The Expertise Lies Not Just In The Act But All Leading Up To The Act

Have you ever watched a professional window washer work? I recall one London vacation afternoon when I was having a cup of coffee with my family, I was just staring across the street and watching a window washer work on the front panes of a storefront. Unlike we home windows, keeping these things clean (and see through) materially affects the store owner, so it pays to have them cleaned often. Watching him do windows that were three times the square footage of my home windows, and in probably half the time, I marvelled at his technique. He would soap up the window with his left hand and, with as near as I can recall, one continuous stroke, clean the entire window with the squeegee and then smoothly wipe it off on the towel hanging from his leg.

My organic chemistry professor in college had a very similar technique. He would wipe the board with his right hand (he was left handed) as he needed more space for writing, and fill in the newly clean area with new formulae. He did it so smoothly, it was often difficult to keep up writing.

I was reminded of this when I read a passage in Bill Buford's excellent Heat:

Why don't more people use pasta water at home? Sometimes I thought it should he bottled, because there is no way that your home water could ever achieve the starchy viscosity of a restaurant’s. Ir would be cheap—being liquidy leftovers—and the jar should he very large, probably darkly tinted, like a vine bottle, because there would he no reward in looking too closely at what was floating inside.

The thought also made me curious about the moment in the history of American cooking when efficiency won out over taste and, instead of using a pair of tongs and pulling the spaghetti straight out of the pot, people started using a colander (an evil instrument) and letting all that dense, murky rich “water” rush down the drain. The practice is described in the original, 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, in its “Rules for Boiling Spaghetti, Macaroni, Creamettes and Noodles,” along with the even more alarming one of taking your colander full of spaghetti (rather mushy, since you've boiled it for an hour) or macaroni (easy to che after being boiled For twenty minutes) or creamettes (no longer a supermarket item, alas, but once the essential ingredient ¡n a baked creamette loaf) and rinsing it in cold water—oh, heresy of heresies—just to make sure nothing ¡s clinging to it.

I think about this often - the expert not only does the obvious (wash the window, mix the chemicals), but all the little pieces in-between that make what is ordinary, extraordinary.