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Kitchen Dreams The Hands of the Cook

Kitchen Dreams

by SUSAN DAVIS

Here’s Marion Cunningham, author of the new Fanny Farmer Cookbook, telling a novice how to cut up an onion:

"Using a paring knife, slice off the fuzzy brownish root end and the stem top… Peel off the papery outer brownish yellow skin of the onion with your fingers or a knife… cut the onion half from stem top to root end. Put the onion halves cut side down on a cutting board. Cut slices crosswise from each half… As you slice, curl under the fingers of your hand holding the onion, so that you don’t cut yourself," and so on, until the onion is reduced to perfect dice.

This description is for someone who has never seen an onion except in its freeze-dried or frozen package form. Cunningham assumes no previous knowledge of chopping. But she does take for granted that the would-be cook has hands that work well enough to undertake this basic process.

Some of us don’t. If Mrs. Cunningham wrote instructions relevant to me, they might go like this: "See if you can grasp the slippery sphere well enough to hold it steady against a flat hard surface. With your other hand try to grasp the handle of a knife firmly so that you can press it down where you want to cut. Recruit enough force in your arm to break through the onion’s skin. If this hurts, or you lose your grip and the onion bounces across the floor, ask someone else to cut it for you."

I’ve lost enough of the use of my hands that washing dishes, making beds and folding laundry are temporarily out of the question. Cook book reading has become a cruel joke. For a while my husband tried to take my chores up with his own, but it became a huge strain, and by this winter we admitted we needed help with the basics. Since there are four of us to feed on a daily basis, and since Dan hates cooking, we also needed someone who could get dinner on the table.

I resisted hiring someone for a long time, largely because of the cooking issue. In my panic over finding myself out of commission, it seemed to me that being able to put healthy home-cooked food on the table for my family defined me as a creative woman and loving mother. When my ability to cook left, it felt like my femininity had walked along with it. Holidays like Thanksgiving, with their big meals and intensive hand labor were especially hard. I felt disconnected from family traditions that I at least hoped I remembered. One late November afternoon I sobbed over an unmade pie, while my family groused "why don’t we just buy one?"

But wait a minute. Was I hallucinating? What tradition was I trying to pass on? My mother could pull off some excellent potato salads and coleslaws that she’d learned from her Pennsylvania German aunts in Allentown. But usually she was a tentative and intimidated cook, for whom a grilled lamb chop was a big production. Her parties were ordeals of stuffed tomatoes, overcooked broccoli and casseroles that never quite turned out. To be fair to her, by the time I was old enough to notice, she was exhausted from working full-time and putting three squares on the table, 365 days a year. Her sister, my aunt Esther, was a truly awful cook, given to pouring spontaneous "mixtures" of prepackaged seasonings and fruit preserves over perfectly good pot roasts. Their own mother approached cooking in the same harassed and anxious way, one nervous hand on the Bisquik box, the other with a can opener. To be fair to Grandma, she grew up an orphan, shuttled from family to family. So where did I get the notion that kitchen wizardry ran in the distaff side of my family? The real feminine tradition in our family was fear of the stove.

Actually, I learned to cook by watching my father. Dad was most at home outdoors, and he usually spent summer evenings over a Dutch oven baking sourdough biscuits. Cooking reminded him of his teenage summers in a sheep camp in Wyoming, the coffee boiled with egg shells, the lamb fries. Occasionally he would dig a deep trench in the back lawn to hold a nostalgic grilling fire. My father was a spontaneous cook. He had his own rules like "keep your cast-iron greasy," "a little of this, a little of that," "taste as you go along," and he always made sure to have a shot of bourbon on the side. Every August he drove all the way to New Jersey to get just the right fruit for his peach marmalade.

If I learned to cook and love food by hanging out with my dad, why is the command to be a good cook connected to being a good woman? It turns out that the sense that women ought to feel creative and inspired by cooking is relatively new. Ann Mendelson’s wonderful book, Stand Facing the Stove, the story of America’s most widely-used kitchen guide, The Joy of Cooking, shows us how our feelings about cooking have changed over the last hundred years and more. According to Mendelson, how we feel about what goes on the table has been driven at least as much by the food processing industry, food writers and food fashionistas, as by changes in women’s work and household size. In the 19th century, a good woman spent much more time worrying about her children’s immortal souls than she did about their digestive tracts. Marketing gimmicks, nutritional bullying and expert pronouncements changed all that.

For most of human history, cooking was taught by observation and touch in a group effort that took younger women, daughters and servants, through thousands of different tasks. They learned by doing how it should smell, feel, and taste. Up until about the 1880s, most cookbooks were collated sketches of how to cook something. But women of my grandmother’s generation, born 15 years before the turn of the 20th century, were already disconnected from what Mendelson calls the collegial cookery of the big open kitchen. They began to need specific reminders, and eventually, detailed instructions. A huge market in how-to books opened up.

And at the same time, the American diet changed with the industrialization of food production. From quite early in the 20th century the mass marketing of canned soups, factory baked bread, and tinned meats helped sever city dwellers from much of the direct contact they had had with local food sources. Although this loss is widely lamented by foodies today, it was celebrated then — who wouldn’t celebrate being liberated by can opener and cellophane bag from bending over a hot wood range all day?

"Home cooked meals" became more and more assemblages of mass-produced parts, and the food industry vigorously promoted new food fashions that would highlight their wares. The first editions of The Joy of Cooking, published in the late 1930s, are filled with recipes that combine processed foods into novel dishes. Only later, by mid-century, did the emphasis on making it from scratch reemerge, but this time as a status symbol, a sign of discernment and taste pushed by a vanguard of food experts. First, James Beard, then Gourmet Magazine, then Julia Child, then the Rodales and your full-time organic gardeners and home bread bakers, and onward through the years, until we have Alice Waters instructing us to spend days brewing beef stock before we can even began braising the short ribs. This way lies madness, at least for the working family.

But it was Mrs. Irma Rombauer, author of The Joy of Cooking, who began the public argument that a warm and loving woman cooks well and finds it fun. In the old days, at least, we were allowed to admit that it can be drudgery. Although much of our culture claims to believe that home cooking is a joy, hardly anybody is following through. The fastest growing segment of the grocery industry is "home meal replacements," preprepared food clusters that can be sent straight from the car to the table. Just look around your supermarket and see how much space the deli takes up.

The power of the homemade fantasy was brought home to me forcefully when I tried to hire a cook. Somewhere out there, I felt sure, was a woman who was in touch with a wonderful tradition of home cookery. She would waltz into my kitchen, recipes in her head, and take over, relieve me of my guilt, silence the sullen "I won’t eat thats", and up my family’s vitamin intake all at the same time. She would be my own private Martha Stewart without all the SEC complications. She’d be able to negotiate the chasm between the Midwest’s pallid winter produce and all the eye-catching aisles of grab-it-and-go dinners. She’d even make me a sweet potato pie.

Of course, this miracle woman was nothing more than a food fantasy, although it took me long enough to figure that out. It wasn’t hard to find someone who said they could cook, but after a while, discounting for flat-out lying, I began to wonder what they understood by the verb "to cook." Usually, I began to suspect, it meant pouring boiling water over Top Ramen. After generations of processed convenience foods and full-time work for women, what else could it mean?

18-year-old Brittany from Decatur could whip through the laundry, make up the beds and tidy the house within an inch of its life. But she was stumped when I presented her with a roasting chicken.

"You just reach in and pull out the giblets…" I instructed. "What are giblets?"

"Just good stuff they package with the chicken, along with the neck…"

"Neck? Ick. I have to stick my hand in there?" I felt like telling her that one hundred years ago beheading the chicken would have been in the job description.

After a few weeks of scenes like this, I thought I could trust her to make a simple dinner of salad, chicken and rice. I bolstered her with Mrs. Cunningham’s beginner’s book and confidently went off to teach my evening class. When I got home my husband reported "The chicken was raw inside, and she doesn’t know how to cook rice. How can someone not know how to cook rice?" I could explain it to you, but it would take a while. It’s taken at least 100 years to produce people incapable of telling when plain rice is done. "I’ll work with her," I said desperately.

A few weeks later Brittany informed us that the job just wasn’t what she was looking for right now. Maybe we weren’t paying enough (unlikely), maybe "housekeeper — nanny" didn’t look good on her resume (in this economy?), but I think she didn’t like being asked to cook.

Over the next few weeks, we met a lot of potential cooks and even interviewed a professional chef, but she was far too expensive. Then I met my next fantasy, an immigrant from Venezuela. Elda is cheery and warm and was looking for something better than cleaning the hospital cafeteria. I figured if she is from Venezuela, maybe she is closer to older ways of cooking. I began to dream of unnamed stews, fat little masa harina snacks for the kids, fried plantains, the kitchen steaming away while I work placidly in my study.

Elda, too, is fully a match for our baffling masses of papers, clothing, and Lego blocks. She likes the kids and she even likes our rude dog. But our cooking experiments wake me up to the global realities of eating. It turns out that before coming to the U.S., she and her husband ran a tienda, so she knows how to shop. But there’s no equivalent of the local Mercado. The best plantains are found at the big box superstore on the edge of town. Venezuelan-type masa can be gotten at the World Market chain. Seasonings sometimes, not always, are found at a Middle Eastern specialty importer. All this adds up to one elaborate schlep in search of Venezuelan authenticity. And some things just don’t translate. U.S. grown cilantro is hopeless, it tastes like soap. And like everyone else in the world, Elda thinks the way to solve these problems is to reach for a modern, salty American-style seasoning mix.

To keep hypertension at bay, I decide we should try making a few things together from scratch. I have a block of very good Vermont cheddar in the refrigerator, so I suggest we make macaroni and cheese. "Claro!" perks Elda. "My daughter loves it. She makes it from the box all the time." This isn’t the box kind, I explain, it’s better. We work our way through it, and I can tell Elda is a real cook. She knows how to keep an eye on the burner so the flour and butter don’t scorch; her sense of timing won’t let her turn away from the stove when the melting cheese needs to be watched closely. She knows the difference between boiling and simmering. Her mother made her learn so that she could please a husband, of course. "This is great," says Elda, "I am really learning to cook American food." There are a few hilarious mistakes, like when she dices up raw rhubarb and puts it in the salad. Rhubarb apparently has no Venezuelan equivalent. But overall, she’s becoming a good American cook, The Joy of Cooking at her right hand.

Music enchants Elda, "me encanta!," so I find myself practicing my Spanish by giving her a lecture on the Carter family. They were very famous, very beloved, part of the history of American music. We listen to June Carter and I play "Banks of the River Jordan" for her. I didn’t imagine myself running a cooking and country music tutorial, but the laundry’s getting done, the closets are clean and the dishwasher is humming. My Spanish is getting better fast. Dame cinco, Elda.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Spectacular Nature.

She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu