Thursday, March 1, 2007

Learning to Cook

Ahhh, I just made some really delicious food. I have things to say about teaching and my current research hyperventilations and still have to gather my thoughts about theory in response to Acephalous, but I will write about eating. For what could be more Sisyphean than the continual cycle of cooking and washing up, hungering and then being full? Keeping my kitchen clean seems to be a constant and losing battle against entropy. It’s tempting to want to give up on the whole thing, but cooking, and eating, (unlike making your bed every day) have their own pleasures.

Fittingly, I seem to make New Year’s Resolutions — or rather, to re-dedicate myself to Resolutions I am continually lapsing from — continually. “Learning to cook” has been on and off my resolution lists for years (it doesn’t help that it directly conflicts with the “lose weight” resolution), and most recently I made the more specific vow to learn to deal with vegetables. It was part of my plan to eat healthier, and, frankly, because I don’t know what the hell to do with them — when is it in season? How do you know when it’s ripe? Or done cooking? What do you have to cut off, and what leave? And do I have to eat them afterwards? Sheesh.

Luckily, my friend and dissertation buddy gave me a wonderful book for Christmas, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is a tome, I tell you. It’s great. The only thing I would like is more color pictures of the veggies and dishes, cause, really, what I need is a “Cooking Vegetables for Complete Numbskulls” book. But the book is wonderful not only for its description of how to cut and prepare the vegetables and for listing what types of veggies and sauces or herbs go well together, but for revealing how amazingly wonderful and delicious vegetables really are. The book achieves this remarkable feat simply by recommending that pretty much everything in it be cooked with butter. (It’s very French-cooking style in this way. Even stuff that is being steamed is often covered with a butter sauce as the final step. Light Vegetarian Cooking it is not.) Now, while I do recommend that everyone immediately go out and buy the book (and then invite me over for dinner), I will warn that it assumes you know some things — “salt to taste” and “boil until done” are some unfortunate repeated phrases that have no ballpark ranges, so first attempts are often inedible. It also assumes you have tons of fresh herbs and lemons etc. just sitting around in easy reach, which often leaves you in the position of running amuck around the house with something burning, shouting “crap! I have no dill” or “what the fuck are scallions and what can I possibly use to substitute at the last minute?”

But tonight I made tomatoes with a balsamic vinegar glaze, having especially made a trip to get balsamic vinegar (but not, unfortunately, scallions), and it turned out pretty good despite some omissions and substitutions. And that’s one of two difficulties I have with cooking: to get really good at cooking requires a willingness to experiment, to depart from a recipe, that I don’t have the confidence for. The other is that cooking doesn’t seem to be taught well from a book. It would be much easier to stand next to someone as they worked, pointing — “when it turns this color, take it from the heat. Stir it like so and be sure to shake the pan a bit.” Most of my friends who are good cooks had mothers who were good cooks and valued quality food — while I totally appreciate my mother’s feminist refusal to spend more time on preparing a meal than it took us to eat it, an alternative to convenience food could have been to require everyone to contribute to the kitchen work. For food isn’t simply what we eat for nutrition, or the sensuous pleasures of its textures and smells as one prepares it, food is all the memories of our families and cultures and the stories that get passed down as they it is made and eaten.

On the same page as my balsamic tomato dish was a recipe for fried green tomatoes, which looked intriguing, but I did not have any cornmeal, or tomatoes that were green, either. It reminded me though of a passage I have always loved in the novel Bastard Out of Carolina, not a scene of happy family gatherings and storytelling, but an important instance of cultural education nonetheless. Anney Boatwright has married up, so she thought, but now is trapped in marriage to a shiftless and abusive man in the impoverished South of the early 60s. One day she is driven to feeding her children saltines with ketchup at lunch and then sending them to bed hungry, which drives her over the edge. “I was never gonna have my kids know what it was like. Never was gonna have them hungry or cold or scared” she hisses at her husband, before putting on full makeup and heels and driving away into the night. When she returns much later, it is with big sacks of groceries, and she wakes up her two little girls. Pointedly ignoring Glenn, her husband, she begins to cook, with fury and with skill, eggs, biscuits from scratch, and fried green tomatoes. Sleepily, the little girls begin to eat. As if to fill the silence, or to preserve the powerful association of storytelling and cooking, she begins to talk about how they should be prepared, saying that "You got to get the tomatoes almost done before you put the eggs in, 'cause you don't cook the eggs much at all. Want them soft. Want them to melt like butter between your teeth and your tongue." It is clear, though, that the real lesson she is teaching here is not directed at her children at all, and that Bone, the eldest child and narrator of the novel, dimly realizes this. Distracting her children from the indignity of a saltines and ketchup lunch, Anney earlier tells stories of what it's like to be really hungry and how she and her brothers and sisters would imagine the most outlandish and disgusting imaginary meals to fill their empty plates. Deprived of food, they have each other; unable to share money, they eat their words. In a different way but no less powerfully here, Glenn is shut up and shut out of Anney's family, unable to provide for them, on multiple levels.

1 comment:

Horace said...

I taught myself to cook in grad school, and it DID help to have friends to cook with (though this can often be an excellent excuse for a small party). And trying pretty much everything you make is also important. The willingness to experiment comes over time though, and you may need a year of cooking straight from recipes to begin to want to substitute chives for scallions, or perhaps raw shallot, or sliced red onion, all of which will yield slightly different results.

Similarly, a pantry grows over time. I stocked mine by adding one pantry ingredient that I didn't need immediately to each grocery trip. So if I needed balsamic vinegar and dill, I'd pick up balsamic and dill and, say, nutmeg. slowly, that pantry will grow until you have enough on hand (plus fresh ingredients) to make most anything.

But food (as many of our stories about food tell us) is best done socially, so let me really encourage you to find your way to cook and eat with other people whenever possible.