I’m always dismayed when I hear others say they “can’t cook”. Or worse, “hate cooking”. Back in the mid 20th century, I suppose, women were “liberated” from their kitchens, “freed” to go to work so they could pay someone else to cook for them. Even now, on certain AM radio stations, “get back in the kitchen” is an insult used against women in office by sexist blowhards. As more and more women spent less and less time in the kitchen, real cooking became more and more specialized. Basic cooking abilities, once as widespread a skill as shoelace-tying or self-bathing, was no longer necessary to feed one’s family. Non-cooks have been raised by non-cooks. Instead of homemade real food, we’ve bought into the Standard American Diet (SAD); and confused “making dinner” with mixing the contents of various packages or opening a bucket of take-out chicken.
I, on the other hand, have aspired to be a great cook. I was raised by a home-ec teacher, who took great pride in her kitchen skill and showed affection by preparing yummy things for our family. Mom’s jambalaya was legendary. For Thanksgiving she’d pull out all the stops, preparing a heavily peppered cornbread dressing, dirty rice, and juicy roast turkey all the while dancing to the first official playing of Aaron Neville’s Christmas album. Cooking was a skill. Cooking was fun!
Despite all this, my brothers and I were raised on the Standard American Diet. Mom, who worked a more-than-full-time job and raised five kids, relied on convenience foods for our meals. Fast food was consumed at least once a week. Soda or sweet tea was always on the dinner table. Sugar-crusted breakfast cereals and store-bought snacks were welcome in our home. And while love was shown with edible sweetness and comfort with deep-fried juiciness, our relationship with food was ambivalent. Mom and I were both heavier than we’d like to be. I followed her example and began fretting about my weight. She raised hell on my behalf in elementary school so I could drink the previously “for teachers 0nly” skim milk in the cafeteria. Even in second grade I had started dieting. We were suckers for any low-fat product we saw advertised. Olestra chips. (Anyone remember the warning label? Yikes.) Diet soda (Gag). Snackwells (cookies reminiscent of sweetened dirt).
By my college/single years I was a more adept cook than most of my friends, but almost all of my cooking involved opening box or can of something. I could cook greens, omelettes, and quesadillas on the stove. I microwaved broccoli and baked potatoes. In the rare periods I wasn’t broke, I ate a ton of salad – which came pre-washed in a plastic bag, of course. I added sliced tomatoes, feta cheese and bottled dressing. I ate Easy Mac, breakfast cereal, canned soup and veggies. Meat was intimidating to cook, but I wanted to be thin anyway, so usually avoided it.
One thing I did learn how to do well was apple pie – I made a real crust using a recipe I’d copied out of a magazine. It became my speciality and won a bake-off contest at our student ministry. I’d acquired a few cookbooks and magazine subscriptions and studied them. As long as I followed recipes, most things turned out fine. There was a learning curve, though. I didn’t know what all the cooking terms meant. It took one batch of astonishingly pungent hummus to learn the difference between “one clove” and “one head” of garlic.
Early married life provided me the challenge of cooking square meals for the first time. Rather than having leftover fried rice and Lucky Charms for dinner, it seemed like the thing real grownups did. I was heavily dependent on bagged frozen chicken breasts, which I cooked to a leathery dryness – either in a frying pan or stove. I served these with canned veggies and bagged salad. My tactful husband declared the peas that I’d always thought delectable (LeSeuer – the Rolls Royce of canned peas!), to taste like “boogers”. Having been raised by serious hippie gardeners, he was perplexed by my purchases of canned vegetables. I, too, was confused. Other than potatoes and salad fixins, the thought of purchasing fresh vegetables had never occurred to me. It was a turning point.