(Heads-up: this is wayyy long, and a bit of a rant, but, I tried to offer solutions and not just a list of gripes...unfortunately, it's what I see all the time. There IS hope!)
A few years back, a buddy in residential construction called me.
“Hey, I got a brand-new Wolf stove…you want it?” I paused for a few moments, wondering what the catch was.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, “does it work, what’s the deal, how much is it?”
“Dude”, he continued, “the crazy lady had it installed and doesn’t like it. Can’t return it either. Oh, it’s free, too!” Tony was over the following Saturday morning, backing his work trailer into my driveway as I stood in a wool robe, barefoot and sipping my first cup of coffee.
“You’re good!” I hollered, giving him a yelp and clenched fist indicating a perfect landing. He bounced out of the cab of his growling, diesel elk hunting rig and began loosening the tie-down straps. “Nice, huh!?” he grunted with a grin, “you’re gonna love this. Gimme a hand…where you want it?”
This will be really nice, I thought, to finally have a Big Bad Wolf. What did I do before this extravagance? Well, I cooked like everyone else in America on whatever I had. Would this new stove make me a better cook? Not likely, but, the fun factor just went off the charts. Odd isn't it, I thought, so many families have top of the line stoves, but, use them only intermittently. What's the story on American lack of cooking anyway!? It's not for want of equipment, tools and books, that's for sure. Why don't we cook as much as we used to...?
Families for the last 40 years have cut the apron strings to their home kitchens in increasing numbers and it’s become a crime of epic cultural consequence. The scourge of convenience has inundated our homes; wracking our health, stealing our traditions and is responsible for the general dumbing down of two generations in basic cookery.
As a country, our cooking skills are in the toilet. Actually, we suck.
Is it just prepared foods that have wrought the demise of the home cook? Not entirely; there are a host of additional reasons for the downfall of the family meal. Single-parent families became more prevalent and the time to prepare a meal at the end of the day became diminished. The Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s, instructed us that a mom cooking for the family became a foolish and demeaning endeavor. Running a household was akin to indentured servitude and women were encouraged to find themselves outside the home. The era of both parents working stressed more income and subsequent better lifestyles. Unfortunately, this pulled the cook out of the kitchen. Men stood back, ignoring the vacuum and didn't lift a finger, seldom if ever preparing anything more complicated than meat on a grill during a weekend beer session. Therefore, some girls growing up since the 70s weren’t taught the basics by their mothers. The chain of tradition was broken. Industry picked up on this shifting demographic and began offering more and cheaper substitutions. If you didn’t know how to cook rice, mash a potato, or make a gravy, no sweat. Here’s a packet that will do it for you! Better yet, just go out to eat.
Now we have millions of families that genuinely don’t know how to prepare a balanced and nutritious meal. When I speak to people on their reasons for avoiding the kitchen, I’m met with a raft of sorry excuses.
“ We have so many activities, the Costco chicken is only $5, it never turns out like the picture in the magazine..."
As of 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average household spends $7,023 annually on food. Of that, $3,008 is spent on eating out, a whopping 43% of our food budget! As a chef, I know that the food cost in a restaurant is around 33%, so, the money spent on eating out could have purchased over $9,000 in groceries.
It must be hard to cook a meal at home when you don’t know what you’re doing. Imagine the frustration of the home cook, the sheer terror of failing again in front of loved ones. Without skills, we're forced to rely on following a stifling recipe by rote; flailing about like a clumsy, wooden puppet only to collapse at the end of each performance. The torture that has become the kitchen experience is revisited each time because we reinvent the wheel with every recipe, we never learn the skill of cooking. Recipes are guidelines, as every chef in the world will tell you, but, you have to use your sense of taste and powers of observation to create a dish. How could you cook without recognizing Sweet, Sour, Salt, Bitter and Savory (Umami)? You don’t cook because you can’t cook, therefore, you assemble and re-heat factory prepared products. Wow, it only took 12 minutes, yay!
And so, it continues…the food industry has now created our palates for us; loaded with sugar, salt and fat. As my 10-year-old daughter and I drive to school in the morning, she notices and we pity the cars lined up at a McDonald’s drive-thru at 7:30 for ‘breakfast.’ “Dad, you mean all those people don’t know how to toast an English muffin or crack an egg?! That’s saaaaad…”
Our American Palate. If we are what we eat, then this has become a nation of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
What absolutely kills me is how parents have become spineless enablers to their children’s’ pseudo-sensitive palates. “My kids won’t eat anything but chicken nuggets.” “He doesn’t like anything green,” “She only eats buttery noodles.” Really?! I've always found hunger to be a key motivator.
How many kids in Mexico have the same afflictions? None.
How many kids in India, France, Vietnam, Wherever-istan won’t eat but a few select items? Zip!
They eat everything and do you know why? Because they aren't afraid of food, they savor it. Look at America in the last 40 years and the Food-pocalypse, tripe-du-jour we have been fed. Butter, gluten, nuts, animal fat, red meat and cheese are just a few of the killers lurking the aisles and cases of our grocery stores. The real 'Killers', however, are the gargantuan portions now expected by an increasingly sedentary population glued to screens and subsequent inactivity. Remember when a Coke was 6 ½ ounces? If you’re worried about weight, get off your butt and get physically active. That means play so you sweat, kids. Get away from the screens and be an active, sentient being. The equation is very simple: Calories in = Calories Out.
Cooking in America has become an almost gladiator spectacle as well, replete with winners, losers, king makers and tyrants. The Cook has become the Spectator; cheering the victors, critiquing the vanquished and yet, never once entering the arena to soil their leggings or infinity scarves. In some instances, the food channels have taken a beautiful and essential part of every culture since the dawn of humanity and debauched it into culinary pornography. The scorched-Earth eating, cooking and baking competitions, the voyeuristic intrusions into businesses and personal lives, and the close-ups of staged emotions are sad and pathetic exhibitions. I’m waiting for “Kitchen Injuries” to be next…let’s see some blood dripping, third degree oil burns and minor amputations. Hold on! To really get the feel of a commercial kitchen, nothing tops the calamity of a dinner-time grease fire with cooks screaming in 3 different languages. Maybe we could ride along with a county Health Inspector and see how our food is really stored; the fluctuating holding temperatures of over-used refrigerators, listen to the stalling, song-and-dance of the chef/owner while prep cooks scurry to cover, label and date foods. “Cual es la fecha?” they yell, “What's the date?”, to be told by the sous chef to use yesterday's date for prepped food containers.
Yet, like a pining, would-be lover desiring acceptance, the home cook still longs to be a part of the kitchen. We may purchase the latest, glossy book oozing with Tuscan romance or romp through a chain kitchen store to add another glistening thing to our appliance garage. Look! I bought a crock of wooden utensils for my mirror-like counter top. Big deal, you'll never get them dirty. We want the association of being a ‘foodie’, but, really we're just too lazy to learn and petrified of failure; like the kid in elementary school that had the best baseball glove and new kicks, yet, still couldn’t make contact and struck out every time. Tools are useless, inanimate objects without our knowledge and skill guiding them.
When we do try, American home cooks want to it to be convenient too, hoping that skills can be absorbed through osmosis from either the shiny covers of our cookbook collections, making dinner reservations at the latest ‘farm-to-table’ establishment or a weekend in Napa.
It’s time to drop the oven mitts and fight back! “But Chef, I don’t know where to begin…” We start with fundamentals and must come to terms knowing we are ignorant, have been lazy and selfish, and in need of emergency assistance. Call it a 12-Step Healing Process. Here’s how…
1) Buy a digital meat thermometer and learn to use it: on-off, Celsius-Fahrenheit, battery replacement. This will take the guess work out of ‘doneness.’ I use one and own 3.
2) Roast a seasoned, whole chicken on a half-sheet pan in your oven at 350 degrees. Using a digital thermometer, cook to 160 degrees when inserted in the thigh. That’s the piece connected to the drumstick. When done, cut away the drums and thighs, remove the breast meat and save the pan drippings for a sauce or gravy in a saucepot. Put the carcass in a large pot and cover with cold water. Place this on a medium flame burner, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 2 hours. This will become a stock for soup. Pour 1 qt hot water on the sticky bits of the roasting pan and scrape with a cookie spatula. Place this in the sauce pot with the original pan juices. Thicken with a roux and adjust salinity. This is do-able; I just taught this same lesson to 12 and 14-year-olds in a 50-minute elective class at my daughter’s school.
3) Take your children grocery shopping and task them with selecting 2 fresh vegetables and 2 fresh fruits. Let them choose a dessert which will be served one night per week as a special treat. Period. They now have ‘skin in the game.’ Don’t flinch on this!
4) Vow to have 3 distinct components to the meal: carbs, veggies and protein. They can be integrated in a pasta, soup or baked dish. The Big 3 can be combined on a skewer, rolled in a tortilla or artfully arranged in concentric circles on a dinner plate.
5) Look up these words in the dictionary: Saute’, Fry, Roast, Braise and Steam. Take notes on when to apply these techniques. It will prevent you from ruining your meals.
6) Never buy Top Round Beef, it will only be edible as a burger patty slathered with vinegar-based condiments. Avoid factory breaded fish, it’s never as good as doing it yourself. “But, Chef, I don’t know how…!?” In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, beer, salt and white pepper. Mix to a pancake batter consistency. Easy. Learn to ‘Cook with your eyes closed,’ that is, braise a chuck roast or pork shoulder overnight as you sleep. When you wake, the house smells fantastic and you have 2 or 3 meals of protein completed to perfection.
7) Surprise your family and cut up a fruit tray to be served at a meal. It’s colorful, delicious, healthy and sparks conversation at the table. Left-overs can be recycled for breakfast smoothies. If your knives are dull, learn to sharpen them. Dragging a blade over a sharpening stone is like slicing thin peels off the top of a cold stick of butter. 5 times on each side at a 22 degree angle (¼ of a 90 degree angle) until sharp.
8) Gather at the table each night for dinner, together. Show children how to properly use their utensils. They didn’t arrive pre-programmed, therefore, we are tasked with uploading their software. When cutting your food, you must see the pointer fingers on the backs of the knife and fork, pointing down at the plate, providing support as the remaining fingers wrap around. Chairs are for butts, napkins are placed on the lap and used to wipe the mouth and fingers. They are NOT hats, tissue for a cold or receptacles for partially chewed food. Set a timer for your meal at 30 minutes. No one may leave the table until then. All screens, phones, and TV are off. Music may play quietly in the background.
9) Clean out your fridge once per week. All those Tupperware petri dishes of remnants are just dying to make you ill. We tend to save everything and continue to push foods to the rear of the fridge until they grow fuzzy jackets. If you don’t use something within 3 days of preparation, either pitch it in the trash or freeze in a Ziploc bag. ‘But Chef, how do I know food is good or bad…?!” Label and date all your foods with masking tape and a Sharpie marker. It’s what the pros do. If we don’t use it in 3 days, it’s adios amigo!
10) Organize your shelves and pantry with military precision, including the fridge. Put those items used regularly the closest to you; kosher salt, pepper mill, peanut butter, soy sauce and honey are on my first cabinet shelf. Same goes for the pantry. Place your reserves on the shelves according to type: pastas together, beans and rice, canned goods, baking spices, savory spices, juices, vinegar and flour. In the fridge, here’s a novel approach: put big things in the large spaces and the small things in the small spaces. Store foods in square, stack-able containers since the refrigerator is a square, empty cube! Drives me berzerkawitz when I see a big-ass salad bowl in the fridge. All around it is wasted space.
11) Your refrigerator door is your saving grace, the straw that stirs the drink. Load that baby up with condiments; Sriracha, Red Hot, 4 different kinds of mustard, mayo, pickles, salsas, relishes, hoisin, sauces of any kind. These small, intensely flavored condiments will take a simply prepared group of protein, starch and veg and turn them into a regional favorite. Pivot into the Crisper section of the fridge and garnish with green onions, sweet peppers, citrus zest, cilantro, and Bammo!, you’ve got a new face on a pretty ordinary dish.
12) Make your Kitchen Space your Happy Place. Put on some music, pour a glass of wine or a Northwest IPA, set up your station with cutting board and favorite knife, grab a bib apron that you like, and start from an immaculately clean work area. Arrange the pans you’re going to use, set up your spices and herbs, arrange your ‘mis en place’, all the things you’re going to use in an orderly fashion. Invite family members to assist in some small task. Glance out the kitchen window and take a breath. Think to yourself, “I’m about to have a great time, because I’m prepared, and they will love what I cook because I know what I’m doing.” Look over at your stove and wink, because it’s big and bad, but, you’re no longer afraid.
You’ve domesticated your Wolf.
Take Care, God Bless and Remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"
Take Care, God Bless and Remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"