The conclusion grows more inescapable every day — “simple” is better than “complicated.” At least, that’s been my experience. Each new component added to any system brings complication, even chaos. Although we humans are adept at managing chaos, the wisest course of action is to strip complications from systems as often as is practical.
Sometimes, taking that advice seems counterintuitive. Take games, for example. Two in particular, Monopoly and chess, seem far removed from each other. The average person would say that chess is the more complicated game. I disagree. I love Monopoly, but it’s a far more complex game than chess. In chess, each player has only 20 options for the first move, so there are only 400 possibilities between the two players’ first moves.
That seems like a lot, but it’s not really compared to how many possible outcomes there are after each player in Monopoly first rolls the dice. Monopoly can be played by anywhere from two to six players (eight in some versions of the game). Rolling two dice yields 11 numbers — there cannot be a “1” — and remember that rolling a “double” on the dice calls for another roll! I cannot even begin to do that math, but there are far more outcomes than in a game of chess. The roll of the dice adds chaos.
To make it even simpler, most experienced chess players open a game with the same moves because experience teaches that a very few moves (out of that initial choice of 20) are far better than most. There is no chaos in chess, only choices. The trick is learning which choices to make, and that knowledge takes a lifetime to master. That’s where chess is complicated for most people.
The wisdom that I’m only now realizing is how to consistently simplify systems. That’s counterintuitive, too, but the trick to most things is figuring out how to master what the military sometimes refers to as the “KISS principle” — “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s not a new idea either. There are variations on it all the way back to the Middle Ages, at least.
That’s where one of my recent “research projects” comes in. For a few weeks now, I’ve been sampling grilled cheese sandwiches at any restaurant in town that makes them, trying to figure out what goes into making the best one. I’ve learned quite a bit.
There are only three ingredients to a grilled cheese — bread, cheese and butter. That’s it. Sorta. Some people swear by mayonnaise, either complementing the butter or replacing it. And then … what kind of bread? What kind of cheese? Y’all can see how this problem complicates itself.
Then, add to the system the choice of a side. Soup? (If so, which one?) French fries? Hash browns? Potato chips? Most places bring a pickle and mayo to the table. My simple little search for a simple little sandwich got really complicated, really quickly.
All I was trying to do was find some comfort food one day! Then I had to go and complicate the system by asking a question. Curiosity! Argh!
And I realize that there is an obvious question that all of y’all are asking right now: Which restaurant has the best grilled cheese? I’m not copping out on this one, but the best grilled cheese in town was made by … Mom. Seriously. She consistently made the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever eaten. And she served grilled cheese with tomato soup, by the way, in case y’all are wondering.
When I make a grilled cheese, though, I make hash browns as a side. So I’m not even really sure which side I prefer. Lately, I’ve had one with chili, which was a great accompaniment. The result of my research into this question is that I’ll probably experiment a little the next time I make them. There is something to be said for using different kinds of bread and different kinds of cheese.
Different breads and cheeses complicate the system, to be sure, but the one simple thing that I’ve determined is that it’s not so much the ingredients as it is the cook. A skillful cook can make up for basic ingredients, but even that simple declaration assumes all sorts of complications. Grill? Skillet? If so, what kind of skillet? Cast iron or non-stick? How much butter (or mayo)? What temperature?
And my choice of Mom as grilled cheese champ? Is there nostalgia at play there? Of course! I miss Mom and I miss her cooking.
I’ve spent hours in the kitchen trying to replicate her recipes. When she was still with us, she gave me advice on how to do it. But even with Mom standing right there with me and telling me what to do, my version of her recipes never tasted as good. She used to joke that it all came down to the look on one’s face as one cooked. Evidently, a smile on the cook’s face adds a lot to a grilled cheese.
That’s why I smile when I cook. It’s also why I smile when I make that first move in a chess game. That really unnerves some opponents, by the way.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.
This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: David Murdock contemplates chess and grilled cheese