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Christina Hamlett

When I was growing up, kitchens were a place of great mystery to me, largely because my mother repeatedly told me to stay out of them. “Bad things can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing,” she warned. That she didn’t know what she was doing, either, accounted for why my parents paid someone else to do the cooking. Plates of gourmet meals – prepared by unseen hands – would be brought to the dining room at the appointed hour and discreetly removed when the meal was done. Being too young to have any say-so in the menu planning meant I never knew what was coming next, much less whether I’d like it and want to see it again sometime. I was in elementary school when I first realized there was a correlation between cooking and my favorite hobby – reading. I couldn’t really have told you who was bringing all these wonderful tomes to the neighborhood bookmobile every week. Like meals at our house, they simply appeared when needed. Nonetheless, I knew early on which ones I couldn’t get enough of and which ones left me feeling about as enthused as – well, encountering a dish of Brussels sprouts. Just like consuming a meal, there was a finite amount of time allocated to get through each one before you could have another. It was considered cheating to skip ahead to the end (like eating dessert first), tempted as one might be. Likewise, a first chapter (or first bite) that you had to chew on for way too long or had a hard time swallowing didn’t portend well for the rest of the story. By the time I moved to my first studio apartment, my career leanings were torn between writing and acting. My mother, a resident naysayer, tried to dissuade me from pursuing either one. “Bad things can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said. Where had I heard that before? From where I stood, the worst case scenario was getting burned by rejection. Getting rejected, however, required taking a bold chance in the first place - something she herself hadn’t tried behind a stove or a keyboard. She also predicted I’d scamper home once I discovered that full-blown meals didn’t spring forth like Botticelli's Venus without some form of outside assistance. YOU’RE INVITED What she hadn’t counted on was the company of hungry actors I hung around with. That I was the only one who wasn’t still living at home or with roommates made my address the destination of choice after late-night rehearsals. Struggling performers, musicians and writers that we were, we agreed that my alcove kitchen could be used to refuel our energy as long as everyone pitched in on groceries. Little did they know they were also contributing to my future theories about the craft of writing. Specifically: • Actors – like individual ingredients – have unique talents to bring to the table but you can’t just throw them all out on stage without any script and expect a dazzling and cohesive result. • Actors and audiences are like cats. Once you put treats out to attract them, they’re going to expect you to keep that bowl filled. Constantly. • The three-act structure of a story is like a three-course menu at a formal dinner. The first third is to whet the appetite, the second is to spice it up, and the third is to achieve the push-back-from-the-table satisfaction that everything was perfect. Lesson: If your soup is stone cold and your salad is limp, how much excitement do you really think you’ll be able to muster for your signature rack of lamb? Remember that the next time you tell someone, “Things don’t really start happening in my script until page 47.” UPSTAGED BY POTATOES In my 16 years as an actress and director, I came to appreciate that certain personalities generate a combustible – and sometimes not altogether pleasant – result. Some are born to the ranks of stardom because of their overpowering presence; others – because of their ability to amicably blend in - are meant to be supportive side dishes. Believe me, nothing spells disaster faster than a side dish that suddenly decides to hog center stage. I recall one particular evening in which my costume designer whipped up an ambitious platter of mashed potatoes so reminiscent of the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind that nobody remembered my main dish. I was tempted not to invite him back except he would have taken all of our costumes with him. Lesson: If in the course of writing your plot you find that you’re starting to give more lines and back-story to a minor character, you may need to rethink whether your menu is featuring the wrong entree. GENRE FUSION What a reader or audience experiences in the opening chapters or scenes is what they’ll expect to see maintained for the rest of the tale. If you start out with Chinese appetizers and suddenly shift to Hungarian goulash, your guests will react with alarm. Having supplied them with chopsticks, blue and white porcelain plates and thimbles of sake, their anticipation - and rightfully so - is that the meal will remain Asian from start to finish. That same consistency is crucial if you’re cooking up a movie plot. Time and again, I've read screenplays that open with doofy and unabashed hilarity and then segue to bioterrorism and graphic violence. I'm never sure whether the writer got bored with the initial tone or simply reverted to the unsophisticated taste buds of childhood and made himself a sandwich of peanut butter, tuna fish and spaghetti. Just as beginning cooks need to try different cuisines and methods in order to perfect their best dishes, writers need to dabble in a variety of genres and styles in order to discover their best voice, especially if they ever plan on entertaining someone other than themselves. Lesson: Do not attempt experimental genre pairings until you have mastered the basics and understand complementary matches. Indian and Mexican recipes, for example, share a similar heat that makes them compatible and opens the door to creations such as Pork Vindaloo served in soft tacos. On the flip side, “Jerk Tofu” should probably not be attempted anytime soon. TIMING IS EVERYTHING During my theater days, I frequently found myself onstage with actors who either rushed into a scene prematurely or else missed their cue and left the rest of us awkwardly ad-libbing until they showed up. When I began cooking, the biggest challenge was to get everything to come out at the same time. Writing proved to be even harder. Either I'd introduce a character too soon and then not have anything for him to do for long stretches or I'd realize I needed to quickly invent someone new to impart information none of the existing characters already had. It all gets back to the kitchen and having your ingredients assembled at the outset to make sure you have everything you need before things start heating up. Imagine what dolts we all felt like at our opening night beef stroganoff party when we found out that our leading man – swept up in the promise of great reviews for his performance – forgot to pick up the beef. Lesson: Even if you eschew outlines, story maps and character bios, they’re necessary elements insofar as properly folding in foreshadowing, dolloping in danger and stirring up a nice finishing sauce. PRESENTATION Even as starving artists, we were not without our standards when it came to presentation. Yes, we could have done what a lot of starving artists did and served up our creations on paper plates supplemented with plastic cutlery. While it would have meant easy cleanup (did I mention my first kitchen had no dishwasher?), why should the labor and patience that goes into a stew be diminished by slopping it onto picnic ware? Even a mediocre casserole, I discovered, was approached differently by the recipient if its staging was attractive. I’m often reminded of this when I review screenplays with messy covers, messier formatting, coffee-stained pages and careless photocopying. Do the writers really think I’m going to look past all of this in anticipation of a mouth-watering plot? A part of me cringes whenever I see a promising soufflé that the author didn’t care enough about to invest in a stylish serving plate. On the other hand, I also don’t feel badly about tossing it out. Lesson: Recycled scripts are like leftovers. We shouldn’t know that they have been around for a while. CONCLUSION Although my days on the stage were eventually replaced by the realization that my real love was writing, there remained a final lesson to be learned. The profession in which I chose to spend my life shares a kinship with anyone who seeks to please the demanding palate of others: • There will be times when they demand a taste of everything you know how to do. (Be versatile!) • There will be times when they keep ordering the same thing over and over because it’s the functional equivalent of “comfort food”. (You’ll be bored but you’re still bringing home the bacon.) • There will also be times when they send your creations back to the kitchen, and say “Bleah!” (Go cook up something else.) The bottom line? If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

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50 Recipes
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