Creativity Ideas

Easy Ratatouille

Two months ago, I received a rude awakening when I discovered my Cornell meal plan card no longer delivers an all-I-care-to-eat playground of delicious delicacies. In cafés, restaurants, bodegas, bistros, and nosheries across the world, the Cornell card nourishes me with nothing but spoiled stares. Outside of the culinary orb of campus, the card is then rendered useless and inedible (even marinated, spiced, and flambéed, the plastic card provides a poor meal replacement).

Cut off from my meal ticket, I stumble around the grocery store collecting rice cakes, cereal, peanut butter, and canned hominy. Occasionally I read the NY Times while munching on my hominy and today I stumbled upon a link to “The Minimalist: Easy Ratatouille”.

In the post, Mark Bittman explains that the intricate name translates to a simple, “tossed vegetable dish”. Unfortunately, easy ratatouille requires more than a spoon and frozen vegetables and involves a delicately choreographed sauté ballet of vegetables. Eggplant, “must be cooked until it’s very soft”; zucchini, “takes less time to cook”; tomatoes, “break apart so quickly that you have to be careful” (Bittman, 2011).

Call me old-fashioned (or malnourished), but my frozen vegetables, without stirring, occupy a stable place in my food pyramid (or Food Yin-Yang). In the 30-60 minute prep time required for the Easy Ratatouille, I could probably stage a compressed adaptation of War and Peace starring raw vegetables. Clearly, Bittman and I disagree on the culinary definition of “easy”.

While the recipe failed to produce its promised yield of 4 to 6 servings of ratatouille, it did in fact yield about 4 to 6 servings of philosophical food for thought. We toss around words like “easy” without considering their essential relativity. In conversations ranging from disability accommodations to environmental conservation, “easy” does not yield a universal translation. This challenge is acutely apparent as I work in public administration and attempt to create standardized language that can communicate to all constituencies.

Here, Bittman deserves a pass. For the culinary connoisseurs perusing his post, this recipe probably reads like a Ratatouille-for-Dummies guide. Yet for the average Cocoa Pebbles connoisseur like me, it looks like a federal grant proposal accidentally translated to Esperanto. Let’s at least agree this is an easy, or convenient, opportunity to reevaluate our approach to language and audience. And if someone wants to cook me ratatouille that would be nice too.


You Don’t Speak The Way You Should

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, commuting by subway to the Washington Square campus, the path was laid out for me:  economics or medical school.  In my last year I stumbled into a passion for art history when I completed a course on the French impressionists.  The course made me entertain the possibility of diverting from my path and getting a Ph.D. in art history.  I approached my instructor with this somewhat fleeting thought and he reacted as blunt could be when he said, “You don’t speak like an art historian should.”  I sheepishly crawled back on the subway back to Brooklyn and proceeded to the University of Wisconsin and became a Cornell professor of management.  Several years later I had occasion to speak about a book of mine at another well-established university when a faculty member came up to me and intended to flatter me about my relatively casual speaking style.  Unfortunately for him, he used the same language the art historian did eight years before: “You don’t speak the way I thought you would.” While he meant well, I had a flashback to the art historian and in an extremely exaggerated New York accent said, “But I write real good, don’t I?”

The years have evolved, but I remain cognizant of the fact that language and style become a subtle mode of discrimination.  Recently I’ve been working with some colleagues in Baton Rouge.  And they related to me how often that they, as smart, articulate women, are often dismissed by their Louisiana accent, which lead others to stereotype them in unflattering ways and certainly label them as being incapable of being art historians.

Language and style often trump content.  These two things often exclude many from leadership positions.  I’m struck more and more when selecting leaders we become obsessed with their presentation of self, and we are overly concerned with how they say something rather than what they say.  Do they speak in a thoughtful, reflective manner? Do they use the right language? These are important, but in the final analysis, these are issues of style, and not much more than tassels on a pair of shoes or the shade of  Brooks Brothers tie.  Not irrelevant, but not grounds for dismissal.

Over the last number of years, my time has been spent in the world of leadership training.  In this context, I’ve had to hire trainers and deal with leaders.  The challenge has been to match the trainer to the leader.  But I found out that consistently that people are concerned with the content much more than with style.  In this culture, surrounded by style, people are listening much closer to what you say than your accent.  Globalization is going to demand from each of us to ask a simple question: Does he or she know what they are talking about–and should I pay attention?  Soon there will be more and more art historians who don’t speak the King’s English, and that world, one in which style and language are secondary is one we should welcome.