Words on Cooking with Words
Chris Scheidler, Consultant
Plato infamously likened rhetoric to cookery. Rhetoric is a tricky word to define, but for the sake of this blog post (which originates from a university writing center), I’ll posit: rhetoric is goal-directed writing; rhetorical techniques are strategies we employ that help to achieve our goal. Whew.
Plato meant to undermine writing when he called it cookery, but (value judgments on the worth of writing aside) composition and gastronomy have many useful similarities. Both require preparation. Both have a process. Both can be social. Both have misconceptions regarding style. So, I ask you, blog reader – humor this composing cook as I expand on the kitchen comparisons of writing and gastronomy.
Mise en Place
“Mise en place” is a French term that means “putting in place.” When used in a kitchen, mise en place is a noun that roughly means: all the prep work you’ve done ahead of time. Good gastronomes don’t want to be stuck cutting their produce and measuring their spices while the meat is burning on the grill. Having your mise en place simplifies cooking. Writing has a mise en place, too. We can get our mise en place for writing by outlining our papers, doing our research, and preparing our citations ahead of time. When I don’t have my writing mise en place, just like an underprepared cook, I get anxious and I struggle to dish out a decent paper. For me, the end results are similar to the cook’s results: an underwhelming and difficult to swallow piece. In the words of Gordon Ramsey, “Not good enough.”
What’ s for dinner
Writing, like cooking, can be an experiment, exploration, or creative endeavor. Sometimes we keep the same ingredients and alter only the order (as in: “like cooking, writing can be…”). Other times we experiment with completely different ideas and change the dish entirely. Nevertheless, much of the writing we do in a university is ordered from a menu. If your professor orders up a 2-page analysis, then a 5-page summary won’t do. This doesn’t mean that every paper should be the same: you can deglaze a pan with brandy or broth – you can analyze with juxtaposition or deconstruction. Regardless, there are expectations to meet; I usually expect my burger to be on a bun. Unfamiliar with the type of writing you’re being asked to do? Thankfully, there are places like university writing centers that can help you navigate the recipes and techniques.
I’ll have what she’s having
You can eat alone or you can eat with company. What you’ve written can be shared – passed around the Burkean Parlor as an hors d’oeuvre, or as something more substantial. Even the act of writing can be a shared and social process. I often seek out peer reviewers to taste-test my writing. It can be a bit scary, I’m always afraid they’ll gag, but my peers have helpful advice and have yet to gag on anything I’ve written.
I suppose it would be easy to get wrapped up in the misconception that haute cuisine is in someway intrinsically better than everyday cooking. I believe the appeal to stylistic and “fanciness” of elevated grammars and gourmets is wrong. There is a place for the well-plated gourmet meals, but a well-executed burger is equally commendable.
So whether you’re looking for a taste-tester, a recipe translator, or a little help getting your mise en place – consider stopping by your University Writing Center.