Funny how we tend to think that one way to do things is the only way to do them. Our habits start to feel mandatory quickly, and doing something differently just feels wrong somehow.
A friend of mine used to say that the worst arguments he had with his wife dealt with whether the forks had to go in the dishwasher tines up or tines down. He could laugh about it in public, but he never gave any ground at home.
You have probably heard the story of the family preparing the Easter ham for their big get-together. As one of the grown sisters slices the end off the ham, she asks her older sister, “Why do we always cut the ends off our hams before baking? Nobody else I know does it.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” says her sister. “We always do it, though. Mom, why do we always cut the ends off our hams?”
“I don’t know,” answers Mom. “Grandma taught me to do it. Grandma, why do we always cut the ends off our hams?”
“That’s the only way I could fit them in that little baking pan I had,” answers Grandma.
I was reminded of this story recently when cutting my hand yet again while slicing an avocado. Years ago, one of those fancy TV cooks said the “easy” way to deal with an avocado is to cut around the seed, pry the halves open, then hold the half with the seed in your hand and swing your knife into the seed. Then you give a slight twist and pop out the seed. After that, cup the avocado half in your hand and gently score slices or dices with the tip of the knife, then scoop out the results and discard the empty skin.
It has become kind of a TV chef party trick. I can’t recall any of the Food Network cooks NOT demonstrating this “easy” way to deal with an avocado. Of course, as our society has become more litigious, they almost always caution that you have to be careful about it.
I had done it that way ever since that first demonstration. But lately I’ve had a run of bad luck. Either the knife bounces off the seed and slices my thumb, or I cut too deeply into the avocado while cutting the slices or dices, penetrating the skin of both the avocado and my hand.
Finally, after tiring of washing the blood off my food and kitchen counter, I decided it was time for a change in methods. Digging back into my mental archives, I dimly remembered that in the old days, I had used a spoon to scoop out the seed and the flesh of the avocado, doing any slicing and dicing after the extracted flesh was resting securely on my plate or cutting board. I tried it.
The first time it felt strange, even though vaguely familiar. I kept feeling I should be holding a knife over the helpless avocado. But the spoon worked well, making just as neat a final result as the knife had. And no bleeding!
Why had I abandoned this method for a far trickier and more dangerous way of carving up a simple avocado? Sheep-like, I had assumed that if someone went to the trouble to demonstrate this method on TV, it must be superior — the “only” way to cut an avocado. But after being inconvenienced enough to think beyond my sheep’s brain’s normal range, I found the spoon method is easy and safe, and it’s now my standard way of carving an avocado.
I also recently reverted to my mother’s very old way of cooking rice, after seeing Laura Calder use it in “French Food at Home,” describing it as “the French way, the lazy way.” Just cover the rice with “enough” water and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer until the rice is tender. Covering is optional. Drain if necessary. The “improved” method that one finds in all the cookbooks is to carefully measure the water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until it is completely absorbed, usually a precisely timed period. No peeking, they always say.
The rice prepared the “lazy” way cooks quicker somehow, although you don’t necessarily get the perfect fluffy grains. But you also don’t scorch the rice if you fail to notice the water has run out prematurely (which I always do fail to notice, because I take the “no peeking” rule seriously).
Another odd one we discovered last summer is the standard way to lay a campfire. For as long as I can remember, outdoors guides have taught us to build a pyramid of fire logs (an acceptable variation is the alternating rows of parallel logs to create a “chimney”), then put inside it a stack of kindling, with the finest material on the bottom, leading up to thicker and thicker kindling as you move up the stack. The theory is that you light the thinnest kindling at the bottom, the fire leads up to successively harder to start material as it grows, eventually becoming large enough to ignite the fire logs at the top.
I’ve always tried to do it this way. And, frankly, I’m terrible at building campfires. Gravity works against any kind of stack that has the small stuff on the bottom and the big stuff above. The top logs often collapse onto the layers below, smothering the fires before they get going. My campfires almost always go out several times, and we have to start over.
Then I read a brief article in Mother Earth News that challenged this conventional way. An outdoorsman had claimed it works better to build the fire with the big stuff at the bottom, progressively smaller twigs piled on top of each other, and the kindling at the top of the stack. Not only is it easier to make a credible stack this way (no worries about that pyramid of logs collapsing onto the fire, for one thing), he said, but the fire starts more readily.
We tried it, and it worked. We’ve done it that way ever since, and we’ve needed fewer matches each time.
Incidentally, after I saw that article, I checked the outdoor cooking section in our vintage Joy of Cooking, and found it suggests a third way. Make a pile of kindling or paper, light it, then feed increasingly bigger twigs until the fire is big enough to add the firewood.
Come to think of it, that’s how we built fires when I was a boy. We were pretty good at lighting the old trash burner at home, needing just one or two matches. And, no, in case you were around in those days, we were not the ones who set Roland Abernathy’s woods on fire.