Would the real black forest please stand up?

There are few things in this world as amazing as black forest cake. That melt in the mouth blending of chocolate and cream…heaven on a fork.

One of my brothers once enlisted my help in a survey to determine the best black forest cake in Nairobi. My best assignment to date. My duties involved sampling the cake of the day and giving a verdict. By the end of my task, I came to the conclusion that there were about four categories of cakes being sold as black forest cakes: horrible cakes that didn’t deserve the title ‘cake’, let alone the descriptor black forest; chocolate cakes masquerading as black forest cakes; ‘almost’ black forest cakes; and the real deal. What differentiated the cake categories was how much work had gone into them, and what would be required to transform them into the real deal.

Starting with the horrible cakes- the problem started right at the foundation. These were irredeemable. No amount of work this side of Hogwarts would transform them into a black forest cake. So those were put in the category of ‘consume at your own peril’.

The chocolate cakes masquerading as black forest cakes usually had one of two problems…the base was too dense or the cream (usually a buttercream rather than real fresh cream) was included in sparse whispers. These could be salvaged by renaming them and pricing them as appropriate for chocolate cake.

The third category involved shortcuts. An ‘almost’ black forest cake would usually have a sponge base (a good start). Some bakers were stingy with whichever liquid was supposed to be used to moisten the cake (I hear moist is the most hated English word, but I digress. Moistening will usually involve a syrup…alcoholic or non alcoholic. It creates that melt in the mouth finish). Others would go for buttercream instead of fresh cream. It simply does not taste the same.

graduate_capSo, why am I going on and on about black forest cake? Because labels create expectations, and value is attached to labels. I am in the business of producing engineers. Mechatronic engineers to be specific. At university level, it is a joint task between my student and myself. Like in cake making, I work with the ingredients at hand.

At the end of it all, I sometimes end up with a product I find hard to call an engineer, or even a graduate. This is almost invariably a problem with the foundation. When reasoning is a problem, mathematics will be a problem, so physics will be a problem, so engineering will also be a problem (one of my lecturers at undergraduate, bless his soul, defined engineering as applied physics; physics as applied mathematics and mathematics as applied logic). In such a case, I tightly shut my eyes and wish everything would go away. When I described the horrible as an affront to the term cake, I did not mean to imply they were useless. Possibly the baker should have aimed at loaf. Or cookies. So, someone who doesn’t pass muster as an engineer (or a graduate) might very well flourish elsewhere. With less grief to the student and the lecturer as well.

Sometimes I produce good graduates, but not exactly Mechatronic engineers. These might be better categorized as entrepreneurs, accountants, politicians or even journalists. Labels are important. I don’t mind a chocolate cake labelled as chocolate cake. I mind a chocolate cake labelled as black forest.

Once in a while, all the right conditions are there. But laziness or avarice may result in an ‘almost’ engineer. This is the bright student who’d rather hand in a masterpiece of other students’ assignments than create his own. The student who insists on solving the same problem in class, during tests and in the final exam with no deviation (thus operating on memory instead of using logic). The good student whose lecturer reads out from the same yellow pages, and who decides to rely on the same yellow pages as all they need in life. Such a product is easier to fix…there is plenty of opportunity to engage in lifelong learning. Many platforms provide free courses. Information is all over. All it requires is a bit of initiative. The foundation is there.

Finally, in each batch there is the real deal. The students who keep me on my toes. Those to whom I readily admit that I do not know everything (though I usually know where to find it if it is needed). Those that I learn from. The real black forest.

In conclusion…labels are important. May we always exhibit consistency between our packaging and what we deliver. Oh, and should you wish to send me a real black forest, I prefer cherries to strawberries.

About the author:
Lina Owino, Head of Department of Mechatronic Engineering, JKUAT and lover of cake.

4 thoughts on “Would the real black forest please stand up?

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