Making the most of our mistakes

cheddarsmA couple of years ago, I was making a batch of cheddar cheese. It was a recipe I’d made many times before, and I was cruising along, not paying enough attention to what I was doing. I sterilised my equipment, warmed the milk, and stirred in the cheese culture. As I put the package of culture back in the freezer, I realised I had used the wrong one! I’d used my mozzarella culture for cheddar! After a moment’s consideration, I carried on with the recipe as usual, making a special note in my cheese records that this one had the wrong culture.

Three months later, with some trepidation, we cut open the cheese. It was incredible—the best of mozzarella and cheddar, all in one cheese. It was a delicious mistake.

I made a note in my records. We named the cheese Bishop’s Corner (a local landmark—a tiny cemetery at a 7-way intersection), and I’ve been making it as one of my staple cheeses ever since.

There are so many cheeses and variations of cheeses, I’m certain that’s how many of them were originally developed. Someone made a mistake, and just carried on in spite of it.

It’s not the only mistake to make it to our dining tables. In 1898, the Kellogg brothers accidentally let some wheat get stale while they were trying to make granola. Instead of throwing it away, they rolled it and toasted it, thus inventing the first flaked breakfast cereal.

Dr. Spencer Silver made the most of a mistake, too, though not with food. In the 1970s he was a scientist at 3M, trying to make a stronger adhesive. He made a mistake and ended up with an adhesive that only stuck lightly. It could easily be peeled off surfaces. But he carried on, eventually using his “mistake” to create the now ubiquitous Post-It Notes.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes that don’t turn out well, but sometimes, in trying to salvage a mistake, we come up with something better than we originally intended. I like to think that our mistakes aren’t inherently bad, and that perhaps it only takes a bit of creativity or perseverance to turn a mistake into a great idea.