A few years ago, a bunch of women I worked with were standing around talking, and I asked if anyone had any interesting dinner recipes that they’d be willing to share. They all stared at me for a few seconds (I thought maybe I’d breached some social convention unknown to me), then two of them burst out at the same time, “You mean you cook???”
My question back to them was, “You mean you don’t??”
I learned to cook from my mom, who learned from her mom (and I’m assuming that my grandmother learned from her mother, and on and on). Mom is a great cook – I figure that in her lifetime so far, she’s probably made somewhere on the order of 50-60,000 meals, and kept several generations happy and well-fed. When my nieces were younger, they were so impressed with some of her culinary efforts that they suggested she market them: Grandma’s Good Gravy (always delicious, never lumpy), and Mom’s Macaroni and Cheese. The girls were right – both those dishes, and lots of others, beat the hell out of anything you’ll ever find on any supermarket shelf.
I know a lot of people are pressed for time these days, but making something from scratch, out of real food ingredients (and without all the extras indicated in the usual voluminous lists of ingredients on packaged foods) is well worth the effort – and it doesn’t have to take a long time, either. With all of our modern conveniences – cooktops and ovens that come to temperature with the flick of a switch, electric mixers, blenders and food processors, microwave ovens, etc – we can whip up a meal in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken our grandmothers to do the same thing. (And then we can even pop the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, a luxury we didn’t have growing up.)
If you have access to an old family recipe box, you are lucky indeed. They’re becoming outmoded, what with the ease of picking a recipe off the internet, but these little boxes are real treasure troves. Not only can you see what your family feasted on over the years (yes, this might even include an orange Jello mold with grated carrots, pineapple, and miniature marshmallows, a staple on Grammie’s Thanksgiving table), but you’ll probably see it written in the cook’s own handwriting, sometimes with additional notes or old newspaper clippings. And you can tell from the grease stains on some of the cards which recipes were the old favorites, used over and over.
I’m always a little stunned when I meet someone who says they can’t even boil water. I’m a big proponent of the old axiom (adapted here to suit my own purposes!), “Give a man a meal and you feed him for a day; teach a man to cook and you feed him for a lifetime.”
For those who would quibble with my use of the word “man” instead of “person”, that’s totally purposeful – it’s just as useful and important for guys to learn to cook as it is for girls! I’ve insisted that my sons accompany me in the kitchen many times over the years, showing them not only how to do simple things like bacon and eggs, but also heartier fare, including spaghetti sauce, soups and stews, as well as treats like breads, cakes and pies.
The boys might have grumbled at times (they actually thought it was a lot of fun when they were young) , but this exposure has paid off handsomely for Rockstar, who is currently studying in the south of France, living in an apartment on his own. A well-stocked outdoor market is a few steps from his door, and he ventures out to pick up some of the best meat and vegetables to be found on the planet, then brings them back home and starts experimenting. He’s posted photos of some really luscious-looking concoctions, all of which inspire his fellow students to beg him for invitations to dinner. Since these questions always seem as if the writer is drooling on the keyboard, I asked him what his friends generally eat. The answer? The French equivalent of fast food – a baguette with meat or cheese, mostly. And when some friends back home sent him a care package including a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, it was apparent that his fellow students (the Americans, at least) could barely restrain themselves from knocking down his door!
Poor kids. Think what gastronomic delicacies they could be consuming right now if they’d only learned to cook….
Go! Go now, and get out your knives, your pots and pans and cutting boards, and dig up that old recipe file. And if you don’t have one at hand, call your mom – she might even be willing to give you some lessons. Better late than never!