One of my many guilty pleasures is watching the TV show Chopped. This weekly cooking contest on Food Network features four chefs competing through three timed rounds: appetizer, entree, and dessert. In each round, the contestants open a basket of four “mystery ingredients” which must be incorporated in their dishes. Their finished dishes are presented to a panel of culinary glitterati, who decide which contestant is eliminated (chopped).
The mystery ingredients are often very unusual items grouped in weird combinations. The appetizer round in last year’s Halloween found the chefs confronted by lacinto kale, finger lime, gummy tarantulas, and pre-cooked pig snout. While not every basket is so challenging, there is always at least one confounding ingredient.
I enjoy watching the players rushing to use a wide variety of culinary techniques and equipment to prepare dishes that are often wildly creative, beautiful, and, if we are to believe the panel of expert judges, surprisingly tasty. While I don’t plan to use sea beans, dragon fruit, or sorghum flour in my menus any time soon, I do learn a lot from watching the techniques and listening to the tasters’ comments.
As I started the second fall term with two new A&P classes, I reflected that beginning a new class is a bit like opening a basket of mystery ingredients. Some students may be familiar and pleasant. Some students’ behavior may make me wary. Quite a few will be downright puzzling, as I wonder who they are, how have they prepared, and how eager are they to embrace hard work.
Like the contestants on Chopped, I have agreed to work with the ingredients in the basket of my class. I can’t request different ingredients or complain that I don’t know what to do with those I’ve been given. The way to “win this game” is to marry my most creative ideas with my best techniques to serve up a dish of knowledge that will be inviting, appealing to a variety of tastes, and accepted by the panel of judges, my students.
Sometimes the least appealing ingredients, like a sullen student or a challenging concept, turn out to be the stars of the dish. Sometimes an unusual combination or last-minute addition to a carefully planned lesson saves the day. Unlike the Chopped Champion, I will not earn $10,000 for a day’s work. But I’m betting that over the long run, I can seize a prize worth much more.