Sunday, May 10, 2009

All growed up

Article courtesy of Amanda. You can find the full article here.

Growing up, I ate a combination of meat-starch-vegetable meals, leftovers supplemented with potato puffs and tinned peas, and always salad. My mother began working outside the home when I was ten, and my brother and I were assigned nightly chores. She would leave notes reminding us to preheat the oven and take the chicken out to thaw, which we would often forget then have to fake it that "of course we took it out in time! It must've been extra frozen!" My favourite tasks were making
Shake-n-Bake, which I considered my own private masterpiece, and monitoring the crockpot of stew, imitating my mom's technique for spearing a hunk of beef and pinching to test its tenderness.

Now, my mother watches me cook, marvelling that she has no idea where I picked up these skills. I remember watching her brine cucumbers from a neighbour's vegetable patch, and making apple sauce to last a winter of lunches, and I remind her that she taught me how to level a measuring cup, to battle lumpy gravy with a fork and determination, to improvise "buttermilk" by squeezing lemons into 2%.

The exciting part of childhood cooking was feeling like I was in charge, basking in compliments as I passed a plate. Certainly, I was showing off, but it also made me happy that I had something to share, something only I could make. Now, girlfriends and I host weekend suppers where we pick a kitchen skill one of us has and the others want to learn, and spend the evening basting in smells wafting from the stove. There is satisfaction in serving a complex meal, one that could have gone awry at any turn, and which features at least one thing my guests have never had before. My tastes have come a long way from fries and chicken fingers to cooking by season and buying shares in a local CSA farm. The way I eat is informed by a longing for something other than what is right in front of me, and an appreciation for things close to home.

I befriended Juliana when we were fourteen and living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We judged the city unsophisticated and dreamed of moving to France, where we would meet stylish men and eat delectable things. One day we were brought down a peg by our Home Ec teacher, who assured us that was not how one pronounced "Cannes" and that Winnipeg was one of the most diverse cities we could hope to live in. While that, perhaps, overstated what the prairies had to offer two starry-eyed girls, our teacher wasn't wrong about the large immigrant community and the foods that were available as a result.

Juliana's parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, settling in Winnipeg and raising two children on a combination of Korean recipes and processed foods from the supermarket. "My mom tried her best to balance what she already knew about cooking and the Western world. It wouldn't be unusual to go days just eating meatloaf, rice and kimchi. Or, rice, beef stroganoff and salad."

In a revision of our grade nine daydream, Juliana moved to San Francisco where she found herself immersed in high-end foodie culture, and where she met Bernard. After prolonged wooing via slow-cooked dinners, they married and moved to Paris, living for months with only a hotplate and mini-fridge. Juliana emailed me photographs of the pajeon she invented to meet the limitations of her tiny stove while taking advantage of the excellent local market; delicate Korean pancakes mirroring dinners her mother fixed in Manitoba. Eventually, the apartment gained a small oven, but unlike sprawling North American kitchens, cramped Paris demanded a relearning of culinary habits. "The compact oven goes with the compact fridge, which goes with our very compact apartment and our compact lives."

Are these kitchen skills and passion for the old-fashioned a sign that we're moving away from industrial processing, which has had a strangle-hold on our dinner tables for decades, and toward being able to feed ourselves from scratch? Or, is this another "fad diet", merely trendy and short-lived? Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between. There will always be a cycle of learning and relearning, coming to appreciate what traditions represent and the role we each play in maintaining a diverse and delicious food supply. And, once you master a simple pot pie, it seems unlikely you'll decide, "Forget this, I think I'll just switch back to the frozen stuff!"


  1. I see it as kind of a correction to a food industry that is in many ways untenable. There's nothing hippie, back-to-the-land, or nostalgic about it - just basic life skills that we stopped learning a couple of generations ago that now some of us realise are important and enriching. I think anyone who starts to get into cooking at some point discovers that DYI makes a difference. They then start to think that everyone is like them and are surprised to find things like bottled salad dressing and President's Choice 'Memories of Sodium' marinades in other people's refrigerators. I can't imagine not grinding my own curry spices, making my own sausage meat mix, or preparing hoisin from scratch but I have to remind myself that this makes me kind of a freak.

    ...but a happy freak.

  2. I am appalled when I talk to people about cooking and they confess that it's a dreaded chore.

    It seems weird--we don't sigh and shrug and wish we didn't have to take a shower every day, or grudgingly go to the toilet, or resent going to sleep each night.

    But, people will huff and puff and gripe and moan about what a time-waster cooking can be, or dismiss it as a non-essential skill. The office ladies look at my lunches and are astonished when I tell them I made it for dinner last night.

    "But that must've taken ages!" they exclaim. And, when I assure them no, only an hour or two, they reply, "See? Gosh, that's forever! I don't have the patience for that!"

    What were they doing instead of spending an hour cooking a meal (ie: making the food that prevents them from being dead)? Watching TV, talking on the phone, surfing the Internet, doing laundry and ironing each shirt with perfect cuffs.