Sunday, October 11, 2015

Typecast, and (Not Your Typical) Shepherd's Pie

I don't think it happened to me until I started baking cupcakes.  But maybe I never did anything serially until I started baking cupcakes?

No, now that I think about it, it happened before then, too: with the web.

I was always the person people asked, because I was often the youngest in the room, and so people assumed that I had some superior aptitude (and interest) in technology. The web was in its infancy, and I'd been there in my dorm room to see it sprout out of Gopher.  Which made me an authority.

While I've always appreciated technology, for me, web design was more about an outlet for an interest in art, my lost sketchbooks, things that I dabbled in throughout elementary school.  And a love of fonts, if truth be told.  I loved how different looking words made me feel different about the words.  For someone who loves words and appreciates art, font design is like Nirvana.

So I built web pages.  The first when I was an intern in the academic services office in college; they liked the masthead so much that they made it in miniature on post-its that they distributed liberally to all incoming students.  And then another in grad school, in the grad office where they needed some help making fellowships more accessible.  And somewhere in there I had a short part-time stint in a web design company that I named, but had little interest in actually building.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not actually very good at building web pages.  I'm better than your average technology-averse person, I guess.  I understand how to organize information; that's less about technology than it is about my obsessive type-A personality that likes everything organized.  I know how to appreciate good design, but I'm not motivated to learn programming languages.  I like the ease of drag-and-drop, as if I'm drawing or painting or making collages.

But somehow now it's a thing, especially at work: Justine builds web pages.

I resent the throwaway nature of web-page-building-assignments; in my case, where people don't spend much time on the pages, it's busywork.  A necessary evil.  No one is making important decisions about web pages.  And even I know that people don't really browse the web like they used to.  I know that all of the important information is in more ephemeral media, or more complexly designed sites that no longer feel two dimensional.  But even if the work felt more important, I hate feeling typecast about something that I don't even really want to be known for doing, or at least, known only for doing.

For a while, I was (maybe in some circles still am) also typecast as a cupcake-maker.  I was baking cupcakes regularly for friends and colleagues who appreciated them, partly for my own entertainment, and partly as a shameless attempt to win their love (that totally works, BTW).

But then came my second child, and less time, and long months of no job and no colleagues to bake for. I could have started a cupcake business, but I didn't want to be only known for that, either, really. I don't like being single dimensional.  And I couldn't claim expertise anyway; it was never like I was inventing recipes all by myself, so I could never really take full credit for development, just for execution.  After I got my new job, I baked for a while for students, but that labor of love quickly lost its lustre when I realized they were too busy and too overfed to appreciate them.  And--it seems to me, at least--I lost my touch.

The same thing happens in blogging, right?  At some point, perhaps your brand doesn't fit you as well as it used to.  But somehow, you feel sort of like you should be producing the same thing you always have, because you know that your readers come back for it.  You write the same thing, in the same way, because it's too hard to recreate yourself.  You typecast yourself.  Maybe you start to feel a little single-dimensional.

The real problem with being typecast is that (aside from the annoyance of feeling like you've been reduced to one dimension) you start to wonder what you're really good at, outside of what people tell you you're good at.  Your internal compass becomes corrupted, and it's hard to recalibrate.  You do nothing, perhaps, wondering if you should explore some long-lost talent (you used to be good at the piano, didn't you?) or take up something new (Swahili during the commute, perhaps?).  You spin, disoriented, wondering where you started, and whether it's still possible to find your way back, or if that's even what you'd want to do, anyway.

Have you ever been typecast?  Was it or is it for something you enjoyed?  Did you embrace the label or reject it?  How did it make you feel?

Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie
Shepherd's pie is usually made with white potatoes, and usually involves ground lamb.  The original for this recipe originally had sausage, but I decided on beef and beans because we're having sausage later this week in soup.  And the apples and chard and nutty crunch are a welcome change from what you expect.

8 sweet medium sized potatoes
1 lb. ground beef
1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 t. dried sage
4 apples, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 bunch (4 c.) chopped swiss chard
salt & pepper to taste
5 T. butter
splash milk
1/4 cup toasted walnuts

Boil sweet potatoes until soft all the way through. Drain and return to pot. Add butter, splash of milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to add more or less milk depending on how you like it, or use olive oil instead of butter if you prefer the nutty taste. Beat until smooth then keep lid on to retain warmth.

Brown beef in a large skillet. When cooked through remove, reserving dripping in pan. Mix black beans in with the beef.

Add diced apples and onions to the sausage drippings. Cook until softened and onions are translucent. Add sage and stir until fragrant.  Remove and set aside.

Cook down Swiss chard in skillet (about 2-3 minutes).

In your pan of choice (I used a 9x13") layer meat and beans, apples and onions, Swiss chard then mashed sweet potatoes. Top with toasted walnuts.
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  1. Yeah, I'm struggling with this at the moment. There's a few things stopping me from shutting down my current blog and starting a new one: time, money and fear of some spammer taking over my current blog. But I'm feeling I'm long past due for changing the focus. Of talking more openly about life and moving on. Struggling with how to do it.

  2. This recipe looks delicious...I am going to try it one night this week! I love Swiss chard!

  3. When I moaned about a new assignment at work, my co-worker said, "if you don't like doing something, then don't do it well and no one will bother to ask you to do it again in the future." This was kind of a revaluation to me, as I try to always do things well. It never occurred to me that there was another option. I don't know as much about your website design skills, but I do know your cupcake fame is based on the fact that you consistently turn out DAMN GOOD cupcakes. Maybe you need to bake some bricks or design a serious dud of a website?

    But as for your cupcakes, I always feel deeply fortunate to try them, both because they are a treat but also because it makes us co-conspirators in a grand and life-long experiment. What marvelous delights can be wrought from the mundane task of feeding people (or any other mundane task)? What magic can we weave with sugar? We will have moments of failure (the overfilled batter, the runny pudding), but baking, just like many other things, is really just one vehicle that you can either use or discard to help tease out joy in life for yourself and others.

  4. I love you to the moon and back even without the cupcakes. Can you imagine what would happen with?

    I didn't know that about you, the web design part. I love how you weaved these things together.

    Another recipe to bookmark. Thank you!


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