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Saturday, August 1, 2009

How We Learn to Cook

The only time my dad came in the kitchen was to ask when dinner was ready. True to his generation he literally couldn't boil water. My mother and grandmother taught me to cook.

Long before there were neighborhood farmers' markets, my mom liked to stop at roadside stands to buy fresh tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. She followed recipes but also liked to experiment. She enjoyed having my sister and myself in the kitchen with her because she believed that cooking was fun.

I regarded it as a parental duty to teach my sons as my mom taught me.

When Franklin was six years old I gave him a step stool so he could reach the cutting board, a bunch of parsley, and a knife. He did an excellent job mincing the parsley. The only problem we had was when his mom saw that I had outfitted him with a very sharp 8" chef's knife.

She disapproved mightily. But no blood was spilled that day, and Franklin has grown up to be a very good cook, so has his younger brother. Having taught them both a few kitchen skills, they are off and running.

Recently a reader of the blog and a friend, Connie Ciampanelli, sent a remembrance of her mom. Connie picked up her mom's enthusiasm for cooking, even as, over time, she discovered farmers' markets and a different style of cooking.

Mom was a cook of the fifties, we had mostly canned vegetables. Once she brought home an extremely exotic item: Del Monte canned zucchini with tomato sauce. We were enthralled. Yuk. Major, major yuk!
I remember clearly going to the neighborhood store and seeing these big purple vegetables and wondering what the hell they were. I know now. Eggplant. Eggplant? What's eggplant? I don't see any eggs. Wow, I do digress...

Mom went back to work when my youngest brother started school, so I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. As the oldest girl, I was bequeathed the responsibility of cooking weeknight suppers (we were working class folks, it wasn't called dinner) for the seven of us. Here is a capsule of Mom's instructions:

"Peel (here insert vegetable: potatoes, carrots, green beans, themselves a rarity) cut into quarters, cover with water, bring to a boil and cook for one hour." Everything was cooked for one hour, yes, let's cook the nutrients right out of those babies.

EVERY supper had potatoes, never rice, Pasta was spaghetti and meatballs once a week. On Wednesdays. Dad liked his routine. Anything more exotic was not ignored but unheard of. We had meat with baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes. Dad would settle for nothing else. Scalloped? Au Gratin? Nah, too fancy. Rice? That's for sissies. God, when I think of the way we ate! But the salvation is that it was all done with love.
These days, how we learn to cook and who teaches us has become more than just a personal issue. The current health care debate includes an argument that medical costs are increasing at an alarming rate partly because of how we eat and how much we rely on ready-made and fast foods.

Michael Pollan has a thoughtful essay,"Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," in the New York Times Magazine, where he talks about the effect of mass marketing on the way we cook and feed ourselves. The net effect, he says, is that today Americans infrequently cook "from scratch" and usually regard cooking as a chore, something to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Statistically, he explains, when people cook their own food, obesity levels decline. The question is, how to encourage people to get back into the kitchen?

Looking back at how I learned to cook, like Connie, I was lucky that my mother taught me to enjoy cooking. In the kitchen the other day I wanted to show Michael, our youngest son, how to roast a chicken breast with parsley. He looked at me mystified. "Why do you think you need to show me? Franklin and I are your sons. We know already."

By osmosis or example, if we're lucky, our kids pick up on our love of cooking. That's a very good thing.

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