Home Cooking versus Uncooking

Gourmet 1 rs

Gourmet Cookbook (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Have you ever dreamed of opening a restaurant, where people swooned over your food and generations later, the children of the children of your first customers would say, “ We would have no food memories if it weren’t for (fill in the blank) __________________!”

Well yes, I will confess, it’s been a dream of mine since forever. And I haven’t given it up yet. I read the other day that the town council here – a bunch of retros if I’ve ever seen any – actually might approve food trucks! How cool is that?

But what would I cook and what would I serve?

I think the question to ask these days is this: “What is comfort food for people today?” It’s becoming a generational thing, comfort food.

According to Grub Street, on February 5, 2013, the most cited comfort food was Ramen Noodles. But then comes cassoulet, fried chicken, meatballs, meatloaf, chicken soup, braised beef ribs, roast chicken, grilled cheese, shrimp & grits, mac & cheese, lasagna, and pot pie. Buzzfeed trots out a list of  the dishes that people born after 1970 think of when they think of comfort food: Mac & Cheese from a box, frozen Stouffer’s lasagna, mashed potatoes (thankfully not from a box, which are absolutely revolting, IMO), Chef Boyardee Anything,  Entenmann’s Raspberry Twist, Pancakes (any kind), Fried Chicken (on a biscuit, waffle, or in a bucket, the Lord help us),  Chili (including Fritos),  Pie, and Cinnabon rolls.

Yes, food people, “sweet dreams are made of” that, not broccoli or spinach or eggplant or any of the “good for you” stuff.

When I’m in an uncomfortable situation, for what do I yearn? I can tell you: vanilla milkshakes, just like the ones that Culver’s makes in the American Midwest. Or maybe a big fatty breakfast from Waffle House, with gooey American cheese stirred into the scrambled eggs with a side of raisin toast and cinnamon-streaked apple butter. Of course I won’t turn my nose up at spaghetti and meatballs or chicken-fried steak. Or a big bowl of chili, fragrant with chili powder, best with freshly fried tortillas.

The last thing on my mind is broccoli or the veggie tray when life throws me a curve ball. Give me a helping of mashed potatoes and roast beef with gravy that could stand in for library paste. Hand me a biscuit, soft and slightly salty and saturated with butter and honey. And don’t forget the cookies, the sugary ones that crack apart with one snap of my molars, the chocolate-filled thumbprints, and the soft gingerbread “little cakes” spread with powdered sugar icing, the ones that almost melt in my mouth.

I find recipes for these delights in most American cookbooks, at least the ones that purport to save our culinary heritage, even the latest editions of The Joy of Cooking, The Gourmet Cookbook so superbly edited by Ruth Reichl, and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, in spite of the somewhat pretentious title … .

The glut of gluten-free cookbooks, their authors jumping on a bandwagon due for a sure and quick demise; the cookbooks extolling farmers markets and the direness of not eating organic; and the frankly tasteless recipes of so many vegan cookbooks reminds me so much of the early days, when Diet for a Small Planet topped the bestseller lists and college food service officials scrambled to meet the demand for vegetarian dishes.

And yet that movement collapsed like a soufflé left to sit for far too long. Because the food frankly tasted horrible.

So what would a thriving food truck serve when so many people think that mac & cheese from a box actually tastes good?

I truly believe that if someone had enough guts to cook food from scratch, the kind of food that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers dished up for the hired men who helped to harvest the corn every summer, the big platters of food cooked up by immigrant families – whose food the home economics movement so denigrated, and the food relished by people from Africa and the Middle East, not to mention southeast Asia, well, THAT would be a food revolution indeed. A food truck for the ages.

The big food companies feed vast numbers of people, with food that might not meet the standards of the organic crowd. Things are changing, the big companies are answering consumer demand, there’s more so-called organic food out there, prices are somewhat more accessible to more people (but organic food is still the prerogative of the wealthier class), but are we happier because of it?

I think not. Food today carries with it so much guilt and denial and sacrifice. In spite of the supposed freshness, in spite of the so-called healthy attributes of organic food, I sense no pleasure in food, the kind of pleasure that people accustomed to hunger found in eating.

I ask you, what do you see when you look at photographs of people from the past? Do you see stick thin women or men with gaunt cheeks (unless they’ve been starved in the South during the Civil War or imprisoned in Andersonville or suffered the ravages of famine or the Great Depression or Nazi concentration camps or other social calamities)? Or do you see people well-fed, lucky them, not overly obsessed with looking like a Photoshopped model?

No.

In those photographs, I see people happy to have food to eat.*

I think we should be happy to have food to eat. I think, too, that teaching people to cook and exposing them to food cooked as it used to be in most homes would go a long way to help people reach an equilibrium with food. No, not a new concept at all, I don’t claim that it is, but I continue to feel sad at the lack of cooking ability that I see around me. But who’s going to do the cooking, time-consuming as it can get to be at times?

A comforting thought, though, that people might one day end up thinking of their childhood food as something that didn’t come from a box, that cooking is more than throwing together a series of pre-fabricated foods.

Could food trucks help? I don’t really know, but it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?

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*Yes, some changes could be made in the humane treatment of the animals bred and raised for human consumption. Yesterday I saw two long semis carrying hundreds of white turkeys, squashed into tiny compartments with no room to move. I again asked myself how I can eat meat when I see this sort of thing. I think the most important aspect of the current food movement lies in the raising of awareness of how our food is produced, but it must be understood that the enormous populations that must be fed, that the toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube – in other words, industrialization of the food supply is unfortunately necessary. I just hope that workers, the land, and the animals end up being treated more humanely and with reverence for the sacrifices that they make.

Farmers market 1 rs

Farmers market (C. Bertelsen)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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2 comments

  1. Tony Flanagan

    One slight problem is that the ingredients we have today are not the same as when those old recipes were written. This is particularly true of meat. I was lucky enough to be in Namibia last year. Its a dry country; scrubland; but they love their meat! Feedlot production is uneconomic in Namibia, they just let the animals roam over vast areas to forage. The taste really is incredible. It took me back to the first time my folks took me to a restaurant, ” Hey I remember meat used to taste like this!” Fifty years of industrialisation in food has meant we have sacrificed flavour.
    I have decided to eat less meat, but eat free range grass fed. I’m not a purist, in the Winter the farmer has to supplement silage with concentrates. Some. But 95% (or more) supermarket meat is feedlot meat, and actually doesn’t taste of much. As Michael Pollan points out, cows were never designed to eat Soya, they were designed to eat grass!

    • I agree, Tony, there are lots of problems with flavor, and all that sort of thing. It’s rather like the same thing that happens when the time comes to feed 450 people at a banquet; the food often doesn’t reach the heights of taste rendered by home cooking, if you know what I mean.

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