Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Joy of Simple Food

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading my grandmother’s cookbooks, including a “Joy of Cooking” from the mid-1940’s.  The thing that has struck me, over and over, is the simplicity of the recipes.  Four or five ingredients are combined to produce a tasty dish without a lot of attention or intervention from the cook.  Many do take several hours, but the majority of that time is spent on the simmer or in the oven.  As I look at them, I see how many of them could be made using a crock-pot or a slow oven, using the staples of my own moderately-well-stocked pantry.  So-called ‘convenience foods’ (canned soup, bottled sauces) appear rarely, and are treated as emergency supplements for a short schedule or an unexpected situation when they do.

I contrast this to my experience using online recipe sources and reading food blogs.  I find complex arrangements of ten or fifteen ingredients, at least two of which I invariably don’t have on hand, heavy reliance on prepared foods (for example, premixed Italian salad dressing, bottled marinades, and boxed rice or pasta meals appear frequently in recipes), and restaurant-level presentation.  In most recipes the phrase ‘just before serving’ seems to appear.  “Just before serving, shave curls of extra-dark chocolate (85% cacao) into each bowl...just before serving, garnish with a tablespoon of creme fraiche and a dot of mango salsa...just before serving, arrange chicken medallions over sorrel puree and garnish with jicama matchsticks.”

Is it any wonder that the slow food and whole food movements have been dismissed as elitist and impractical for the insistence that we should cook more and rely less on processed foods?  When people are led to believe that ‘cooking’ requires this or this for everyday meals* (look especially at the ingredient lists, and ask yourself if you have freshly ground white pepper or broccoli rabe on hand...), then of course home cooking looks like a thing only people with time and money do.  Of course that box of Rice-a-Roni makes sense, when contrasted against “Orzo in Mint Salmoriglio Sauce.”

But what if you took that boxed pasta side dish, and weighed it instead against boiling some noodles, frying some onions and garlic and tomatoes in butter or olive oil, and tossing them over the pasta, maybe with a sprinkle of thyme?  Now the comparison looks a little less daunting, no?  But it incorporates fresh produce and contains a bare fraction of the sodium and preservatives, giving you a superior food product -- for the same amount of time and money as that boxed side.

How did we get here?  How did we arrive at a place where someone who doesn’t have the time and money to bake cinnamon-chipotle cupcakes filled with raspberry ganache and topped with a reduced Chambord glaze thinks that Hostess Twinkies are the only other option?  Where did we lose the middle ground of simple, delicious, quality food?  You can blame single parents, you can blame education cuts that took Home Ec out of high schools, you can even blame Monsanto and the corn lobby.  You can definitely cite studies about how many Americans live in ‘food deserts’ without reasonable access to fresh food and quality groceries.  These things all have something to do with it.

Even more though, I think it has to do with a loss of appreciation for the simple, and a break in the passing of family wisdom.  Almost none of my friends learned to cook at home; they’re pretty much all self-taught.  In contrast, most of what I know came from my mother and grandmother, who never ‘taught me to cook’ so much as they ‘kept me in the kitchen, handing me tasks, while they cooked and I learned by example’.  I learned to respect and appreciate the basic taste of the things I was eating, without hiding them in sweet sauces or covering them with strong spices.  

There were still things I didn’t exactly know how to do when I left for college, like hard-boil an egg and roast a turkey, but the skills they gave me meant that I could read a simple recipe or suss out a cooking puzzle (extremely helpful when my CSA basket began delivering me vegetables I’d never seen before).  My grandmother also gave me my first cookbook, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which filled in the gaps admirably -- though it has no recipes for broccoli rabe.

Occasionally, in the produce section, some helpless-looking person of about my age will look at my veggie-filled basket with hopeful eyes.  He’ll gesture at the beets in my basket, and he’ll say, “Um.  Excuse me.  How do you cook those things?  I only ever had the school lunch ones.”  Or she’ll watch me confidently sorting through the turnips and whisper “How do you know which ones to get?”  So I explain that beets can be boiled or roasted, but are best roasted until they get sweet on the outside, or that smaller turnips are more tender and less bitter, or that onions should feel firm and heavy for their size and leeks need a good washing after they’re sliced.

The tips I give them are things like “steam these” or “mash these” or “you can chop up the tops and cook them like spinach.”  Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just the basic means of getting acquainted with the food.  Later, once they have a sense of beets or leeks or even that rakish broccoli rabe, they can explore the different things they want to do with it, but I start them with a basic introduction.

Our relationship with food and eating is badly broken, and everyone has suggestions for fixing it.  I’m no exception:  we must start by exploring that relationship and making it a balance of function and beauty.  By recognising that while we *can* amaze our friends and families with involved preparations, expensive ingredients, and complicated presentation, we’re not obligated to and it doesn’t actually change the love of sharing a meal with them.  Most of all, by being guides for one another back to the sanity of simple food and the joy of eating.

(*Full Disclosure: All the recipe links on this page were found by going to the Food Network page and searching 'quick main dishes' or 'easy side dishes'. They were within the top three results of each search)


  1. I've had good results from Food Network for easy simple foods. But then again, I don't always fallow a recipe 100% and will happily take out excess steps. :) Cooking also requires knowing when to play fast and loose with the rules.