June 30, 2010

Cooking is Fun-damental

Yon Saucy Wench's comment to my last post, to the effect that "what's key with cooking... is to play around, have fun, and figure out what works for you" flicked on a light bulb for me. It made me realize that, though I have had enjoyable cooking experiences, the words 'cooking' and 'fun' aren't an immediate association in my brain. I know plenty of people who love to cook, but I've never been one of them. The world - heck, the television - is full of people who are passionate about food, about cooking, but I've never been one of them, either.

And yet I love to eat, and I love good food. So why should I be less than enthusiastic about cooking? Where did that come from? Full navel-gazing after the jump. :)

First and foremost, it comes from my mother, who did the majority of the cooking when I was growing up. Her mother died when my mother was three, and her father remarried when she was ten, and in the intervening years there was a housekeeper who did all the cooking. Her father was a butcher, and cooked terrific Sunday roasts, but her stepmother was an uninspired and uninterested cook, and after the Sunday roast had been stretched to cold roast beef on Monday, roast beef sandwiches on Tuesday, and hash on Wednesday, her interest and her creativity were tapped out. My mother certainly didn't learn a love of cooking - or possibly any cooking at all - from the woman she always called "Mom". She must have learned some basics when she left Toronto after graduating from nursing school and moved out West with her friend Ann, because she had to feed herself, but we've never talked about that, so I don't really know. I know that Ann was a passionate cook later in life, but I don't know if she'd developed that passion by 1957 when she and my mom were flatmates, or if my mother was ever exposed to it.

When my parents got married in 1958, they didn't have a pot to piss in, as the saying goes. They were renting an apartment in the city, had very little saved, and a very small bun in the oven. (My brother, who moved the wedding date from September to July by his conception.) They didn't have many pots to cook in, either; my mom remembers boiling peas in the coffee pot in the early days. (This story astonished me as a child, because I couldn't figure out how you'd get peas to perk. I was a little let down when she laughed and explained that the percolator pieces weren't part of the process.) They went from carefree singles to married to parents in less than a year, and when they bought their house in late 1959, the new demands of mortgage payments straitened their now-single income even further.

It was necessary to live on a budget. I got a peek (much later) at one of my mom's early budget notebooks, in which the descriptor "housekeeping" encompassed everything that wasn't the mortgage payment or one of the utility bills: food, clothing, household supplies, stamps for letters and bill payments, you name it; it all came out of "housekeeping". The amounts looks absurdly small today, but they were small even for the time, I think.

The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (older edition) was her main guide. She still has it, and some of the pages are terribly tatty, but it's held together all this time. The other stay-at-home moms on our street in a new suburban subdivision were secondary guides. There was a real support system among those women. They kaffee klatched and played canasta, and shared babysitting and transportation, ideas and sympathy, recipes and advice.

It was the 1960's. Fresh food - especially fresh produce - was often expensive, and difficult to impossible to get out of season. I think potatoes, carrots, and onions were always available - at least, we always had them at Thanksgiving and Christmas - and we had tomatoes and corn on the cob in the summer and cabbage salads in the fall, but I don't remember many other fresh vegetables. Peas and beans came in cans, as did corn and mushrooms. And turnips never appeared on our table, because of my father's aversion to them.

We had a fantastic south-facing back yard that would have been ideal for growing veggies, but my mom wasn't much of a keen gardener, either (still isn't), so there was no hope of from-the-garden tomatoes or squash or cucumbers or peas or beans. I don't remember any of my friends' parents having vegetable patches in their back yards either, so maybe it wasn't as fashionable then as it is now; maybe growing vegetables was a reminder of a time when a victory garden could be the buffer between you and starvation, and thus flower gardens were a symbol of the prosperity that followed the years of rationing and privation. I hadn't thought of that before. Must ask her about that some day.

Add together meagre knowledge, a meagre budget, and meagre options, and it's hardly surprising that my mom found cooking for a family of four a challenge, a struggle, a form of drudgery. Her cooking was repetitive, often bland, and frequently unimaginative, and I'm sure we were an unrewarding audience for her efforts, because we complained about meals we didn't enjoy as readily as we expressed appreciation for the meals we really liked.

Looking back on those days now, she remembers "being expected to have dinner on the table every night", and she didn't get many nights off, especially in the early going. Our contribution, my brother's and mine, consisted mostly of setting the table and doing the washing up. I peeled a few potatoes and carrots in my time, and shucked corn, but generally didn't get near the actual cooking process. That was probably my mom keeping us safe, actually. Thanks, mom! :-)

Fast forward to my teen years, when she returned to the work force, and the sudden (to me) suggestion that my brother and I could each be responsible for preparing one dinner a week. To say we were ill-prepared for the task is an understatement. I had at least taken cooking classes in school, so could follow a recipe and open a tin of creamed corn without killing anyone, but my brother's talents lay in the boiling of water and the buttering of toast, and not much beyond. We hadn't been mentored, we hadn't spent years helping my mom in the kitchen, gradually taking on more of the responsibility for a whole meal; we hadn't learned the importance of timing the elements of a meal so they were all ready at the same time. Our first forays into "tonight is your night to make dinner" were intimidating and unrewarding, boring, and bordering on disastrous. Timing a meal was a particular challenge for me, for some reason. I still struggle with it. (I note, however, that my mother does, too, sometimes, so apparently I come by it naturally.)

I don't blame my mother for my lifetime lack of interest in cooking, any more than I blame her for my green eyes or my disinterest in doing well at math; it's something I have in common with her, and I may well have learned it from her, but I can hardly blame her for being unprepared to teach a subject she didn't understand well herself. What she knew, she had learned by being thrown in at the deep end, by having to learn it. Hardly surprising, therefore, that it's the method she employed with her offspring.

Hardly surprising, either, that neither my brother nor I developed much of a passion for the kitchen as a result. We both preferred when someone else did the cooking, and when we lived on our own, that's the choice we often made: go out or take-out. I found cooking for one boring and tedious, so I went for what was easy (and quite often what was prepackaged), or I went out. Going out was more fun, more sociable.

I have had fun in the kitchen, I've even had culinary triumphs, and the more I learn, the more I enjoy cooking, but the day-to-day business of what's for dinner still often feels like drudgery. I like to cook when I have a plan, and the time to execute that plan. Planning is the critical element in there, actually. If I decide on Saturday what I'm having for dinner Monday through Thursday, I don't have to get home at 5 p.m. and have to think of something I can make from what I have on hand, because I'll already have taken the chicken out of the freezer, and have the veggies and other makings bought and on hand.

The more I learn about cooking, the better I plan. The more I plan, the better I execute. And the more I plan and execute, the more enjoyable cooking becomes.

This online video cooking school thing, by the way? Still awesome. I learned all about stocks last night. Now I need to get my paws on some bones, so I can make a stock of my own!

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