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The Practical Art of Cooking

We have just lived through a tidal wave of cooking obsessionWe have just lived through a tidal wave of cooking obsession. Thanksgiving, with all its turkey tips and side-dish recipes, can feel like overkill, particularly if you have been at this for a while. I try not to be snide; I remember the good old days when helpful hints and cooking instructions were appreciated. But that was back in the '70s when I was a young woman. A time when "aged" cheddar seemed gourmet, when asparagus tips were all the rage, and cooking with Julia was neither popularized nor parodied. It was an age of innocence, an age when you did not have to hide the Cool Whip.

Not that I am advocating for a return to Cool Whip and Velveeta, nor to the fancy foods made popular during the first wave of fine dining (we of a certain age have eaten our share of smoked oysters), but rather to a time when we could enter into a kitchen without fear, confident of our capacity to cook in the first place.

I'm not sure when we traded in our ability to cook plain and simple for the culinary complexities of the modern mouth, but ask almost anyone if they can bake a potato and I bet you'd be met with a blank stare. Yes, we know where and why to buy and eat grass-fed beef, but still don't know how to cook it. We are learning how to preserve, ferment, cure, culture, and brine but these are more hobbies than efforts to turn raw ingredients into mainstays of our daily menus. We know why today's pork can have fat again and why a layer of nearly an inch around a chop might be delicious but, as my mother said to Portland's premier pork hawker, "Do me a favor, for $8.00 a pound, you eat the fat." Which is to say, old-world cooks can separate out the good from the goodish.

You see, Mom had been raised in a world where money was scarce and cooking, day in and day out, was the logical response to the need to feed a family on a limited budget. She was not a fancy cook but a skilled one.She was not a fancy cook but a skilled one. If she wanted to eat fat she'd get it from the chicken schmaltz that floated to the top of the soup she made. She knew how chicken backs and necks, bought at a fraction of the cost of a whole chicken, could be turned into great soup (though these days chicken necks and backs sell for $1.99 a pound. What's up with that?), how to butcher out larger cuts into smaller ones when the big roasts went on sale, how to bake easy everyday cakes and, ultimately, how to get everything to the table at the same time, a skill that only time and practice allows. But again, she was a cook — an everyday, plain and simple cook. A dying breed.

To a certain extent I have followed my mother's food steps. As a child I watched her in the kitchen. I shopped with her in the markets. Over time I was given kitchen tasks; most likely, the ones she didn't want to do herself (chopping chicken livers, onions, and hard boiled eggs together until smooth was tedious work but I loved doing it). As a young woman I cooked through the first wave of fancy cooking — Scallopini, beef bourguignon, and mile-high cheese cakes. Later, and mostly because I did not know what else to do, I opened my first café. It was road-house cooking — plain, simple, and occasionally inspired. But when folks started referring to me as a chef I was quick to correct them. I was cook, not a chef. I was a cook born into a proud history of cooks, good cooks, great cooks — day in and day out in-the-home cooks. Bringing my pots and pans to the marketplace hardly changed that fact.

Later still, after turning in my professional apron, I started cooking in my home again, day in and day out. Though I was now growing, preserving, fermenting, culturing, and brining my ingredients, it was only after years of getting comfortable in the kitchen. If today I have become a "householder," it is because turning stuff into other stuff keeps me from shopping my way to sustainability.

But I could not have learned any of it if I had not been raised in a culture that made cooking a practical art and not a fancy one. I doubt I would have had the courage to try it on. It would have seemed too hard. Which is the point I am trying to make.

Next year, or from this day forward, in lieu of the fancy foods, try on the basics. Roast a plain chicken, steam some vegetables, make a simple stock, and bake a potato. Go into the kitchen. Get to cooking as if frugality and stewardship matters (which it does). Trust yourself. I know it can be daunting if you did not have someone showing you the ropes, but give it a try. Do like Mom did and bake a potato nearly every night for dinner. You just might show the next generation how good simple cooking can be. Only then should you try on flights of fancy which, if you have done your homework, can happen quite easily without a recipe. That was the exact approach I took the other day when a group of cooks and writers... (to be continued tomorrow)

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Harriet Fasenfast is an avid gardener, food preserver, homemaker, and lover of the soil. At fifty-six, Harriet officially fled main street (and her restaurants) for the greener pastures of the backyard, where she teaches classes on householding. Born and raised in the Bronx, she currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Householder's Guide to the...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

Harriet Fasenfest is the author of A Householder's Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and Beyond

2 Responses to "The Practical Art of Cooking"

    David Fasenfest November 29th, 2010 at 11:26 am

    She forgot to mention the flavor added when you scraped your knuckles on the grater making perfect batter for potato pancakes, or the first time you realized that a knife can cut more than what is in front of you, or learning why onions make you cry and how to deal with it.

    As another offspring of the same cook (the older and wiser one!) I have to say I am more of a chef, but this is precisely because good cooking also teaches you what food is supposed to taste like, and cooking with ingredients of necessity teaches you to be willing to experiment so long as you understand what happens when you add something different to the mix. And the distinction between chef and cook for me is one of choice of what/how we cook, and involves a deeper relationship to ingredients that is more than utilitarian.

    You can't argue, however, that some of the best dishes are also the simplest--a good broccoli soup made just from steamed broccoli, blended with its own water, with a dash of sale and some pepper to bring out the flavor, and the slightest pinch of sugar to brighten all the spices.

    One thing is certain--as our father would always say, cheap is dear. And by that he meant in the long run we spend more by trying to spend little. A cheap pair of shoes fell apart too quickly, the savings is an illusion. The better quality of the food, how much you can make from it (a meal, a leftover casserole, a nice soup) and how long it stays around to be eaten day after day beats hands down all the dollar fast food meals we can buy--meals that do little more than fill you up for the moment, leaving you hungry sooner than you realize--and in the long run it costs less and is better for you.

    Gunnar Rundgren December 1st, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    In Sweden there is a campaign for more expensive food....

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