Saturday, October 11, 2008

первый блин комом

For some reason I had a class from 1987 stuck in my head all yesterday. I was studying in the Soviet Union, and locked into an incredibly torturous class on Russian aphorisms. The teacher was writing a dissertation contrasting English and Russian sayings, and the class basically consisted of her trying to milk us for as much new material as she could come up with.

We'd sit there, she'd fire off a saying at us, and grill us into providing an English language equivalent. Then she'd scribble it down in her notes -- "A steetch een time saves nine... steetches?" -- then she'd pretend to teach us another aphorism. This went on for weeks.

One day she offered up this little gem of Russian wisdom: "The first blini is комом." I've never come up with a good translation for комом. It basically means a misshapen mess. We sat there in silence. She demanded an answer. Finally one student said, "The first pancake always sucks." And she wrote it down. "Socks?" No. Sucks. The first pancake always sucks. She seemed skeptical. Then we explained that 'sucks' has an idiomatic meaning. "Ah!" A two-fer. She scribbled frantically.

I think this stuck with me because "The first pancake always sucks" probably should be an aphorism. The first pancake is either burnt or undercooked. It runs too much to one side. It sticks to the griddle or bubbles in the butter. The purpose of the first pancake is not to be eaten. The purpose of the first pancake is to prepare the way for the next pancake. The first pancake gets the amount of butter adjusted correctly. It probably adds a microscopic dose of batter to the griddle that paves the way for better pancakes down the line. It tells you the pan's too hot. But it's not a good pancake.

First pancakes are like first drafts. You can't aim for too much. You have to get it down on the page -- but there's no doubt that the second draft will be better. You can mix your batter all morning but you won't get to the perfect pancake until you've made your way past the first one. It's just a fact. For me, it makes writing easier.

Now, I firmly believe in planning. There's no substitute for it. You MUST work out a strong concept before you begin. It doesn't matter how many cauliflower pancakes you make -- they aren't going to get significantly better with practice. But even the best concept won't get you past the testing stage. And that's all a first draft really is. You'll adjust the batter. You'll adjust the temperature. Maybe you'll add a bit of vanilla, or some berries from the freezer. But you won't know until you try it out.


V said...

I really like this. I still my first pancake. And speak Russian.

V said...

wow I suck at typing. I meant I still eat my first pancake. Ate some yesterday, they were pretty much all комом. Edible, though.

po said...

love love love this...
and I love my first blin komom!!!
I was 6 y.o. and tried to steal from my grandmother... She said "I'll give u better one in a minute", but I refused and got the best pancake in my silly childhood... all uncooked and burned in the same time... no shape what so ever!
BTW, U have to mention that Russian pancakes have to be really tiny... and that is why its hard to make it perfect...