As I have repeated over the years, leaning heavily not only on my own personal experience but on the writings of Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and a wonderful book by Jeannie Marshall, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids; we need to talk more about cooking and do more of it in our own homes. Many words are devoted in the press and on the web these days about the origins of the food we eat – in field and factory – and what we can do as individuals and as a nation to make our food safer and healthier. But we are seeing less and less verbiage devoted to the art and science of cooking that food for our own consumption. I am not even sure we are talking about cooking anymore. And it wasn’t so long ago that we did.
I spent many hours as a young teenager in Harrisonburg, VA with my Aunt Paige who loved to cook – she just liked trying something new every day to see how it turned out and find out whether or not she liked it, if it was worth the effort, if her family would eat it (the biggest hurdle for her with two sons of her own and a local teen her family “adopted” after his father was killed in an auto accident), and most importantly, whether it was worthy of being filed in her little box of cut-out recipes. In the beginning, most of those recipes were from McCalls and Ladies Home Journal; but later on she subscribed to Gourmet and changed my life forever.
When she knew I was coming to visit, she would cull her box of untested recipes and have a small stack ready for us to cook through over a two-week or even one-month period, and we would get to most of them before I left for home in Georgia. And I still have some of those recipes in my little boxes of cut-outs. We talked a lot about what we were cooking, and I know she and my mother both talked about cooking and their latest “finds” alone together, at the pool and at bridge club. Even at family gatherings, we would talk about the food – and I am happy to say that my family still does that when the cousins get together.
We talk about food and its preparation at home – we don’t talk about the nutrients or the calories or the cost or the convenience – we talk about the food; we talk about the gorgeous ingredients that we picked from our gardens or bought at the farmers’ market or grocery store if we must and the options we had for putting it to good use. We talk about recipes and how we tweak them to serve our own tastes and circumstances. And we talk about enjoying the food that we have cooked.
Mark Bittman reminds us of the day – not too long ago – when all newspapers included a weekly food section or recipes every day of the week often provided by a local food writer. (Many of my own cut-out recipes came from those newspapers.) And Mark also mentions all those Junior League, small town social club, and church cookbooks that sat on the cookbook shelf in our own homes. Bittman does not consider today’s flood of cookbooks or TV cooking shows to be their replacement either. He laments that “ most cookbooks are offshoots of TV “cooking” shows, almost all of which are game shows, reality shows, or shows about celebrities” – or as I contend, shows that treat food as eye candy rather than nourishment for the body and soul, and cooking as some Olympic event rather than the creative and relaxing activity that it can be.
I will pick up this theme later, but I have a thought or two of my own: why can’t we just cook what we love to eat and eat what we love to cook? And share the joy of both. That would take us back – and maybe forward at the same time.