Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System | Civil Eats

Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System

“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.

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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.

8772905554_7368fa3223_o8772905554_7368fa3223_oFrom 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.

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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.




Kim O'Donnel is a twenty-year veteran of the food world as a chef, cookbook author, journalist, and teacher. In addition to Civil Eats, she has dispensed culinary advice and covered food policy for numerous publications including the Washington Post and USA Today. The first Meatless Monday blogger on record, Kim is a known authority on the continuing trend of eating less meat for health and environmental reasons. Kim is a Staff Writer at LNP | LancasterOnline in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Read more >

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  1. Fabulous. You are making a difference in many lives. If the next generation shifts their food dollars toward whole foods, the impact on their health outcomes and the planet will be significant. But they won't buy produce if they don't know how to make it tasty, and they can't do that if they aren't taught. It isn't a skill one is born with. (Thanks for all you do.)
  2. Candy
    This is great! Can you do a version for working moms, you know, those of us working two part time minimum wage jobs and having to take mass transit to and fro with all the extra time that sometimes takes? We need some pretty cheap tools too -- how much does that knife steel thingy cost? And the spinner thingy? Even $20 bucks is a big deal for us. Can't we just do it with basic kitchen tools, you know the cheap kind I can sometimes afford to buy at Walmart? I want to lose some weight and I want the best for my kids but we aren't affluent and we don't have a lot of spare time (not any spare time, really). Is your lecture good for anyone except wealthy career moms and stay at home moms?
  3. Hi Candy,
    You most definitely can cook a simple meal without buying one single new gadget. For the platter of lentils that my mother is holding in the photo above, we used a cast iron skillet and medium saucepan. She's had the skillet since I was a kid. The sharpening steel that I described in the story was equally old, maybe even older, from when she first got married.
    We did buy her a new knife, for which we paid about $15. The brand is Kai Pure Komachi; it's an inexpensive line of knives from the Japanese knife company Shun. They come in a variety of bright colors and are very sharp. I just looked on the Wal-Mart web site and it looks they carry a 4-piece set, not individually like I've seen in grocery stores. There are similarly-styled, bright-colored knives from Farberware or Chicago cutlery; they will run about $12, maybe even less. And we spent about $30 on the salad spinner, but I have since seen them go for much less; in fact, the Mainstays brand (also on the Wal-Mart site) goes for about $5.
    Having said all that, I was thinking about the cost of tools last weekend while I was at a church rummage sale in my neighborhood. I saw a salad spinner for a dollar and a sharpening steel for two bucks. Of course, it's hit or miss to shop this way, and it takes research to find out where those sales are happening, but I have re-stocked my kitchen this way for years, buying gently re-used tools.
    As for finding the time to cook between the many other obligations and realities of our daily lives, there are still little things we can do. I always tell my students to start slow but steady, taking baby steps. If you're motivated to lose weight, as you mention, and know that cooking at home will help, that's a big start. The kitchen tools can come later. But time is precious too. Figure out what is realistic within the context of your budget, schedule and rhythm of your life. Does one day a week feel feasible, for example? The platter of lentils and rice, along with the cooked onions and spinach on top took an hour, start to finish. It cost about $6, for 6 to 8 servings.
    If you would like more recipe ideas or tips for getting started, I invite you to get in touch. I would be happy to continue this conversation.
    E-mail me at: kimATkimodonnelDOTcom
  4. Scott Schroeder
    That was a great article. It is interesting that the cooking lessons were in the reverse order of what we would expect- daughter teaching mother.

    Another point about more people getting into cooking- every time we cook from scratch, we are free to use heirloom varieties, non-commodity grains and specialty foods. Each time we cook with "from-scratch" foods, we are supporting smaller farming operations, not mega-scale corporate operations.
  5. Kim,

    Thanks for your beautiful, personal reflection, brimming with Love and all five senses - it was the perfect way to start my morning. I just wanted to share that the course and cause of my life was changed through my national service connecting kids to real food to help them grow up healthy through the nonprofit FoodCorps. Our organization is much like RIF in our dedication to engaging future leaders and community volunteers in an education based solution to the threat posed by diet based disease on the next generation of eaters. Our 125 service members this year are in classrooms in 15 states growing food with kids in school gardens, engaging students in hands on cooking and food-based activities in the classroom, and bringing the school cafeteria closer to the farm and scratch cooking kitchen. After serving in for two years in Michigan, I am pursuing a culinary degree so that I can keep teaching new cooks and feeding a new generation of healthy eaters!
  6. Jolene
    Thank you for your article. I too never learner to cook until I was out on my own. I told myself my kids would be different so by the time they were in elementary school they have been cooking dinner for the family. They had to plan the meal (nothing out of a box), make sure we had ingredients and make a grocery list and shop for anything we didn't have (I paid) . They were in charge of one meal a week. Now they cook for their friends. They are teens!

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