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Emily L Learns to Cook

October 4, 2019

Somewhere, deep in my distant memory, I recall what it’s like to cook.

Despite my better efforts, over time, family dinners have taken a nosedive. Largely, that’s because the kids are growing up and their activities span more into the evening hours than ever before. Getting the entire family around the dinner table is now only possible four nights a week.

Friday is shabbat, and we continue to observe our tradition of a rotisserie chicken, a loaf of challah, and some vegetable on the side. One night, we may have some variation on The Pasta of Infinite Blandness. One night is a dinner of convenience food driven by something canned, boxed, or frozen from Trader Joe’s. And maybe, just maybe, there’s room for one cooked from scratch dinner during the week. But most likely, some sort of unscheduled event has gotten in the way of dinner once again.

Still, I believe in cooking. If we were currently part of a CSA, the sheer number of vegetables would demand it. But this year we’re in a rental kitchen with limited freezer space, and there’s only so much I’m willing to undertake.

I mention this because today I’m pleased to share a guest post from Emily L which has reminded me of the importance of cooking. But it’s also paints an accurate picture of how it’s so easy to avoid cooking at all in these modern times. I’ll let her explain.

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book
By Emily L

How did you learn how to cook?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. My mother insisted on having a home cooked sit down dinner five nights a week in our house (we would also have pizza night and make your own dinner night which primarily consisted of eating cheese from a block), but somehow I never watched how she prepared foods. Food Network and the classic cooking shows on PBS were always on in our household, but I was never motivated to try anything out. I made the occasional boxed cake or cookie mix, but boxed mac and cheese was so beloved, I felt no need to challenge my culinary skills.

When I got to college, Buzzfeed had just launched, providing me with endless articles on meals you could cook in a microwave. And just as I got my own apartment, food blogs with step by step recipes and YouTube cooking channels were just hitting their prime. Amazon allowed me to order whatever I needed in just two days time, from cookware to uncommon ingredients like tamarind paste and Za’atar. As my food needs grew as I got older, technology provided me with everything I needed to know.

But how did you learn how to cook before you could simply Google it? On a recent trip home to Ohio, my mother pulled out the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book from 1950.

This was the book my grandmother (and I am sure thousands of other women across America) learned how to cook from. The book made no assumptions of any previous food or cooking knowledge, making it completely approachable to the novice. The first page of the book explains what is means to “measure” something and features picture examples of different measuring tools from cups to spoons.There are several pages defining food terms from “bake” to “sear” to “parboil”. I was surprised to learn a few new terms myself including scald (to heat just below boiling point) and try-out (to fry solid fat or fat meats, cut in small pieces, until fat is separated from membrane). The rest of the book features recipes by categories with pictures of each step. It has recommendations of what to do before starting a recipe, how to serve, and how to keep leftovers.

This being a cookbook from the 1950s it features plenty of jello mold puddings, mayo filled salads, cheese sandwich loaves, and pickles on everything. One of my favorite appetizer recipes, entitled “flaming cabbage”, features a large head of cabbage, cored, with a sterno lamp in the cavity. Cocktail sausages are to be placed into the heart of the cabbage and guests are invited to broil them. And while there are plenty of heart attack inducing recipes, I was also surprised to find instructions on how to pit an avocado and how to cut into a pomegranate. Though many of the vegetables are suggested to be served boiled or creamed, the cookbook emphasizes balanced plates of meat, vegetables, and fruit, with dessert only being served on special occasions.

For women living in new suburban homes with new appliances but without someone to teach them what to do with them, cookbooks like this one must have been life changing. Indeed, as my mom leafed through the book with me, she realized every single recipe she grew up on originated from this book.

For those of us fascinated by food, it is hard when we hear someone has never cooked eggs before or only can make chicken nuggets from a box. But I think we need to realize, sometimes it is a matter of life circumstances that someone has not learn the basics. Instead of judging, we can use it as an opportunity to discuss and guide. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Perhaps my introduction to Emily’s post was a little bit of an exaggeration. Of course there is still some cooking going on. I can still make some dynamite scrambled eggs. Plus, one of my great joys is finding creative ways to turn leftovers into something delicious.

My ongoing problem is simply coming up with something delicious the whole family will enjoy. So largely, instead of cooking family meals, today’s cooking projects mostly involve my lunch. Which for me, has always been the benefit of not having a traditional job. The hot lunch, cooked to order, and eaten at leisure.

It wouldn’t make for a very good cookbook, but you do have to understand a few of the cooking basics. Recently, I got The Science of Good Cooking as a gift. That would be a pretty damn good place to start. For me, I knew most of the stuff already. But I still appreciate the approach the Cook’s Illustrated team takes with cooking and instruction.

Learning to cook really isn’t that hard. Making the time to cook is a different matter entirely.

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