Making Sense of the Mess

Five Recipes: Hummus Mess

Originally uploaded by anselm23

I made hummus today, from dried beans. First, I soaked them overnight in a big pot of water. Then I boiled them for a couple of hours this morning. Then I strained them, and picked out all the peels that were easy to find. Then I ground them in a small food mixer, which is visible in the photograph at right. Then I added tahini, salt, pepper, olive oil and various spices. Then I mashed the ingredients together with a potato masher.

It’s terrible.

Ok, it’s not TERRIBLE-terrible. It’s edible. But I’m not going to bring this to a party and try to wow the guests with my cooking skills. And I’m not going to serve it to guests at my house and expect them to be impressed. I’ll almost certainly eat it in small doses over the next few days, just so that the effort doesn’t go to waste.

But really, if I had known I was going to soak beans for eight hours, cook them for two hours, and spend an hour fussing with them on the kitchen counter to produce something this BLAH…

… I wouldn’t have bothered.

I wonder sometimes about the effort that we ask students to put into their homework, and their projects, which we then try to grade. My school has a general policy of thirty minutes or so of homework a night for middle schoolers, in each of their subjects.

In general, that’s about how long I expect to take cooking a meal, in terms of prepping veggies, cooking, and presenting the stuff on a plate. In general, if it takes more than 30 minutes to make a meal, I don’t want to bother. Too much effort.

But then I think about that in terms of homework. I’m asking kids to learn how to build a satisfying meal — of words and images, if you will — in thirty minutes.

As you can see, this particular 11-hour extravaganza required quite a lot of tools and materials for a not-quite-as-good-as-I’d-hoped final result.

None of my thirty-minute meals actually takes thirty minutes, when you think about it. I mean, my chicken stir-fry, which I’ve presented here before, has actually taken about eight hours so far — an hour of reading recipes in the Wagamama cookbook when I first chose it. And then, it’s taken the prep-time of learning the recipe: going to the store, being in the store, marinating the chicken once I get it home, experimenting with the spice load in each of the ten times I’ve made it… and discovering today that the way I make it with chicken doesn’t work AT ALL when I substitute beef for chicken. Huh?

We ask kids to do a lot in that thirty minutes of homework they do for us every night when school is in session, but we tend to forget the externalities that go into the “homework recipe” — learning the grammar, learning the style, learning the reading process, learning the research process, experimenting with the adjective-noun-verb balance, and all the rest of it.

The clean-up process from hummus may discourage me from making this dish again from scratch. How many of us tend to hold back from assigning projects, because we fear the mess our students will make of it, and the clean-up we’ll have to do afterwards, to get them back on track?

Yet the mess is part of the reality of it. I used at least fifteen different kitchen tools in the process of making this not-particularly-good hummus, and developed my ongoing relationships with a dozen different spices. The final product was not great, but haven’t I learned a lot about myself as a cook?

What do our students learn when we assign them complex projects? What do we learn about what they learn? And what do we all learn that we forget we learned, when we take on tasks that are larger than our usual timeframes allow?

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