Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

Teresa - Tamales

I’ve been thinking  about the individual letters of the M.F.A. and what they stand for – and yes, maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but that’s the kind of thing that pops into my head at unpredictable moments. This particular thought – “What is mastery? What is an art, and what makes it a fine one?” – rose up as a result of some spontaneous cooking lessons I’ve been getting from Teresa, the woman who cleans the garden apartment where my husband and I are staying during our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. There are lots of cooking schools here – Oaxaca is famous for its food – but I prefer hearing from Teresa, who cooks for her own family and who can earn a little extra money telling me about the family recipes and how to make them. [As I type, I can hear a parade outside – the school-children at the elementary school across the street are marching in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day tomorrow – they’ve been practicing all week – how to carry the big flag, how to wave the little individual flags, how to march in step, how to look serious and represent their school and country with honor….I hear a tuba and a trumpet….sorry, I have to run and catch that!….]

Okay, back to thoughts about the M and the F and the A. Imagine the scene: Teresa and I are in the middle of a discussion about tamales – this morning she brought a bag full of chiles, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with banana leaves for the tamales de mole negro (specialty of Oaxaca) and corn husks for the more common tamales de raja (green chile strips.) After at least an hour of browning bananas, peanuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, three types of dried chiles, cloves, garlic, salt and peppercorns, and after walking up to the local miller to get all of it ground up into a paste, Teresa now has chicken boiling for the filling, and she has me mixing the masa (also ground up from fresh nixtamal earlier that morning.) I am putting some real muscle into the mixing. Preparing masa is not like making hot-cake batter. It takes some oomph – like bread-making, I guess, though I’m no bread-maker, either.

When everything is ready, Teresa takes a few water-soaked corn husks and spreads the masa onto them with the back of a spoon. How easy she makes it look!  “Asi como yo lo hago. Ves? Es facil” (There, like I do it – you see? It’s easy.) With the banana leaves, the mole goes on, the shredded chicken goes on, and Teresa wraps them up. Then the masa and the rajas go onto the corn husks. She does it quickly – this side folded over, these tips down, tucked in, rolled all the way over, there. Nothing to it. Nothing spills out at the edges. The uncooked tamales hold together and look quite pretty, little spicy delights ready to be steamed.

When I try, of course, the corn husks won’t cooperate – it’s as if they know I’m not the boss. They curl up on me and fight me all the way. I add the filling as best I can – then I fold here, I fold there, everything spills out. I open it up and start again, and I feel like a pre-schooler trying to master finger-painting and making quite a mess of it. “Master” – yes, that’s how the word springs to mind. Looking at Teresa, who is watching me patiently, I see a master of the fine art of cooking. In her school, which is just my little kitchen in a vacation rental, I learn by doing. A good way to learn.

“Esta bien, no te preocupes,” she assures me. It’s fine – don’t you worry – “Cada vez, te van a salir mejor.” Each time you do it, they’ll come out better. “Poco poquito” – little by little. I don’t have to learn it all the first time.

Am I stretching to say that the same goes for writing as for tamales? Sure, I’m stretching a little. But the skill – some call it mastery – comes little by little, just as with all skills. Writing a good story is not unlike driving a nail into a shingle or setting tile for a back-splash or playing the ukulele or drawing a nude in a studio class. Or making tamales. You keep trying, you get better, you watch a master, you learn by doing.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from tamale-making to writing novels (I love the sound of that – tamales to novels – as if they were foreign countries with a bridge from one to the other.) But what intrigues me is the way we assign the term “fine art” to certain things and not to others. That “F,” and that “A.” Dancing, drawing, sculpting, painting, film-making, design, creative writing, music composition – all programs at the graduate level, all granting “Master” degrees. The faculty says, “Here is what I’ve learned, try this.” They say, “Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing.” They even say “You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy.” Hopefully, they say, “The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

“Fine” Arts. Does that mean “refined” arts? What about cooking – even cooking at the small kitchen level – is it not a “fine” art? And come to think of it, carpentry and plumbing and tile-setting and cleaning apartments? What makes those not so fine? If it’s about getting your hands dirty, think of a master ceramicist at the wheel.

I find myself wishing once again that the world were organized in a less vertical way, where some activities are at the top of the ladder, honored and respected, and others are dismissed. Those who have heard me rant about verticality vs. horizontality know this is a constant drum I beat. The art of the janitor seems equal to me to the art of the writer. Toolboxes, skills, learning by doing, mastery. Why do we honor activities that take leaps of imagination over those that take muscle? A poem can be musical, intellectual, filled with desire. Masa can be folded, pushed, pulled – a corn husk can be soaked just enough and not soaked too much. Flavor, artistry, desire, rhythm. Seems to me that a Picasso and a great apple pie share the “A” of art. And the “M” of mastery. To be fair, I suppose some CEO’s are masters of what they do – unfortunately, astronomical salaries usually make them look down that vertical ladder and believe themselves to be entitled to the privileges of being “at the top.” If our model changed, if we saw the world horizontally rather than vertically, the ladder could be put aside, and “status,” (that is, the level reached on that ladder) would need re-defining.

So. There I go again. As I age, it gets harder and harder not to end up at the political end of the parade, waving my own little flag – even when all I’m doing is looking at the alphabet and asking what a word means. “M” – mastery. We know it when we see it, whether it’s a tamal or a well-built arbor in the garden or a Matisse on the wall of a museum.  “Art” – I guess the same goes for art, since taste is personal – we know it and we feel it when we see it. Flavor, desire – it’s there somewhere. The greatest mystery, then, of an M.F.A. must be somewhere in that “F”  – the “F” of “Fine.” But I can’t figure it out. Am I’m being disingenuous? Maybe a little. And maybe the 10,000 hours people say it takes to become a master craftsman can’t be applied to the art of housekeeping and cooking. Only I’m betting it can. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around at the people passing by – there are a lot of Masters walking around out there. And there are a lot of Arts. Let’s just broaden what we call Fine.

[Okay, now there is the most horrible music coming from somewhere. I don’t think that musician has mastered his craft yet. He’s quite a few hours short of 10,000. Or, to put it another way, there’s filling coming out of that tamal.]


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13 responses to “Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

  1. Yes, mastery and art. I wonder if it is an attitude towards whatever it is you do, that makes the difference? Doing what you have always done since your Mamma taught you and doing it quickly and efficiently — not to mention deliciously; that’s mastery, all right. And oh, to know the mysteries of Oaxacan cuisine. Does the art come in when you play with that idea; when you change up the ingredients? I love cooking and have “mastered” some good recipes. But my younger son, who is with us right now, approaches cooking as an adventure and his results are a lot closer to “art” than mine will ever be. He takes risks. His instincts are good and he has already a vast learned and stored sense of produce, herbs and spices — blendings and chemistry — all of which spur him to play, to invent. We had a squash and apple soup for lunch, yesterday and in each wide-mouthed bowl a yellow squash blossom was placed atop the soft rye-bread croutons in the thick and deliciously tangy soup.Ah, but you are in Oaxaca where squash blossoms are a stable food item. And here it is first thing in the morning and I’m dying for Teresa’s tamales de mole negro. Maybe the art of living is all that matters — taking the time to enjoy the work and love that another person puts into making something wonderful.

    • Julie Larios

      Tim, you are so, so right – the willingness to task risks and be inventive is a big part of mastery. It’s something we all try to encourage our students (and our children!) to think about and incorporate into who they are in the world – that “spark” we all respond to. Off the beaten track – or off “recipe,” so to speak. You must be so proud of your son.

  2. Julie, I really enjoyed this post. I work at an Inn and I can tell you that our housekeepers know the art of cleaning quickly and efficiently– and you should see the oragami-style towel folding that goes on here. Even after I’ve earned the letters at VCFA it is till poco piquito.

  3. Hi Julie. Yes, the importance of recognizing skill … and invention … when we see it, hear it, read it. Thanks so much for this post. In the winter I live right next door to the library in Oaxaca (OLL). I’ll be there in early November this year. Might we meet? I’m coming to the end of my parade.

  4. Julie Larios

    Laurie, we are only here for the month of September – darn. Winters here would be lovely, I imagine. Hope you have a wonderful time.

  5. Julie, Once again I feel compelled to tell you how much I love you. And your posts. It’s interesting about the 10,000 hour thing, though. Recently there’s been a lot of conversation about the role inherent talent plays. One can work for 10,000 hours and get nowhere without some modicum of that, unfortunately. So it’s a combination. Your Teresa has something special. And so do you.

  6. Julie Larios

    Leda, we belong to a Mutual Admiration Society. And yes, talent…a big factor, and not distributed evenly. I guess there are Masters, and then there are Geniuses. Which, i admit, moves Picasso back where he belongs – slightly ahead of a great apple pie.

  7. What a wonderful post, a lovely mixture of food, writing, parades. . . . a mole of many ingredients. One of the many things I like about your post is how it lets the world in and how you cross various borders, the Matisse fine art border, the tamale craft and communal border, the writing program border.

    Now about those tamales — I do hope they were delicious.

  8. Julie Larios

    Thank you, Mark, and yes, indeed, the tamales were delicious!

  9. susanfletcher2012

    I love this post, Julie. And my mouth is watering. And I will try to remember to say this: “Here is what I’ve learned, try this. Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing. You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy. The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

  10. Julie Larios

    Susan, come up to Seattle for a visit – I’ll fix you some tamales!

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