Sunday, August 02, 2009

Slow Food

There was a time prior to the allergy diagnosis when we ate "normal" processed foods, and yearned for something more. A return to "old" cooking. I quickly learned that this meant different things to my husband and I.

One year, I wanted to do something special for his birthday. I was still trying to wrack my brain when he commented idly how much he missed butterscotch pudding.


Yes, pudding. But not just any pudding. Not the little plastic cups that you get at the store, and not the instant boxes. Real pudding. Old fashioned pudding. His eyes closed as he broke into a fond reminiscence...He conjured for me an image of his mother, with a frilly apron, slaving for hours over a hot stove, stirring a pot full of bubbling butterscotch pudding. She'd always have to make a double batch, and there were never leftovers.

The next time I saw his mom I asked about her recipe. She was vague. Pudding is pudding. She suggested I just buy some and tell him it was homemade.

Undaunted, I called her. I asked again, seeking specifics. Again, she was vague. It was a long time ago, she said, you don't want to go through all that trouble. Its all the same anyways.

But the trouble was going to be part of the gift. This confirmed to me it was real, old fashioned pudding she used to make. The good stuff I'd read about pioneer day books. I perused cookbooks. I looked online. Finally, I found something that looked promising. I carefully gauged the grocery bill that week to allow for real butter and actual cream. I measured, poured, and pot-watched. I stirred until my shoulders screamed for mercy. I entreated the toddler to entertain the baby. I almost cried when bits of scrambled egg appeared, but quickly grabbed a sieve and scooped most of them out.

At last, we proudly, albeit nervously, presented the concoction to my surprised husband. Who took a bite, and tried to conceal his disappointment. Shrugged and while I can't remember everything he said, I do remember one sentence. "Maybe she used a different brand. We could call her and ask."

Brand? Brand? Brand of what? Vanilla? Did she use real scotch? (I'd opted against that recipe) This had become a vendetta for me. I wanted to get it right. Was it the bit of egg that scrambled? WHAT?!?

He gave me a funny look.
Later his mom confirmed that "old fashioned" pudding was the famous comes in a box. (Eventually the enormity of my cooking fiasco was also made clear to my beloved husband, and he apologized for not being more grateful. He'd never fathomed the possibility that one could make pudding out of brown sugar, eggs and cream; let alone that it could take any more time or effort than baking muffins, which I did regularly.)

I think of this story with a chuckle whenever the concept of cooking from scratch is brought up. Because it seems that every generation over the past 100 years has it's own new idea of fast food, and it's own brand of nostalgic "from scratch" cooking. First those lucky town ladies who could waltz into the corner butcher shop for steak, or veal or chicken parts rather than keeping and slaughtering their own. Then the canned soup revelution. As soon as freezers became a household staple, there were TV dinners. And we've progressed.

My daughter pleaded for a cookbook at the last school bookfair, and when I leafed through it we found that not one of the recipes called for any fresh ingredients. They were all branded products. A woman at a Girl Scout meeting asked about our food allergies, and mentioned that while it seems hard for kids it also doesn't seem like a very big lifestyle change. She makes everything from scratch.

Of course I was interested...But very quickly learned that "from scratch" means using prepackaged ingredients along with some fresh herbs and prepackaged spice mixes to create a new dish. My vision was fresh baked bread, dicing veggies, and canning fruit. I suppose the dicing veggie part was accurate. She was offended that I consider sliced bread "packaged". Let alone her canned tomatoes.

Scratch cooking is a lost art. People don't know what a rhubarb is, much less what to do with one. Do you cook radishes? Are onions supposed to be this papery? How do you carve a Turkey? And what is this weird packet inside it? The term "cooking from scratch" has come a long way in the past hundred years ago. In fact, a hundred years ago, I doubt the term even existed.

There was a point in time when cooking a meal meant beginning with the decision of which chicken was next to slaughter. Meal planning was automatic. You went to your pantry, you put together what was there. There were signature dishes, of course, but as authors who try to create period style recipe books tell us, the expected results may vary significantly from today's standards.

My peers look with trepidation at an artichoke. My husband asks if he can toss the parsnips, assuming some carrots have gone bad. A woman in the store complains about the dirt left clinging to a potato, which makes me laugh. With a corn allergy, I look for dirt on my produce. Dirt means it's real. It's fresh. It hasn't been polished with corn derived wax, or rinsed with special germ fighting corny solution. Corn allergy has resurrected an understanding of "scratch".

It's also brought about an appreciation of simple food. Pasta with oil and a few veggies is delicious, elegant, and easy. Bread is a luxury, not a daily right. Rice is versatile. It goes well with beans, or eggs, or veggies or soup. And it's easy...rinse, glance through for stones (Which are hard on the teeth, but gluten, corn and casein free) and cook. Eggs are the ultimate fast food. If you want to enhance a vegetable, roast it with onions. The scent of caramelized onion will improve any meal and spark almost anyone's appetite.

I'm still struggling to come to terms with using meat, too. I can see the beauty in the simplicity. A roast chicken, a vegetable, a starch and you're done. However, there's a huge hole in my meal planning history that never included meat to begin with. I was raised vegetarian in the Seven Talents post-seventies granola era. Grains were high priority, although our doctors encouraged a heavy hand with the cheese. Until recently, we were encouraged to simply combine grains well. Eat a variety of supermarket and restaurant offerings. Too much thinking is discouraged. Look for an explosion of flavors, pour mixes and boxes together. Voila! A taste sensation.

Even the medical community, who is supposed to be supporting the slow food revolution, is slow to accept the movement. "And try to cut back on the fast food," the pediatrician always admonishes as we leave the office. I give him a withering look, but our lifestyle, our real, honest to goodness eating at home every night lifestyle, is beyond comprehension.

However, I'm still struggling to master the art of June Cleaver style cooking, and balance the pyramid.

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