Rendered Fat Content


Berthe Morisot: Woman at Her Toilette (1875/80)

"Progress never was my most important product."

Checking progress has always been the great enemy of progress, for those focused upon making progress can barely bear to slow down, let alone stop, to TakeStock. My old friend Norm Kerth wrote a definitive book about this dilemma, reframing the stock-taking into more of a stock-making, transforming the drudge into celebration, but the connotation was never completely removed. TakingStock does not seem like a productive activity, and to those focused on making progress, it's probably always destined to seem like a relative waste of time. It might mostly be a waste of time.

About every month, I finally get fed up with the lack of space in my freezer and clean out the sucker.
It's inevitably clogged with plastic bags filled with scraps: veg peelings, chicken carcasses, carrot butts, and Brussels sprout trimmings. These I empty into my very largest pot, then fill it clear to the top with cold water, adding a few spices: juniper berries, licorice and burdock root, star anise, and dried chiles; then I set that pot to heat almost to boil before relocating it into a 300F (150C) oven overnight. By morning, the house smells heavenly, and the top of the mess is charred black. Beneath the charcoal lies wilted remnants of the month's suppers—the makeup changes with the seasons. In late Spring, it's heavy with asparagus butts. In Winter, it's parsnip peelings and cabbage cores. I carefully move the stuff into a giant colander suspended over a smaller pot, then filter the liquid through the stuff. This removes most of the suspended solids from what's by then stock. The filtered stock returns to the oven for more hours of slow reduction.

By the end of this process, which properly takes twenty-four hours, I have the base from which a pot of beans might emerge. I might ladle the finished stock into quart jars and pressure can it for later use. I might sip a fresh mugful or two just to enjoy the savory unsalted sweetness of what one author called The Water Of Life. StockTaking turns into StockMaking, and an asset results of a wholly different quality than those produced while making progress—an ingredient rather than an end product, a utility addition rather than any achieved milestone. The time to have this stuff almost gets pulled from around the edges. It never takes much time away, and its product does not need much watching. It very nearly makes itself.

Assessing progress seems a whole other matter, though. Even for my modest endeavor, I avoid ever getting too specific. This morning, I'm almost sixty percent finished with this Success Series. The usual questions, as usual, seem irrelevant. Percent complete discloses nothing except presumption. What's the shape of this completion curve? Is this a series where the bulk of it gets written in the first week and the rest in a long-tailed sequence of spurts, or is this one with a slow start and a swooshing finish? Who could tell? I might gauge progress successful if it feels painful, if I'm uncovering long-hidden secrets, or, as I explore the subject, I might measure progress by increasing lightness. It hardly matters. I know I will have misrepresented my progress to myself, if only inadvertently because I cannot see either the end or the beginning from here in the middle—the muddle—somewhere.

I might then slow to speculate how this effort might rate on a scale of one to ten. Has it been generating enough insights to satisfy me? I might create a metric, call it Insights Per Fortnight, then set to counting or even recounting, as they say. It's arbitrary how I value the measure. I could say that I've been adequately entertained or informed if I’d stumbled upon a single insight in the fifty-odd days expended on this excursion, or I could insist that insights should have been thicker to muster approval. Why does the measure matter? It might matter if I'm in danger of quitting or continuing something that's so far just made me miserable. I'm not, and it hasn't. Absent either of those grave conditions, I might find reason enough for some small celebration. Let's say that today, I TookStock, MadeStock, and set a pot of cassoulet beans to simmer, and from that effort; I produced a small Success without feeling obsessed about progress. Progress never was my most important product, anyway, nor the underlying purpose of this effort.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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