Creativity in the Kitchen: Overcoming Functional Fixedness

Summer tastes like a perfectly ripe tomato. Followed by another. And another. And another. Because that's the thing about living in the Northeast; we don't have a long growing season, so when it's tomato time, we take it seriously. Enough that even the most fervent tomato-lover may find themselves asking: What am I going to do with ANOTHER 5 pounds of tomatoes this week?

Well, here's one answer: 

That was a delightful tomato cobbler with cornmeal-cheddar biscuits, courtesy of Emma Christensen at TheKitchn. Mine is slightly less beautiful because I used a mix of cherry tomatoes and chopped heirloom tomatoes that I got in my CSA, but that didn't stop Aaron and I from devouring it!

That being said, sharing one more tomato (or zucchini, or cucumber, or other overly bountiful summer vegetable) recipe is a short lived solution to a perennial problem. That is, when faced with a particular ingredient, it's easy to enter a state of what we call in psychology functional fixedness. Functional fixedness is when you focus on the typical use of an object to the extent that you are unable to think of alternative uses for that object.

The example that my Introductory Psychology textbook gave for the concept of functional fixedness may illustrate this better. Imagine you are given some matches, a small candle, and a box holding tacks. You need to use these tools to attach the candle to the wall. How would you do it?

The key to this problem is emptying out the box. If you don't become fixed on its function as a holder of tacks, you can use it to hold the candle. Then it's simply a matter of using the tacks to attach the box to the wall, and putting the candle inside.

This example was on my mind this week as I confronted the pile of zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers that awaited me after a whirlwind weekend in Massachusetts. The zucchini were in the worst shape, and as I tried to figure out how I wanted to use them, I found my thoughts circling in a whirlpool of typical Italian flavors--which would have been fine, except that I didn't have the accompanying ingredients on hand. I was stuck in functional fixedness.

In the end, I managed to shake it by focusing on the ingredients we did have: peppers, onions, and tomatoes, plus the assortment of half-opened grains (farro, quinoa, barley, rice noodles) that are always hanging around my pantry. Zucchini is such a mild flavored vegetable, it can really go with any flavor profile, so Aaron and I decided to make a tex-mex style quinoa bowl, flavored with lots of coriander, chili powder, and smoked paprika.  Some cilantro and leftover queso fresco provided freshness and an extra punch of protein.

So, the next time you are beset by an overly generous neighbor with tomatoes galore, or come home with a few more zucchini than you planned, be aware of functional fixedness. If you find yourself making the same (admittedly awesome) zucchini bread recipe for the 3rd time this summer, stop to consider if that's what you really want, or if it's just your default. If it turns out to be the latter, think about the other ingredients you have on hand, or what flavors you've been craving recently (Indian, Korean, Mexican, et cetera), and try something new. After all, even if you don't feel comfortable improvising, a quick google search should be able to turn up a recipe to guide your culinary creativity--or you could even ask me! 

Until next week, happy cooking!

Angela