“How cool is this!” Susan, a 68-year-old retiree from Philadelphia, was on her maiden voyage with her new toy, a salad spinner.
As she pulled the spinner’s retractable cord, the room filled with a rattling hum, similar to a washing machine at the end of its cycle. She was visibly pleased that after just a few pulls, the lettuce leaves tucked inside the colander-like basket were nice and dry. She marveled at how she could both wash–“Wow, there’s a lot of dirt in these leaves”–and dry salad greens with just one tool.
This was just one of the many ah-ha moments for Susan, who signed on to take an immersion cooking course with me earlier this summer. Over the course of a week, we met in her kitchen each day with one primary objective: Getting a handle on the bare essentials of cooking.
With beautifully washed and dried greens before us, the next logical step was to make some salad dressing. This would be another first for her record books, a stark departure from decades of lining the inside door of the refrigerator with an array of store-bought bottles of Thousand Island, Ranch, and Creamy Italian.
She could hardly fathom, as with the salad spinner, the low-tech simplicity of the DIY version. Surely there was more to salad dressing than a few tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a lemon, salt, pepper, and maybe a smidge of strong mustard. “That’s it and you just shake it all together in a little jar?”
You see, during the 20-plus years of raising three children, Susan put dinner on the table with minimal chopping, slicing or dicing. Instead, she opened cans, unsealed jars and unzipped seasoning envelopes, as per the directions on the back of a box, and within minutes, voila, dinner was ready. With so many heat, reheat, and quick-serve options on supermarket shelves, Susan, a young mother of three in 1971, felt no need to learn how to use a kitchen knife, and it certainly never occurred to her to make salad dressing. In her mind, Susan fulfilled her job of putting a hot meal on the table for her family. Nobody ever starved, she noted.
Susan is right. Her kids did eat three “square” meals a day. But they each went out into the world without knowing how to prepare one.
I should know. I’m her daughter.
I was 21 when I graduated from college, the same age Susan was when she gave birth to me. I bought my first cookbook (The New Basics by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso) and fumbled my way through my first-ever apartment kitchen. Cooking dinner, I quickly learned, was a practical way to stretch my measly paycheck. But it also set me on a path of personal discovery. Cooking was a way to learn about the world and find my place in it. It helped me grow up and grow into a kinder, more nurturing version of myself. Far from a great cook was I, botching and burning and under seasoning with great frequency. But it hardly mattered, I was cooking dammit, and I felt alive.
Learning to cook reminds me of discovering my true love for reading. I was six years old, the lucky recipient of a brand new hardbound copy of Charlotte’s Web, a gift from cousins on my mom’s side. I laid at the foot of my bed, on my stomach, and cracked open the book, reading out loud so that I could hear the words, proof positive that I could read, yes indeed. It marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair; reading took me places I longed to go and helped me to better understand the world, even at the age of six.
At the stove, my world similarly expanded. Even when I screwed up a dish, I learned something new: Maybe math or chemistry, botany or history, or a hard-fought lesson in patience. Looking back now, with the perspective that comes with a culinary degree and a 17-year food career, I still believe deep in my bones that cooking, which marries the practical with the magical, can be the greatest teacher of all, and that it’s never too late to learn.
It was in this spirit that I approached Susan about the kitchen project. Nothing too cheffy or complicated, I said to her over the phone, simple tricks and techniques like washing and drying salad greens and making legumes.
Legumes. What are those?
You know, lentils.
Oh yes. And can we make some quinoa? I would like to learn how to make some quinoa salad. I love the one that’s on the menu at Terrain.
Sure. And maybe work on some knife skills, you know, how to dice and slice.
Ugh, my knife is so dull. Maybe we need to buy a new knife.
Secretly, I hoped she would have so much fun and feel so empowered and wowed by her food that she would forget about what she had never learned and instead celebrate what she would come to know. As with reading, cooking is all about diving in and just doing it.
Our adventure began, as it did every day, with warm-up exercises that went something like this: “Okay, ready? Heel, tip. Heel, tip. There you go. Glide, glide. Twenty times on each side.”
You might think we were working out to a Jane Fonda tape. Instead, we were honing our knives with a sharpening steel. A long metal rod used to maintain the edge of a knife, the steel is one of the first things I learned to use in culinary school, but unfortunately it rarely sees the light of day in most home kitchens.
Use the steel on your knife every time you cook, I said. Think of it like flossing, daily maintenance that doesn’t replace annual dental checkups but makes them easier. A knife left unhoned goes dull very quickly.
From honing, we’d transition to actual chopping. Susan was particularly excited about the “half moon” cut (also known as the crescent), which gives her quick-cooking thinly sliced vegetables. With the half moon, she saw many possibilities within easy reach: Caramelized onions, sautéed zucchini, and melty-thin potatoes for a frittata.
By our fifth day, Susan had prepared two kinds of lentil dishes, boiled quinoa (“wow, it took only 15 minutes!”), seasoned the quinoa with her newly beloved salad dressing in a jar, and stuffed that quinoa into bell pepper halves. We cruised the supermarket bulk section and comparison shopped for lentils, walnuts and oats, and we bought just-harvested asparagris (her word) from a local farm stand that we roasted and topped with lemon zest and grated Parmigiano.
The point of this little tale isn’t to self-congratulate the teacher or to boast the number of dishes that the student mastered. The point is that Susan showed up, all five senses engaged, and she jumped off the sidelines.
I’m sure some of you are asking how this sweet little mother-daughter cooking story has any business appearing in a serious publication about the food system.
The thing is, home cooking is serious business. It is a conscious decision to turn raw ingredients into a meal to nourish ourselves and the people we love. The food system is more than crops and livestock; it’s what we humans do with them.
In these disheartening times, when we’re asked to make sense of mega farms, antibiotic-resistant foodborne outbreaks, and poverty-driven obesity, cooking is a beacon. It gives us purpose when we want to throw our hands up in the air in despair and it’s something positive that we can do–me, Susan and you, you and you. It is a call to action that is both self-sustaining and sustainable.
Back in 1966, a woman named Margaret McNamara founded Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating illiteracy. To this day, RIF pro-actively puts books in the hands of millions of children who otherwise wouldn’t have access.
RIF points out on its Web site that “Literacy–the ability to read and write–is essential to developing a sense of well-being and citizenship.”
Couldn’t we say the same thing about the ability to prepare a simple meal? Cooking is as fundamental as it gets–to our personal health and nourishment, and to the well-being and longevity of our communities, culture, and society. It can be the cornerstone of a sustainable food system, if we give it a chance.
In the words of the African-American proverb: “Each one, teach one.”
See you in the kitchen.