Any conversation about American food culture eventually comes around to a familiar set of topics: the decline of the "family dinner", the pervasiveness of fast food, and ways to make cooking more convenient. Opinions on these matters tend to fall (unsurprisingly) across a spectrum.
One outlier camp, of which I'm a member, claims that cooking isn't a chore, and that there's nothing more important to human culture, human evolution, and even the essence of being human, than connecting with the sources of one's food and the rhythms of the seasons. The opposing set of ideologues view food as an inconvenient part of life, cooking as a hassle, and food as a source of calories and nutrients (and not much else). The majority of people view cooking wistfully: they'd like to spend more time in the kitchen, but their work schedules don't allow it; they'd like to cook more, but don't know where to start; they'd like to have a family dinner at home, but a restaurant or fast-food is quicker and less stressful.
Some people are raised in the kitchen, helping out as soon as they can stand, preparing meals for the entire family; to them, cooking is as natural as breathing. For the rest of us, when we first live on our own, we have no idea what to do in the kitchen (we're just excited that our new apartment has a kitchen!).
Given my current philosophy of food, you may assume that I was one of those people fortunate enough to have a natural affinity for the kitchen, but in actuality, these last eight years have served as a steep, often uncomfortable learning curve. In my first apartment, I didn't know what to do with whole ingredients, or how to create healthy and filling meals -- much less which ingredients were seasonal and how they were grown. I grew up in a household where dinner-time was a priority, although the ability to sit around the dining table shifted when my social life became dominated by soccer games, practice, and camps. My mom helmed the kitchen and turned out interesting dishes, often with an international element. I was exposed to a variety of tastes and grew up liking most foods--I didn't develop a knee-jerk reaction to reject a food, even if it was foreign to me (though in retrospect, I always dreaded steak night. And I always preferred when a meat was hidden in something, whether a sauce or breading, so I could distract myself from the taste and texture of the meat.)
I was comfortable with the "idea" of cooking, and certainly explored new foods when I was eating out, but as a young adult in my first apartment, I didn't know where to start or how to create a meal. I quickly fell into a reliance on macaroni and cheese (or the macaroni and cheese box with add-ins), a few basic pasta recipes from Mark Bittman, and DiGiornio pizza. I was interested in cooking and trying new recipes, but experimenting with a new recipe was reserved for a special night, when I wanted to impress my now-husband. If I had any other pressing plans, I couldn't afford to shift my time and attention to cooking. The curiosity was there, but the progression was gradual.
As I began to cook more, I shifted my shopping from Giant to Whole Foods, but I still sought out recipes claiming that dinner would be on the table in "30 minutes or less". Significant change didn't occur until 2009 -- change that came (perhaps unsurprisingly) with a shift in my priorities. Cooking is now a necessary part of my day. I love scouring cookbooks for recipes; I have an arsenal of "tried and true" dishes, and I cook seasonally and strive to cook ethically.
Yet despite my ready ease in the kitchen, and my accompanying knowledge of ingredients, I've developed a nagging, weary thought in the back of my mind: would I be as sure and competent in the kitchen without a cookbook?
I turned to Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal, hopeful that her "rallying cry to home cooks" would help me see the process of cooking in a freer way. I felt instantly absorbed by the first quote I read, in Alice Water's opening. She writes that An Everlasting Meal is "A celebration of the malleability of cooking."
In light of my own recent feelings of entrapment in recipes, I read this description with hope. Malleability is exactly what I've started seeking in the kitchen, and it's a virtue that's especially pertinent in the age of packaged "cook your own dinner" startups. Such services have recently cropped up across the country, aiming "to save you time" and encourage you to "sit back and relax while they do all the work". After users select a specific recipe, the service mails out a box full of precisely measured ingredients for that recipe: all the users have to do is to merge the ingredients into a meal; there's no measuring, or shopping, or even thinking involved.
I read a New York Times article on these food startups directly after I finished An Everlasting Meal. People who subscribe to these services will in fact light their burners and even turn on their stove. But is that cooking? And what is the take-away from assembling pre-measured ingredients from unknown sources? I don't think it's a sense of ease or flexibility in the kitchen. These packaged meals seem to create a bigger crutch and impediment to actually feeling comfortable in the kitchen. If everything is measured for you, there's no room for experimentation, deviation, or creativity. It's akin to following a prescribed set of directions during a vacation, without having any input into your own trip.
Most Americans grow up thinking that cooking is challenging and that there are better things to do. Adler argues for the exact opposite: "Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be -- a clear path through them."
And then there's this freeing thought:
We don't need to be professionals to cook well.
Adler modeled An Everlasting Meal after MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, which Fisher wrote in 1942 to inspire creativity during the food shortages of World War II. While I haven't completely read Fisher's tome, it seems as though Adler and Fisher share very similar ideas, each specific to their generation. Both Fisher and Adler champion the idea of breaking free of boundaries, experimenting with meals, and leaving behind the drudgery of predictability.
Adler has structured her book's chapters much like Fisher did. Each chapter is built around a specific idea, and each is listed under a similarly witty yet vague name, like "How to Stride Ahead" (about roasting vegetables and creating a myriad of meals from them) and "How to Live Well" (about cooking a weekly pot of beans).
Adler's prose is flowery and evocative. Some might find it off-putting, but if you can move beyond the flourish, everything she writes is grounded in a simple nugget of reality: cooking is only as hard as you make it.
After reading An Everlasting Meal, I found myself encountering an unusual feeling in the kitchen last week -- a sense of breaking free of personal constraints. Instead of following a recipe for a squash pasta, I asked myself: what would be the harm in roasting up 4 different vegetables and creating meals from them? After roasting beets, squash, sunchokes, and carrots, we created multiple satisfying meals: a roasted vegetable salad, a beet risotto, a beet salad, and a squash galette.
Here are a few key ideas I plan on prioritizing, as I continue my cooking and food education:
Embrace the process including the mistakes
I don't want to completely free myself from recipes, but I want to improvise without fear of failure. I will choose not to lambast myself if things don't work out, but enjoy the excited feeling when they do.
Adler writes that "recipes make food prep seem staccato; they begin where the writers are. Cooking is best approached from where you are. Serve, eat, store, consider the remainders."
As someone who loves recipes and cookbooks, I can understand her point: a recipe should merely be a starting point (except in cases where the measurements must be exact, such as in baking). Some days you might follow everything precisely; other days you might substitute dried herbs for fresh herbs, or vice-versa. If you really don't like cilantro, you have the freedom to leave that component out. Once you pay attention to your likes and dislikes in the kitchen, you can start to read a recipe as it pertains to YOU, not to someone else or even to the person who wrote it. You should honor that recipe: don't substitute spam for heritage ham, but work to find the best ingredients possible and then adapt it to your mood that day.
Salting water: You're cooking one thing that tastes good in another, so they both need to taste like something. Salt generously. And remember, the salt you're using is not equivalent to the salt used as a preservative in processed foods. (http://www.amys.com/health/special-diets/salt-is-hardest-ingredient-to-shake) The body needs salt. A salt-free diet is not only not healthy, it's bland beyond words.
Don't be hesitant: Cooking something halfway is the worst outcome: it hasn't retained the virtues of being just picked, nor has it developed the sugars that come with time and heat.
Trust your instincts : Adler writes, "Instinct is not a destination but a path." She doesn't claim that cooks should know exactly how a recipe will turn out or what flavors work best together, but rather, she advocates to carefully "prick" your way toward an answer, using each of your senses. A recipe's cooking times will be wrong; these times depend on the time of day, stove, elevation. Trust your senses.
A Few "Adlerisms"
Adler's writing is finely seasoned with a number of pithy (and wise) observations. These are some of my favorites.
"Use your microwave as a bookshelf or to store gadgets you don't like"
"I don't like to think of food as carbohydrates and fat because it gives an incomplete picture of how we digest. Belly laughter must burn calories and good conversation helps speed up what needs speeding."
On anchovies, olives, capers, and pickles: "They are not all universally loved, but few powerful things are."
"Food is what I love, and how I communicate love, and how I calm myself."