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The EATEN PATH: Relearning the lost art of cooking
Many of us grew up with family traditions in the kitchen. Some of those traditions are connected to certain days of the week, foods that kids and dads and moms learn to associate with the day.
Spaghetti on Monday, boeuf bourgignon on Tuesday, perogies on Wednesday, salmon on Thursday, tacos on Friday.
Whatever it is. Or was.
When I was a kid, my mother — who, while a feminist who worked full time, did all the cooking — would open the fridge, see what had survived the week, both on our plates and in the crisper, and make a meal.
She even had a name for it: End-Of-The-Week Review. It wasn’t always great, to be clear, but it was always edible, always good and sometimes really good.
Iron Chefs are given ice chests full of crab legs or duck breasts or tofu and a full larder to make a gourmet meal. I’d like to see Bobbie Flay or Masaharu Morimoto walk into an average kitchen when the pickings are slim and see what they come up with for dinner.
But the reason my mother was able to make a meal out of leftovers, and why Flay or Morimoto could too, is because they know how to cook.
Cooking may not be exactly a lost art, but it’s certainly seen better days. The slow and steady decline in the skills of adult Canadians can be attributed to many things not least of which is demographic changes in the home and the push by large food processing companies towards the middle aisles of grocery stores.
Why cook when you can reheat?
In a 2009 New York Times column “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” food journalist and author Michael Pollan belied the loss cooking skills in the face of rising cooking show popularity.
“[H]ere’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?”
But that was 2009, and I would argue today that the last decade of food show popularity is at least partly to credit for what is becoming a back-to-the-kitchen revival.
In the few weeks that I’ve been writing The Eaten Path, one thing has been mentioned by nearly everyone I’ve interviewed is that eating local is as much about kitchen skills and a love of cooking as anything else.
“We want to try to offer cooking classes so people can learn the fundamentals of cooking,” Dan Oostenbrink of The Local Harvest on Lickman Road told me.
Oostenbrink is direct, even almost sounding unsympathetic about those who say they can’t cook.
“If you want to learn to paint you buy the canvas and brushes and paint and you start working at it. If you are not that good when you start, you ask someone who knows what they are doing and ask them to help you. Cooking: how difficult is it? Look on the Internet and follow a recipe.”
Carrielynn Victor who told me about Sto:lo traditional foods and wildcrafting, finds the loss of cooking sad.
“It’s tragic because there is so much benefit in experiencing creating your food,” she told me. “They tell us that our hands are extensions of our hearts and when you are actively cooking, your thoughts transfer to the food and then you see that in the people that eat it.”
And there is hope.
I contend that Pollan’s concern that we were watching cooking shows but not cooking five years ago is either wrong or outdated. Whether it’s teenage girls learning to make cupcakes because of something they’ve seen on TV or the manliest of barbecue men investing in smokers to make competition quality ribs in their backyard, there has been a return to homemade meals.
And if you need help, there are a few places around here to get a little.
Tonight (May 15), is the last instalment of the Foodie Collective Series put on by the Chilliwack Community Arts Council. Indian cook Anu Kaur will be teaching people how to make the classic dish aloo gobi along with chapatis and raita. I was at a friend’s home for a cooking class from Kaur a year ago, a real treat to realize the slow process of creating a rich pan of butter chicken and watching grilled chapatis puff up on the open flame of a natural gas grill.
Dian Learn was a baker for 15 years and she’ll be offering basic cooking classes in June for kids aged seven to 12 through the Chilliwack Community Arts Council.
Learn says she’s often surprised how many people in their 20s she meets, even the newly married, don’t cook.
“They think Kraft Dinner is cooking,” she said.
Learn tries to instil in kids that they can make things from scratch.
“It’s something you are going to do for the rest of your life. You need to eat to live and so you should enjoy that.”
The Chilliwack Arts Council has more planned for kids cooking classes in summer camps, and they have more adult programs planned in the Foodie Collective Series for the fall.
Check out www.chilliwackartscouncil.com for details.
Red Seal Chef Leo at Vita Bella Bistro on Luckakuck Way offers occasional cooking classes as well as private lessons right in your own home. Check out www.vitabellabistro.com for details.
Granola bars - Recipe courtesy Dian Learn
Bake 350 C for approximate 15 minutes
Makes one large pan of squares, maximum size 10 inches by 16 inches
(Works best if pan has sides)
You might like to start by baking a half batch at first till you figure out which flavours you like best together.
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
3 tablespoons honey
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 cup large flaked rolled oats
1-1/2 cup rice crispies
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup cranberries (dried, chopped if you like smaller pieces)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chocolate chips (mint are good with coconut)
Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, currants, dried blueberries or cherries, chopped dried apricots, chopped peanuts, spices of your choice, ground flax seeds, wheat germ. Also, use gluten-free flour instead of regular flour, or replace part or all of the butter with peanut butter (or almond butter).
1. Mix all the ingredients well
2. Press into pan
3. Score with a chopper before baking. Cut the squares about how big you want them before baking. It helps to get them apart afterwards
4. Start to check the squares around 12 minutes. They should be cooked but not too hard
5. Store in an airtight container