Last night I got home a little late from an event, but I still wanted to eat something real. We had gotten some beautiful cabbage and summer squash from the farm and I knew I had some leftover oven-roasted “bbq” chicken from the 4th. It was hot for Oregon. Probably high 80’s or low 90’s, but felt like a gazillion degrees in my kitchen. Even cutting up veggies meant working up a bit of a sweat. Thankfully, my old, trusty weber grill was there. It charred the veggies nicely and actually brought grilled flavor to my oven-cooked chicken. It was satisfying and fast and just a little more work than running to a fast food place to get something quick.
I posted a picture to facebook and one of my friends commented, “You eat so well. I am jealous.”
I’m sure she didn’t really mean anything particular by the comment, but it got me thinking. My grandmother, who lived into her 90’s, made herself a proper breakfast and lunch pretty much every day of her adult life. She lived alone for quite a long time as a widow, but she still made real meals. Almost always had a cake in case somebody dropped by. Still made the most amazing coffee cakes and other delicious items until it just got to be too much work.
I used to dismiss the ability to cook as a “sub par” skill to things like fixing a car or at least changing my own oil. I wish I had more skills in the home repair area, but I’m noticing, as I see what my friends are eating, that the ability to cook and the determination to do it are becoming a rarer and rarer thing. It’s easy to pick up pre-prepared items or other convenience foods. Maybe more people cook in the summer when it’s bbq season, but it still seems to be more “normal” not to really cook.
Don’t get me wrong. I pull through my share of drive through windows and have existed, at times, on take-and-bake pizza. There are moments in life when you just can’t face the idea of cooking or it’s just easier or more fun to let someone else do the work. That said, I’m starting to realize that time in the kitchen is not the same ‘work’ for me that others might find it to be.
I always liked being in the kitchen as a kid. I would watch my mother and grandmothers prepare foods. When I went to my maternal grandmother’s home, I got to make whatever I wanted for dinner each night. Turns out I thought making Campbell’s tomato soup was cooking. Still, it got me excited about getting into the kitchen. My grandmother made her own noodles and the best fried chicken (see photo, here, of her paper bag at the stove technique from 2004!). We ate the most amazing meals around her table.
My mom enrolled me in some “junior” cooking workshops via one of the public utilities. Before anybody knew what a smoothie was, we mastered the art of making a concoction reminiscent of a smoothie into popsicles using dixie cups and popsicle sticks. It was a way for me to assert some early agency in the kitchen. I am sure I should be most grateful to the home economics classes I took. We made all sorts of things that made it into my repertoire for years (jelly rolls, a U.S. version of sukiyaki, fettuccine alfredo), but I also learned the basics of kitchen techniques and how not to kill myself or others. I didn’t always love having to share the kitchen with the boys, but I’m glad I had that experience. Among my friends with kids, I can see how “foods” or whatever it’s called now can bring a child’s interest and palate to life.
I didn’t have to do much cooking in college due to the dining hall, so my most adventurous item for years was a pizza bagel in a scary, over-sized toaster oven that burned us most of the time. It wasn’t until I was living on my own in Japan in my early 20’s that I really had the time and need to cook. My neighbor fed me and many others a lot, but there were times I needed to fend for myself and I began to want to reciprocate. A friend suggested we do a cooking exchange, so we set a topic each month (like beef or pasta) and she’d teach me Japanese dishes and I’d teach her U.S. dishes. Pre-internet, I had to use what I remembered from my family’s kitchen and a basic cookbook when I was out of ideas. It was fun to see what seasonings were the same and which were different. I could see her cooking techniques. I think that’s really when I became someone who cooks.
Now, as a growing older person, I do value the ability to put a simple meal together. Except for the chicken, nothing more complicated than olive oil, salt, and pepper went into the veggies. Just delicious vegetables and char from the grill. The chicken wasn’t that complicated either. In the original recipe, it was just bbq sauce, peach jam, and garlic (http://tastykitchen.com/recipes/main-courses/oven-roasted-bbq-chicken-thighs/). For leftovers, it was just a little grill time to warm up and get some char on it.
Cooking relaxes me. Unlike most of my days, it’s clear when it’s the beginning, middle, and then the end. It’s satisfying and relaxing. I know people for whom cooking is the height of anxiety, and for them I wish we lived in communes where I could cook for you and you could hook up my computer/dvd/stereo/anything electronic. Doing these things sends me to my bed!
Cooking makes me feel self sufficient. And also generous. I love sharing good food with my family and friends. If it were possible, I wish they’d always be able to come over and share it!