Posted by Sheila Connolly
My daughter is learning to cook. She has a shiny new college degree, but unfortunately it didn't cover the culinary arts. Somehow over the years, I thought setting a good example (yes, dear friends, we ate home-cooked meals together every night in our house!) would be enough to set her on the right path. Apparently I was wrong.
My mother was a competent cook. She put together balanced, if unimaginative, meals–meat, starch, vegetable. She gave me an appreciation for fresh vegetables, quickly cooked. She did like food, and enjoyed good restaurants, but cooking was a chore, something she had to do. She took no joy in it.
I started cooking when I was about twelve. My mother worked, and there were evenings when I had to start dinner–if starting dinner means putting naked chicken pieces on a baking pan, adding salt and pepper, and sticking it in the oven. I produced my first Thanksgiving turkey when I was seventeen. And when I was a senior in college (I lived in dorms, but the dorms did have rudimentary kitchens, even back in the dark ages) I purchased two, and only two, cookbooks: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (by Marion Cunningham), and Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (she had co-authors, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, and a writer must always give credit where it is due).
If you have never had the privilege of cooking from Julia, I have to say that her cookbooks are the most honest and the most accurate I have ever encountered (and I have quite a few–although fully half of them are for cookies). She describes how your dish should look along the way ("the sauce may look curdled, but don't worry–it will smooth out later"), and when she tells you a recipe will serve four, she means it will serve four normal-sized people with healthy appetites. My battered copy falls open to a number of familiar (and grease-stained) pages; some recipes I know by heart.
When we married, my husband and I both worked full-time, so we cut a deal: we would alternate cooking nights (the one who didn't cook got to clean up after). It has worked so far. But my husband is by training a scientist, and he believes that cooking should be precise. You have a recipe, you follow it, end of story. It would never occur to him to substitute one ingredient for another, much less to improvise an entire dish with whatever was lurking in the refrigerator.
So these are the styles of cooking my daughter grew up with, and it has been very interesting to watch her begin to establish her own style (find a cooking "voice"?). Let me say up front that my daughter has always been an open-minded eater. She does not quail at weird foods (unlike me–I was scared of onions into my twenties, and forget about garlic). She has savored the offerings of restaurants from Paris to Seoul. And she likes to eat, albeit at hours which do not always correspond to traditional mealtimes.
But watching her I realize there is something to be said for the basics. For example: She: "I want one of those things to boil water in." Me: "Huh?" She: "You know, one of those things with straight sides." Me: "You mean a pot?" She's not stupid, just oblivious. Recently we have had a series of conversations about what is involved in cooking and why. What makes a sauce? What does "boiling" look like?
Maybe the world has changed. Her generation has grown up with fast food and microwave ovens, so they no longer have any idea what goes into the food they eat. But a lot of them are starting out on new lives, with apartments, roommates–and little money. They can't count on eating out all the time, or surviving on ramen noodles. So they need to know some fundamentals, like what minimum equipment they need, and how to use it. A tall thing to boil in; a flat thing to fry in.
But she's learning. Her signature dishes, thus far, are macaroni and cheese and layer cakes. Neither of these comes from a box. She is taking it back to basics: what happens if you add more cheese, or use stock instead of milk in your sauce? Can you swap mascarpone for cream cheese or creme fraiche in your frosting?
At my daughter's college, Julia Child's memory is still revered (more so, perhaps, than the memory of two former First Ladies who also attended). Julia Child made food accessible, or, to use an incongruous term, "user-friendly," at a time when foreign cuisine was widely considered difficult or suspicious. Now we seem to have forgotten what real food is, and my daughter is laboriously retracing Julia Child's steps, only from the opposite direction.
(And by now you're scratching your head and saying, what the heck was that goofy title about? Because we were cooking together and trying to talk over the sound of running water, exhaust fans, the television, and eight other things, and that's what it sounded like to me. It does help to hold on to a sense of humor when you cook.)