Last fall at a farm event, a woman told me she always enjoys reading my recipes. I asked her if she had a favorite. “Oh, I’ve never tried one,” she said. “I don’t know how to cook, but your recipes always sound so good.”
I was reminded of our conversation again just recently when I found an online video interview featuring Food Network star Alton Brown. Brown was asked if he thought a person could learn to cook by watching TV shows. He emphatically replied, “No.” Food shows could entertain and educate, he said, but too much about cooking requires hands on experience best learned from someone in person.
Looking back over my personal experiences, I think that’s true. I learned to cook mostly by watching my grandmothers and my mother cook, and from cooking with them occasionally.
Part of my pleasure in cooking today comes from remembering those shared experiences. One of my most magical memories of my midwestern grandmother was an afternoon we spent together in her farm kitchen making strawberry shortcake. Watching her measure ingredients with her hands, copying what she did, feeling the texture of the dough when she said it was just right, her hands on mine as she showed me how much pressure was needed to roll it out evenly–all these things are a visceral part of how I bake shortbread today. I never became as good as she was at measuring by hand, but I remember how shortcake dough should feel, and I still cut my shortbread into wedge shapes just as she did. I can even remember the taste of her strawberries, fresh from the garden and topped with fresh cream from the cows in the pasture.
My western grandmother fixed the most amazing breakfasts, and that’s what I remember most about her cooking. Bacon, eggs, oatmeal, grits, pancakes, toast, hash browns, coffee, orange juice, cream, and maple syrup–she always presented quite a spread. Getting up in the morning to the smells wafting from her sun-filled kitchen was intoxicating. Her scrambled eggs were the lightest and fluffiest I’ve ever seen, rich with the flavor of the butter she used to oil the skillet.
From my mother I learned to have family meals together, and to make my favorite comfort foods (meat loaf, pork chops, mashed potatoes, etc.). She also taught me to make perfect pie crusts. She baked award winning pies, and her crusts were a big part of her success. She always reminded me to keep the dough very cold as I worked with it, the key to light, flaky crusts.
When I first left home and began cooking for myself, I enjoyed trying new recipes from books and articles. I realize now how much of those early successes were due in large part to the basic foundation skills I’d gained from my family. I already knew how to handle food safely to avoid bacterial contamination, for example, and how to boil eggs–basic skills I took for granted.
Later I went through some years where I believed I didn’t have time to cook. I was focused on a career, and spending more hours working (and commuting). I ate out frequently, and though I enjoyed tasting new flavor combinations, I realized when I began cooking at home again that it was somehow never as satisfying as a relaxing, home-cooked meal.
When my daughter was born, I included her in kitchen activities from an early age. We did dishes together with her standing on a chair. She learned to enjoy trying new foods. At age 2, she loved pickled herring, and I remember her first calamari experience at age 3. Even today, she recently asked for help learning to bake bread, and discovered she loves baking. She’s passing her skills on, too. Her two-year-old son already enjoys standing on a chair at the counter with her, mixing small amounts of ingredients using the child-size cooking utensils we’ve provided him. Given the way he handles a whisk, he’ll be making souffles in no time!
Cooking is an essential part of eating as a locavore (a person who eats only locally grown foods as much as possible). Fortunately, flavorful local ingredients only require simple cooking methods. Cooking is also part of the delight of eating, and it’s never too late to learn. Find a friend or family member who cooks well and ask them to help you. Take a class, such as those offered through the community education programs at Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College, or the Community Food Co-op. Call them for schedules. If you really want to cook well, check out the classes offered by Ciao Thyme chefs at their restaurant. If you already know how to cook, pass on the joy!