Tinkering | #NaBloPoMo

In taking my own advice this weekend, I’ve been making my grocery list for all my final Thanksgiving purchases, which means I finally set down to looking at the nuts and bolts of that sweet potato casserole recipe I planned to make.

Four and a half pounds of sweet potatoes – real, real good. Plus one cup of sugar.

One cup? A whole cup? I mean, I like sweets – a lot – but that seems like an awful lot of sugar for sweet potato casserole, especially when it’s got not only a brown sugar-cornflake-pecan topping, but also mini marshmallows.

Surely I can reduce the amount of sugar, I said. Amanda agreed – surely, yes – but a small part of me gets nervous when I start to tinker with recipes.


Years ago, I taught a Freshman Composition class with a food theme. The required narrative essays, basic arguments, persuasive modes, but all with a food theme. And one of the assignments was that each person in the class, myself included, had to bring a food they had prepared. My rule was that people had to at least try their classmates’ offerings (barring allergies), and they weren’t allowed to be shits about it. You didn’t have to finish it, but you were under no circumstances to make someone feel bad about what they made.

I made zucchini bread, but I was a much more active food blogger back then, so I tinkered with the recipe. I omitted some of the fat and used applesauce – a first for me. I also added dried cranberries. Yes, it tasted like a “light” version, but it was tasty. So I brought it to class, served my students, and asked them to do a sensory writing assignment, to really break down the sensory experience of eating the bread.

I stood back and half-watched, half-worked while the students took bites and scribbled notes. Most of them seemed to like it well enough, but I’ll never forget one girl in the front row. She took one bite, scrunched up her face, cast a glance left or right, and then put her slice back on the plate and wrote. She never touched the bread again – totally fine – and threw it away at the end of class.

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When I graded papers that night, I came across her assignment. I can’t quote her now, but I can tell you, girlfriend did not like that bread. She thought the cranberries were weird, and she was unclear why I would put zucchini, applesauce, and cranberries together in a bread. Far from being offended, I had to laugh a little:  I got college freshmen to try food they weren’t sure about and engage with it on a sensory level. Mission accomplished.

But when I consider the whole thing now, years later, I wonder about tinkering with recipes. There’s a certain courage involved – courage and creativity and a real knowledge of your own sense of taste. That girl in my class knew one thing:  she was not feeling that zucchini bread. She knew her own taste.

And while there’s a part of me that worries a little that I’ll make someone scrunch up their face with my culinary tinkering, I’ve spent a lot of years coming to know my own taste. One cup of sugar is too much, but the reviews for the sweet potato casserole suggest using 1/4 cup. Some suggest a little maple syrup to boot. I’m not exactly pioneering here, but I’m tinkering. Listening to my own taste the best I can, in the kitchen and out.

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