Learning by Living

Generally, we do not bother exploring in depth the world at our fingertips.  It seems we take certain elements of our lives for granted, assuming there is nothing much to know about them other than that they are “there.” I am just as guilty as anyone else for failing to understand and acknowledge all the intrigue and stunning surprises easily available to me…but not sufficiently fascinating to merit my undivided attention.

Chances are good that many—perhaps most—people reading this post are unfamiliar with Louis Camille Maillard. Maillard was the French chemist who described the process  known as the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction takes place between amino acids and reducing sugars, giving browned foods their distinctive flavors. It is a “form of non-enzymatic browning which typically proceeds rapidly from around 140 to 165 °C (280 to 330 °F), according to Wikipedia. The Maillard Reaction occurs to produce the unique flavors of bread crusts, oyster sauce, toasted marshmallows, toffee, etc., etc.

I believe I learned of Louis Camille Maillard and the Maillard Reaction just this morning, as I skimmed an article on BBC.com about oyster sauce. The article explained that “it is made from the liquid oysters have been poached in, boiled until it’s caramelised and dark and then enriched with soy sauce and spices.” Perhaps I would have known about (or remembered) Maillard and his eponymous process, had I attended culinary school. Or read more extensively about the causes of flavor transformation during the cooking process. I have done neither, hence my ignorance of the man and his namesake description of a crucial process in cooking and the flavoring industry.

The details of what causes and what occurs during the Maillard Reaction are far more involved and complex than I want to get into. I would not remember all the component actions and reactions involved, even if I delved into learning about them with a passion. I simply am not a person to recall excruciating details, such as “the reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid to form a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of aromas and flavors.” But I do enjoy and appreciate exposure to information about a common occurrence in the kitchen that produces innumerable flavors, depending on the chemical constituents of foods being cooked, cooking temperature, time, the presence of air, and the extent to which the foods being cooked are stirred (or not).

I could learn so much about so much more if only I opened my eyes a bit wider and paid closer attention to my immediate environment. If only I asked questions the way a child asks them; with wide-eyed wonder and insatiable curiosity. And I need not become an expert in anything—by giving free rein to my curiosity, I would just a better-informed person. A little happier person, simply by knowing more about…stuff! Though I think I may be a little more curious about the world around me than the “average person” (as if there is such a thing), there is so much more room for expansive, explosive growth in my curiosity. Allowing that expansion to occur involves little more than honing one’s consciousness…asking questions about almost everything in one’s life.

What is responsible for differences in food preferences between people? Why do I like rye bread more than I like wheat? Why do some people intensely dislike the taste of anise, while I like it very much? What causes a person to be physically and/or emotionally attracted to someone and why is that attraction reciprocated (or not)? What causes one’s hair to become grey or white with age? Why are lancet windows so common in churches? Literally millions and millions of questions like and unlike these are available for the asking and answering. If we devoted our attention to knowing more about our own small sections of the world, we might find that even the mundane, heretofore boring, aspects of our lives can be made enormously interesting.


Intellectually and emotionally, I feel so much younger than my age suggests I should. I can get extremely excited about things that generally are assumed to be the provinces of the young. My interests often are more in line with fresh-faced college students than with people whose lives have been amply seasoned by experience and frustration. I make mistakes one would not expect an old man to make; one would think someone who has lived this long would know better… I do not want to go through a period of life in which the audacity of youth is abandoned and forgotten. On the other hand, I do not want to relinquish the extraordinary wisdom one accrues simply by having more temporal experience than is available to the young. I want to experience both the wild passion of youth and the unparalleled serenity of knowing I have lived a life well-spent. I suppose that describes wanting my cake and eating it, too.

I think my perpetual sense of youthfulness may exist because I never fully matured; I never had to. Having children, I think, tends to cause people to mature more completely than living as a childless adult. Children require care and attention I did not have to extend. Adulthood as a parent involves taking on enormous responsibilities for another person’s well-being that adulthood without children does not require. I would not trade my freedom as a childless adult for the responsibilities of a parent. But parents almost invariably say having children is the most spectacular experience they’ve ever had. So, we’re both happy with our circumstances. However, I suspect that, when two adults—one who had kids and one who did not—pair up, tensions can be enormous. The childless adult’s freedom can be curtailed and the one with children can feel pressured to minimize the intrusions of parenthood on the adult relationship. I write as if I were pronouncing a truth—in fact, it’s just supposition, based on both assumptions and observations at arm’s length.  That’s another aspect of youthfulness that appeals to me: the ability to presume I know more than I actually do. 😉


I would like to look in your eyes this morning—fix our gazes upon one another—for just two minutes. Would that uninterrupted period of staring at one another be uncomfortable? Would it be transformative in some way? Would it make one or both of us feel like we know the other a little better? Would we feel that we had looked into one another’s mind…and what might we think we see there?

Try that with someone today. Just two minutes of uninterrupted gazing into another person’s eyes. Whether that person is your spouse, your sibling, your parent, your child, your friend, or your secret lover—take two minutes to learn whatever that time teaches you.


It’s almost 6. Time to shower and shave and get ready to embrace whatever this day brings.  Oooh, but, first, another cup of coffee. (I can be so easily distracted by something attractive and “shiny.”)

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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