Last week I had the exquisite pleasure of working alongside my friend Autumn at her new bakery, Hot Cakes, in Ballard. (If you haven’t been, you must go—all-organic confections really don’t get any better than theirs.) She asked me to help her make caramel (a process I’ve written about before) in anticipation of the yule-tidal wave, and of course, with my being severely underemployed, I was all too willing to lend a hand.
The day began dreary and damp on Ballard Avenue. A silver-muzzled black lab waddled up to me at the entrance to Hot Cakes, and naturally I bent down to pet it. “Hello, doggie,” I said, my customary greeting for such animals. I scratched behind its ears. It was an old, fat dog with opaque eyes. Afterward I smelled my hand and almost gagged. Must wash hands, I thought, first and foremost, before doing anything else. Autumn waved me in. I was led through the kitchen, fitted with an apron, and quickly put to work. I washed my hands. I was told to gather all the ingredients necessary for a triple-batch of vegan caramel—thirty-odd cartons of hemp milk, a case of number-10 coconut milk cans, some sixty pounds of sugar—and array them in sets of three on the wooden work table. “I want you to set out everything you need before you start,” Autumn said. “It’s called mise en place, a French term that basically means, ‘Put everything in place before you get started’. It’s how I like to do things here.” Makes sense, I said to her. Using the table-mounted can opener, I cut into three coconut milks and dumped them into a large, clear rectangular bin. Then I started pouring in cartons of milk. After the third one, I noticed with dismay that what I had been pouring was soy, not hemp milk. “Oh shit,” I said. I told Autumn what happened. She gave me a look that said, “Really? You’re here fifteen minutes and you fuck it up already?” Was there anything to be done about it? I asked desperately. “No…nope. We’ll have to throw it all out, then,” she said. She must have noticed the stricken expression on my face, because she quickly added, “Well, actually, just put a label on the container and I’ll try and find a use for it later.” So much for mise en place. I went back to the walk-in and grabbed the hemp milk and started over.
Stirring the enormous copper cauldron of caramel, concentrating on not making any more heinous mistakes, I reflected on the practical wisdom of the French phrase. It applied equally well to writing, of course: you gather materials beforehand, cogitate a bit, get your shit together, and the words tend to flow a little easier from the outset. Preparation—and, for that matter, inspiration—only take you so far, though. All too often the flow is stoppered, diverted, eventually slowing to a trickle; and from there on instinct kicks in. I will forever keep in mind the words of my former writing instructor, Bill: “There is no such thing as writing—only constant, continual rewriting.”