My Commencement Speech (or) Pardon my cliché

Ice Cream Waffles

Ice Cream Waffles

To me, commencement speeches always seem like eulogies turned inside out. Hopefully you laughed or chuckled at that line—even if it was only on the inside. Laughter is something that seldom happens when hearing a eulogy, unless it’s for Chuckles the Clown (this is referring, of course, to the classic Mary Tyler Moore episode.)

But if eulogies are delivered at the end of a life, then it follows that you could kinda, sorta say that about commencement speeches too. That’s the end of a life and the beginning of another.

I once heard a commencement speaker compare the return of textbooks by graduating seniors to the turning in of rifles at the end of a war. Wow. I didn’t like school either, but I never felt like I was crouched in a fox hole. Well, maybe at prom, but that, as they say,”… is a whole other Oprah.”

All these years later I often think, “What did I learn in school?” The stuff I really remember was practical, “how to” stuff, like splicing video tape—something they do with a computer now and a skill that I seldom use in the kitchen.

I like to think I learned everything valuable I know in the years after school. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that baking a cake is a microcosm of life’s experiences all crammed into a little tin pan and an hour or two.

Baking requires hunger, anticipation, planning, organization, a little chemistry, the ability to let go, and the ability to deal with failure and keep going.

Many people view baking as an exercise in rigidity—follow the recipe or all heck will break loose. I beg to differ. I think of baking as an exercise in technique and its continual refinement. This is kind of like ballet or singing. Performers accomplished in either of those disciplines continue studying and taking classes even long after they have achieved success—and for some even after they have retired. It is this continual striving to get better that I think of every time I plug in my Kitchen Aid and start baking. You’re never done; school continues. It’s the shape of the classroom that changes. (I had to throw in the latter. Every commencement speech has lines like that.)

Hopefully as you travel down life’s hallway (I promise I’ll stop) the knowledge you accrue along your journey will give you the resilience to handle whatever surprises may be placed in your way. Sometimes this means you need to—yes, you’ve heard this before—think outside the box.

Learn to embrace the unexpected. We have an anchor woman here in New York named Sue Simmons. Late in her career she has become notable for the things she says when she forgets the microphone is on. This includes an “f-bomb” or two. She’s being “eased” into retirement next month. Part of the reason is that folks worry about what might come out of her mouth. I think this is a mistake. I say, keep her on and take away her script. Let her wing it, then sit back and hope for another “f-bomb” or better. I think ratings would go up and the news would be much more fun.

Any baker—or even better—anyone who ever toasted a slice of bread knows what I’m talking about. Ever burned a piece of toast? Did you scrape off the burnt part then serve the toast anyway? You were thinking outside the box. If you’d thrown away the toast you wouldn’t be embracing the unexpected, you’d be trying for perfect toast. The pursuit of perfection can waste a lot of bread. (Okay, you have to admit that one was cute.)

Thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean things have to be hard. In fact this can make things easier.

Take the little Belgian waffles in the photo above. These were made to satisfy a craving. Real Belgian waffles (Liege or Brussels style) require yeast dough, and a few hours wait while the dough rises. But this was a craving, which meant I needed them NOW.

So I used a simple waffle recipe, and sprinkled some vanilla sugar and Belgian pearl sugar onto my waffle iron just before adding the batter. The result was a reasonable facsimile of the true Belgian waffle.

If you throw enough ice cream at them no one will ever know the difference. And that, graduates, is all you need to know about dessert and life.

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