Weekend Inspiration: On Distraction and Puttering About

Weekend Inspiration: On Distraction and Puttering About

Dana Velden
Oct 17, 2010

On the surface, the kitchen would seem to be the last place one would encourage distraction. Consider the magnet strip bristling with sharp knives, the cauldron-like pots of hot oil or boiling water, the delicate cookie that needs exactly 12 minutes in a 325° oven. There's the measuring out of flour (was that the 4th or 5th cup?), the step in tonight's dinner recipe where the meat needs to marinate overnight, the guest with a severe nut allergy. Oh, the ballet-like coordination of getting everything to the table on time, piping hot and perfectly cooked! The vigilance behind avoiding raw chicken cross-contamination!

How can I possibly advocate for distraction under such circumstances? Well, to begin with, not every meal we eat needs to be a big production, so when there's the opportunity to lighten up a little, don't hesitate. Lose the flow charts and calibrated scales and 'occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, not concentrating on anything particular.'

Amble into the kitchen, pick up an onion and start chopping. No recipe or even a final dish in mind. Just see where that onion takes you. Could be the base for some soup, could be caramelized and stirred in to greek yogurt for a classy French Onion Dip.

Or maybe just open the fridge, consider the possibilities, and then wander away to change the music or thumb through a cookbook. Or a novel. Which may lead to a bath. Later, back in the kitchen, grab a few things and start tossing them together. A little here, a little there. Is there anything left to harvest from the garden? Perhaps a walk up the street to see if the neighbor's chestnuts are ready yet? Maybe we should make tortillas or start a batch of pickles. Hmmmm. Maybe we should move the cookie jar collection into the dining room?

I believe this is called puttering about and I'm all in favor of it.

The way I see it, puttering allows for spontaneity. Whatever comes forth is brought into the mix without worrying about any plans or preconceived ideas. This in turn offers the possibility for wonder and surprise, for something brand new to emerge, outside the limits of our thinking. It loosens us up and lets the muse run a little wild. Puttering teaches us that we don't have to always be in control and on schedule. We realize that we are more resilient than we imagine and with this, a deeper trust in who we are and what we can do is born.

Of course its risky to try to feed oneself or loved ones while being distracted and 'flowing the muse.' It is completely possible that we will invite disaster and disappointment. Or forget about dinner entirely, which doesn't go over so well with young, hungry children. But anything worth pursuing comes with at least a little risk, so next time you have to make a meal, consider puttering your way into it. May you be utterly surprised and charmed by what happens!

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This post was inspired by the artist Maira Kalman and the exhibit of her work at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Citizens and visitors of SF still have a few days to visit the exhibit which runs through October 26th.)

Readers of The New Yorker know Ms. Kalman for her covers and readers of Gourmet may remember her piece Herring and Philosophy Club from 2006. She is also known for her children's books and especially for her adult books Elements of Style and The Principles of Uncertainty. Her newest book, based on her blog for the New York Times, is called And the Pursuit of Happiness.

Related: Weelend Meditation: Angry Kitchen

(Images: Maira Kalman from Herring and Philosophy Club; the entrance to the Maira Kalman exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum)

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