. I hope you can get from grades to grace.

    Me, too.



    1. Another fine post, Milton. I love the concept of ‘muffonic convergence’.

      I learned a great deal about grace over grades when I began blogging; when I could hide, just a bit of me, and yet be completely vulnerable. When I taught, I usually gave everybody an ‘A’; unless they had crappy attitudes. Then they got an ‘A-‘ or a ‘B’. But if they showed up and sang, good for them.

      I wonder if your ease in the kitchen while at work is, just a bit, because you can hide. You do your best with the food, and send it out, and people eat and are satisfied – but ‘who’ prepared their food remains a bit of a mystery. I mean, I never thought too much about the chef who might be fixing dinner for me until I started reading what you wrote about what it means to cook.

      It’s an interesting relationship between those who prepare the food and those who eat it. The guy behind the swinging door can be largely unnoticed, if so desired – and yet be fairly confident that he’s making the grade, because plates are cleaned and checks are paid.

      And you can focus on the relationships at hand, which seem to be what you value most.

      Pardon my over-analyzing (and LONG comment); I just find it fascinating, and I can relate.

    2. Milton! I’ve luckily stumbled across your blog through a combination of mutual friends and the lovely world of social networking sites. You sound like you’re doing well – having experienced your cooking years ago, I hope to get a chance to do so again! (I cannot say the same for receiving grades. I’m glad high school is temporary.) I just wanted to drop a line and say hi… Love to you and Ginger,

      Laura Richter

    3. Milton, your writing is delicious to me. I always have the taste of your food in mind, if not in mouth, by the time I’ve read your post. Re: grades, I’m one of those kids who learned early only A or A+ is a passing grade. One of the turning points came for me in George Buttrick’s preaching class. Buttrick, one of the great intellects, editor of Interpreter’s Bible; his secretary learned Hebrew and Greek so she could keep up with him. When he assigned a sermon, he said, “Your grades are in pencil; if you don’t like your grade, I’ll work with you till you get one you do.” For the first time I recognized the combination of intellectual rigor and amazing grace. BTW, he invited each student to his home to review a sermon. Mrs. Buttrick served Sandy and me cookies and tea. My friend was served cigars and brandy. It was an appropriate choice; I’ve always been mystified how they discerned what to serve. Blessing! I’ll read your posts with appreciation. john hamilton

    4. Absolutely agree about Billy Joel; he’s a brilliant lyricist!

      And I love that line…”to flourish and fail with abandon.” That sounds like a moment of holy play–a moment of being fully alive!

      You rock. 🙂

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