The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How To Hand Wash Dishes Revisited

Everybody Knows How To Wash Dishes, Right? Well......Maybe Not So Much

I'm revisiting a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject of dish washing. Recent experiences have prompted me to examine the topic in a little more depth because it seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.

The most vexing problem I faced in my last restaurant was not food quality or service; it was dish washing. It was a small place that didn't have an automatic dish washing machine. Dishes were done by hand in a three-compartment sink. Except for on busy weekend nights, we didn't have dishwashers on staff: cooks and waitstaff were responsible for washing their own dishes. Everybody on staff was younger than I by many years and in some cases by many decades. And after a couple of weeks of frustrating observation, I came to the inescapable conclusion that not a single, blessed one of these young folks knew the first damn thing about washing dishes. And they weren't all high schoolers; in fact, most were in their twenties and thirties and many were parents with little kids at home. The way they took care of my customers made me shudder to think of how they took care of their families. I had all the proper signs and regulations posted around the dish bay and I dropped hints and reminders from time to time in the vain hope I could awaken some form of common sense in these people. None of it worked and I finally exploded and called everybody in for a staff meeting on dish washing.

I learned the art of dish washing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. And I learned at the hands of experts; my grandmother and my mother. I don't know that my grandmother ever even saw an automatic dishwasher, and I know for certain she never used one. My mother had such disdain for the devices that she used hers as a storage bin for her Tupperware. Both women were dedicated hand dishwashers who lived well into their eighties. Between the two of them, I don't think I could begin to estimate how many dishes they washed in their lifetimes. Add to all that the fact that my first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher and I think I present with some valid credentials on the subject.

But that's still not enough. In order to avoid this being a “my mother taught me better than your mother taught you” piece, I went further, consulting health departments and doing some actual scholarly research on proper dish washing.

Believe it or not, there are specific procedures to follow. It's not just a matter of running some water in the sink, dumping in a little soap, and throwing in the dirty dishes. But after hanging out in various home and restaurant kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being largely ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive or whatever you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some kitchens, I have been known to stealthily rewash dishes before I use them. Here's why.

I know so many people who have an aversion to the most essential element of hygienic dish washing: hot water. Many of these folks will come out of a shower with their bodies a nice shade of candy-apple red because they like their showers hot. And yet they wash their dishes in stone cold water. Go figure.

Beyond my grandmother and my mother, the experts with letters after their names will also tell you that dishes should be washed in water as hot as you can tolerate. Now this opens up a whole can of subjective worms. And way too many people of my acquaintance apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't stand to put your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water; 70 to 74 degrees. Water that is actually cold. I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you insist on using cold or lukewarm water for dish washing, just set up little cabanas beside the sink for the e-coli, the salmonella, and the other varieties of bacteria you're inviting to go swimming in your sink. That's all you're really accomplishing. You're not getting anything clean.

Bacteria don't drown. Water won't kill 'em. Heat kills bacteria. To really sanitize your dishes, you need to heat them to above 140°. That's what dishwashing machines do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room. For hand washing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I actually stuck a thermometer in my dishwater: 113.3°. The hot water from my tap registered 123.8°. Now, I can't tolerate 124° on my bare hands for long but for me, 113° is no problem. Personally, I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115° – and I add a couple of drops of bleach to the rinse. Yeah, the water's a little hot, but with rinse water, you can just snatch and grab. You don't have to keep your hands submerged in it like you do the wash water. But don't grab too quickly; the dishes should remain submerged in the hot wash water for at least thirty seconds and should be rinsed thoroughly.

As I mentioned, in some restaurant kitchens there are three sinks; a wash sink, a rinse sink, and a sanitizing sink. With only two sinks in my home kitchen, I combine the rinsing and the sanitizing in one. In restaurants, there is a specific chlorine level the health inspectors look for, measured by using paper test strips. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about two teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.

But again, it's gotta be hot water. Observing the FDA minimum of 110° – along with using a good, strong anti-bacterial dish soap – will effectively do the job. If your skin is too sensitive or if you're worried about “dishpan hands,” go get some rubber gloves. Don't risk your family's health.

Hot water also gets your dishes cleaner. Grease doesn't break down in lukewarm water. If you stick a dirty, greasy plate in a sink full of 90° water, you'll come out with a plate that looks clean – but it'll still be greasy. And if you've ever wondered why your glasses and silverware look so spotty and filmy, check your water temperature. You know that “sheeting action” one of the dishwasher detergents advertises? You get the same effect when you use hot water. Dishes washed in hot water dry faster and cleaner than those washed in warm or cold water.

Now let's talk a little technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with breadcrumbs and with floating chunks of meat and potatoes. It's not rocket science. Scrape your dishes.

Next, rinse your dishes. This is a hard sell sometimes with people who somehow find it redundant to rinse dishes that are going to be washed anyway. Again, it's just common sense. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your clean dishwater is going to turn that water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in. Rinse your dishes.

Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dish washing process cleaner and easier. Glasses, cups, and silverware stack first, plates and serving dishes next, and pots and pans last.

This is also the order in which you should wash your dishes, and in this instance the stacking does affect the cleanliness. I know so, so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. Plates, glasses, knives, forks, pots, pans all jumbled together willy-nilly all at once. But think about it for a minute: what dishes do you really want to be the cleanest? The ones that actually come in contact with your mouth, right? The glasses, the cups, and the silverware. So it makes sense that you should wash them first, when the water is the hottest and the cleanest. If you wash the glasses with or after – say – the greasy frying pan, what can you expect to happen to your glasses? Thank you, but I'll take my beverages without the floating layer of grease, if you please. And those aren't “water spots” on your knives, forks, and spoons. They're spots of whatever you had for lunch yesterday if you just washed them along with the dirty dishes.

Plates should be next, as, theoretically, anyway, they should be cleaner than the pots and pans, especially if you've rinsed them. Serving dishes and utensils follow the plates and then come the pots and pans.

If you've got really dirty pots and pans with lots of baked-on stuff stuck to them, soaking is probably in order. Hot water, please. Cold water really won't do much good. And about ten minutes soaking time is all you need. Anything longer – like overnight – is just an excuse for putting off cleaning up the mess. If it hasn't soaked off in ten minutes, it's not going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.

Now, somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. In many Asian cultures, dishes are always washed in running water because it is perceived to be more hygienic. And I do sometimes wash dishes under running water if I only have a few dishes to do. But in the interest of conserving water and saving on water and water heating bills, I generally adhere to Western customs that employ sinks or tubs of standing water. For large loads, that's going to mean changing the water at least once.

Now, the glasses and silverware probably didn't do too much damage to the dishwater. But after a dozen or so plates and serving dishes, are you really getting anything clean? Think about it; what color is clean, fresh water? Clear, of course. It has no color. So by the time your water develops a distinct reddish, brownish, greenish, or grayish color, is it still truly clean and fresh? And should you reasonably expect to get your dishes clean in such water? Come on. Change it, already.

Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for traditional sponges. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a hospital's surgical suite and 10 being a toxic waste dump, kitchen sponges rank number 11. You can't have them in commercial kitchens; you shouldn't have them in home kitchens. Unless you're preparing a science project on bacteriology. “Oh, but you can sanitize them in the microwave!” Yeah, until the first time you put them back in the water and the listeria and staphylococci invite all their friends aboard. Ditch the sponge.

Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. By proper care I mean changing them out frequently as usage requires and also keeping them in proper condition. A scientific study conducted a few years ago revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts had been used in household kitchens five consecutive days or more, and were never completely dried out during that time. The study determined that when dishcloths were dried out after use, bacterial growth was halted. So those of you who wad up your wet dishcloths and leave them lying in or around the sink take note.

Now, I don't change my dishcloth every day. Nor do I use the same cloth for a week. And I follow the FDA food code recommendation regarding use of a sanitizer bucket for my dishcloths. But I don't leave them soaking, because research also shows that after a couple of hours, organic material present in the cloths neutralizes the sanitizer and bacterial growth can occur. I soak them after use, take them out and dry them, and replace them every other day. Unless, of course, they are filthy, in which case I replace them right away. Duh!

To be honest, I don't use dishcloths nearly as much as I used to. Modern silicone sponges and scrubbers are much more efficient and easier to clean and sanitize.

Dish towels are another issue. Again, if health inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel in a restaurant kitchen, there go a couple of points off your sanitation rating. Betcha didn't know that, huh? I know most of my dishwashers didn't. Air drying is best. And for goodness' sake, clean your drying rack once in awhile! Putting clean dishes in a dirty drying rack is an exercise in futility. If, however, you are like most people – me included outside a restaurant kitchen – and you use a dish towel, make sure it's a clean dish towel. Not the one with which you wiped the chicken blood off the counter. Not the one with which you mopped your sweaty forehead, wiped your greasy hands, or got that little spill up off the floor. “Dish towel” equals dish use. Nothing else. And when it gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. And replace the towel in the same manner as you replace the cloth; break out a new one every couple of days or as needed.

I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about cleaning your sinks? How often do you actually clean and sanitize your sinks and drains? Do you know that most household's toilets are cleaner than their kitchen sinks? That's because you think about cleaning the toilet, but you seldom think about cleaning the sink. And yet, where do you wash the dishes from which you eat? Maybe you should try doing them in the toilet. (I know; yuck!) I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and a little bleach or cleanser.

One of the most spectacularly, despicably unhygienic things I've ever seen in a home kitchen involved filling up a sink with tepid water and a little soap and then throwing dirty dishes into the sink throughout the day. At some point along the way, said dishes were treated to a brief encounter with a dirty cloth that had been wadded up on the counter and then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried with a questionable towel and put away. I have to ask; why bother? For as much cleaning value as you're getting out of that sinkful of disgusting cold, gray water with grease and particulate matter floating in it and that nasty rag, you might as well just put the dishes away dirty. If this is you, save yourself some time and money. Money that you'll probably need for doctor bills. Uggghhh!

And you lukewarmers don't get off the hook, either. I'm sorry. I hate it for you that you can't stand hot water, but neither can the grease and the germs. If you're filling your sink with water that is cooler than body temperature, you're just throwing a greasy pool party for bacteria. Period. Turn up the water heater and get some gloves.

And remember the steps the experts recommend – the ones my mama taught me: scrape your dishes, rinse your dishes, stack your dishes, and don't do the pots and pans first and then try to get the glasses clean. It just won't happen.

Oh, and one more thing: dishes have two sides, a top and a bottom. Remember to wash the bottom of your dish because it sits on the top of the one stacked below it in the cabinet. Just a little something to think about.

Okay, see you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bypass Advertising Chickens**t When Buying Eggs

The Incredible, Marketable Egg

As I frequently remind you (and myself), I'm old. Old enough to remember going to the grocery store to buy eggs that just said “EGGS” on the plain, old-fashioned cardboard carton. No “cage free” or “hormone free” or “free range” or any of the other clever qualifiers stamped all over the fancy containers eggs come in nowadays.

Back in those days of blissful ignorance we didn't think much about how eggs got into the cartons. Most of us knew enough about farm life to draw mental pictures of jovial farmers in overalls going out to the henhouse and raiding the nests of contented cluckers. We didn't know – or want to know – about factory farms wherein thousands of hens existed in battery cages; wire mesh contraptions, stacked and wired together usually containing more than one chicken squashed side by side with another in an arrangement that keeps them from being able to spread their wings or stretch their legs or do much of anything other than sit there and lay eggs. Each bird “lives” – if you can call it that – in about seventy square inches of space. I'm looking at my 9”x8” mousepad. That's seventy-two square inches. My wireless mouse has more room to roam than a factory farm hen. Kinda makes you look at your omelet in a different light, doesn't it?

Fortunately, awareness of these inhumane conditions is slowly forcing changes to be made in the way eggs are produced. I don't know if we'll ever get to that bucolic scene I described in the previous paragraph, but several big egg sellers and big egg users have gotten behind efforts to moderate or eliminate the cruelty. A number of states have limited or banned the use of battery cages and legislation is in the works in other jurisdictions to make things better for the birds that provide us with such an essential element of our diets.

And, of course, even as substantive efforts at improvement are being undertaken at the legal level, here come the hucksters, hawkers, peddlers, and sloganeers from the ad agencies trotting out to help thoroughly obfuscate the issue. Ever ones to leap to the forefront of a cause to see if a dollar might be made there, they have cluttered supermarket eggs cartons with all kinds of meaningless words and phrases designed to confuse consumers into feeling better about themselves and their choices. With that thought in mind, allow me to blaze a path through the chickenshit in an attempt to offer some clarity.

Let's start with “farm fresh.” If you've ever seen – or smelled – a commercial chicken farm, “fresh” is the last thing that comes to mind. It's just a term they use to sell eggs. If you want real “farm fresh” eggs, you have to go a real farm. As far as commercial egg freshness goes, check all those arcane codes on the end of the carton. There's a “pack date,” an “expiration date,” and a plant code. The plant code simply tells you in what facility the eggs were actually packaged. It's a four-digit code that's usually preceded by a “P” and if you're really curious, the USDA has a plant location tool you can use.

The “expiration date” is more a guideline for the store than for the consumer. Also expressed as a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date, it just tells the grocer when to pull the eggs from the shelf. You can still safely eat the eggs for at least a couple of weeks after they “expire.” Same thing with a “sell by/use by/best by” date; it's an indicator of maximum freshness, not safety. Both expiration and sell by dates are based on the pack date; expiration dates have to be thirty days or less from the pack date and sell by dates have to be within forty-five days. The pack date is the actual date on which the eggs were put in the carton. It's a three-digit number that may be a bit confusing because it's based on Julian dating. Julian dates run from 1 through 365 (366 in a leap year), so eggs packed on April 1 of a regular year, for instance, will be Julian coded as 091.

Natural” and “All Natural” are among the ad game's most popular buzzwords. And also among the most meaningless. They tend to slap the word “natural” on just about anything. According to the dictionary, “natural” means “existing in or formed by nature.” If that's not a broad category I don't know what is. When it comes to eggs, the USDA says egg products are “natural” if they contain no artificial ingredients, added color, and are only minimally processed. I've never encountered an artificially enhanced, color-added, processed egg, so I'm assuming just about all eggs are “natural.” And if you're scrambling unnatural eggs, I'm not sure I want to know about it.

“Organic” is the next big word of the day. It's a term that actually does have meaning when it's enforced and not just used as a selling tool. Organic eggs can be a bit healthier for you because the chickens that lay them are healthier. Organic eggs come from free-range chickens that have not been doped up with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs and which have been fed with entirely organic feed. That means the feed given to the chickens can't come from crops that are genetically modified, treated with pesticides or herbicides, or fertilized with chemical or synthetic products. And no poultry-slaughter byproducts. Which leads to another often misunderstood label: “vegetarian-fed.”

People like to think of happy chickens eating grass and grain and green, leafy vegetables. That's a nice picture but far from the truth. Chickens are omnivores: they'll eat anything including other chickens or parts thereof left over from the slaughtering process. They also eat bugs and crickets and any fly larvae – aka maggots – they happen to find hanging around in cow manure. Sorry. Probably better not to dwell on a chicken's natural diet for too long, but do keep in mind that a “vegetarian-fed” chicken's favorite between meal snack is frequently.....chicken.

I mentioned hormones. That's another specious selling point: “No Added Hormones.” By law, laying hens are not allowed to be given hormones anyway, so this phrase is a selling gimmick. Even the cheap eggs in the cheap cardboard cartons that just say “EGGS” contain no added hormones.

Same thing applies to “Antibiotic-Free.” According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, there are only three antibiotics approved by the FDA for use in laying flocks and “only a small percentage of laying flocks producing conventional eggs ever receive antibiotics due to use of effective vaccines and other management practices which minimize the need for antibiotics to treat illness.” And FDA regulations for antibiotic use ensure that antibiotic residue does not migrate to the eggs. So, it's just another advertising gimmick.

Non GMO” is a controversial term. In and of themselves, eggs are, of course, not genetically modified. Nobody's out there trying to engineer a better chicken or a better egg through genetic manipulation. The “non-GMO” label is meant to apply to the feed the hens consume, but unfortunately most gullible consumers just see “Non-GMO” and think, “Oh, how wonderful! Non-GMO eggs!” And that's what the ad people want them to think. It sells more eggs.

Omega-3” sounds healthy, doesn't it? And most nutritionists will agree it is. Chickens on a natural diet get an omega-3 boost from sources such as the aforementioned grasses and weeds. Such hens, therefore, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than chickens that are only grain-fed. Grain-fed birds get their omega-3 charge from fortified feed. “Omega-3” eggs can be fortified with different types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), commonly found in fish oil, and ALA (alpha linolenic acid), a component in flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), also found in fish oil, is another player in the omega-3 game. The problem is there's no official recommendation for human intake of any of these substances, and even if you allow for the 1,000 mg daily intake of a combination of DHA and EPA that some experts promote, the amount of omega-3 acids added to eggs through a diet of flaxseed and fish oil are minimal. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and seventy-five to one hundred milligrams of DHA. So you'd have to chow down at least two-and-a-half eggs every day to get anywhere close to a beneficial level. But it sounds really healthy and it sells eggs.

Humanely Raised” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are terms that help sell eggs to people who truly are concerned about animal welfare. You'll see little seals that say either “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” on the cartons. The former means that the egg producer subscribes to a set of rules and regulations that guarantee chickens have decent, healthy living conditions that include proper ventilation and appropriate nesting material in their nest boxes. They are also given the opportunity to “bathe,” something chickens do to rid themselves of lice and other parasites by flopping around in a box of dirt. The other label certifies that the birds have all these things plus being raised almost entirely outdoors and that they escape wholesale slaughter and are painlessly euthanized when their usefulness as layers expires.

Let's wrap up this walk through the chicken droppings by examining the real stars of the egg marketing firmament, “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pastured” or “pasture raised.”

According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, “eggs labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food and water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” However, “cage-free” only means that chickens aren’t kept in actual cages. They might still live jammed in on top of one another, up to their knees in their own and their neighbor's waste, and never see daylight within that “building, room, or enclosed area.” And remember what I said about chickens being omnivorous? It has been shown in some cases that without the barriers of cages, “cage-free” chickens living in close proximity to other chickens have a higher mortality rate due not only to the easier spread of disease but also because they tend to peck one another to death.

Free-range” is a little better option because, the association says, “free-range” eggs must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. The operative word here is “access.” Just because a chicken has “access” to the outdoors doesn't necessarily mean it goes outdoors. Often chickens are still jammed into cavernous buildings with a small door on one end that opens to a few feet of outside dirt space. Even if the chickens on the far end of the building know the door is there, there's no way they'll ever get to it. And “outdoors” doesn't automatically mean some picturesque pasture where the chickens can romp and play in the sunshine. “The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material;” in other words, a screened-in porch of some sort may qualify as “outdoors.”

Pasture-Raised” or “Pastured” eggs are kind of the humane gold standard. They are exactly what they imply; eggs that are gathered from chickens who run around outdoors eating the things that chickens who run around outdoors eat. The “girls” at Vital Farms, for example, live on rotated pastures with an allowance of approximately 108 square feet per bird. Contrast that the with the seventy or so square inches allotted to commercially raised chickens in battery cages. Of course, regular old commercial eggs can sell for less than a dollar a dozen while pastured eggs go for upwards of six or seven dollars a dozen, but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Oh, and one more thing you'll find printed on egg cartons: grades. Grades are the USDA's “beauty contest” for eggs. The grades “A,” “AA,” and “B” have nothing to do with the nutritional content of the egg. While they do help weed out defective eggs with unpleasant things like blood spots, meat spots, bloody whites, mixed rot, blood rings, stuck yolks, embryo chicks, and other nastiness that you wouldn't want to serve sunny-side up, grades are primarily cosmetic standards. The highest grade is Grade AA. These eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks with clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, the ones usually sold in stores, have most of the same characteristics of Grade AA, except their whites are "reasonably" firm. Grade B eggs have whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than higher graded eggs and while their shells must still be unbroken, slight stains are permissible. And, of course, that USDA grade shield is yet another marketing tool used to sell more eggs.

No eggs were harmed in the writing of this article – at least not yet. I feel a frittata coming on and you know what they say about not having an omelet without breaking a few organic, pasture-raised, Grade AA eggs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Stop Wasting Money On Copper-Colored Crap Cookware

Baa, Baa Copper Sheep. Have You Any SENSE?

Gordon Ramsay has adopted a new catchphrase lately; “Let's get that right!” And it applies when I tell you that copper cooking vessels are the crème de la crème of cookware. Let's get that right!

Professional cooks the world over have used copper for generations. It's an excellent conductor of heat, it warms up quickly and stays warm longer, and it allows for gentle, even heat distribution. Much more so than any other material, even cast iron. Hot spots are all but unheard of with copper. This results in more uniform, more controlled cooking with practically no burnt spots or scalding. Copper cookware is generally a perfect weight. It's heavy enough to sit securely on your stove but not so heavy you can't lift it with one hand. Copper is reactive but when lined with a non-reactive material such as tin or stainless steel, it is one hundred percent safe and two hundred percent effective. Bowls made of pure copper are the industry standard for whipping up fluffy egg whites. In short, copper is great stuff. Let's get that right!

Something else to get right, copper is also expensive and somewhat temperamental to maintain. You can't crank the heat up to OMG hot under a copper pot and then just toss it in the dishwasher before stuffing it into your overfilled pots and pans drawer. Well......I guess you can if you don't give a rip about what it's gonna like like or how long it's gonna last. Copper tarnishes easily and requires frequent if not constant polishing and it's a fairly soft metal prone to scratches and dents. Some cosmetic denting and pitting is okay – gives it that “cooked in” look, I suppose – but if it gets too warped and battered, it's useless.

Bring your banker and an appraiser to the store when you go to buy the stuff. I can get you a nice deal on a twelve-piece set of Mauviel copper at Williams-Sonoma; a steal at just $1,900.

Or you can go out and buy the latest fad in “As Seen on TV” cookware. Yep. Copper. “$19.95 and if you act now, we'll double your order. Just pay extra for shipping and handling.” Uffa! As P.T. Barnum famously never said, “There's a sucker born every minute.” I can assure you there's more copper in a Lincoln penny – which is 97.5% zinc these days – than there is in any and all of those cheap, overly-hyped “copper” pots, pans, cookie sheets, fry baskets, grill mats, knives, and I don't know what all else. I saw a plastic slotted spoon with a “copper” handle in a store the other day. WTF is a so-called “copper” handle supposed to do to improve the performance of a spoon

It's a scam, folks, pure and simple. A gimmick designed to separate you from your money. It's a con worthy of “The Sting.” A flimflam. A fraud. A racket. A rip-off. A double-dealing shell game. A fast one. A hosing of epic proportions. Get the idea yet? It all started out with one product and now it's spread to the point where every blessed thing you see is “copper.” And you know what? It's all paint, people; copper-colored paint. Like the kind you buy for household and craft use only on an industrial scale.

These hucksters take cheap aluminum pans, pots, spoon handles and what have you and spray them with a tissue paper thin ceramic coating that has been infused with copper-colored paint. They could just as easily have made the stuff green – oh, wait. They already do that, don't they? Anyway, copper-colored crap cookware has exactly the same non-stick abilities as any other cheap aluminum junk but with absolutely none of the desirable properties of real copper – because there ain't any real copper in any of it! It's paint. Pigment. Useless coloration. The equivalent of covering rabbit droppings in red food coloring and calling them berries. Let me drag out my Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony album here and play you a chorus of “The Hustle” while I reiterate; it's a gyp designed to hoodwink gullible rubes. Of which, apparently, there is an endless supply.

Whenever you put a “non-stick” surface, be it Teflon or a ceramic coating or whatever, on any pan, you usually do it by spraying or dipping the pan in a gel solution which is then hardened by a high heat firing process known as curing. Decent quality stuff usually gets at least three or more layers of this coating. Colors are absolutely immaterial; they can make the finished color anything they want it to be. Most are silver or gray, some are black, some are white. And when they're trying to bamboozle somebody into following the latest “As Seen on TV” trend, they make it copper.

Most people know – don't you? – that the most durable materials for making cookware are cast iron or stainless steel. Aluminum is a close second, but only if it's hard anodized aluminum. Anodization subjects the surface of aluminum pots and pans to an electrochemical process that builds up the metal’s natural coating of oxide, yielding a hard, nonreactive substance that forms a tougher coating. Hard anodized aluminum gets, like, a double dose of the process, making it useable in even tough professional kitchens, the place for which it was originally designed when Calphalon came up with it back in 1968. The most utilitarian hard anodized aluminum cooking vessels are usually coated with a non-stick surface of some sort. Even so, aluminum – even anodized aluminum – is pretty soft and can be warped and beaten out of shape through hard use. I've been in a few restaurant kitchens and know whereof I speak.

Now, you take ordinary cheap aluminum. It's light weight, a good heat conductor, and relatively corrosion resistant. It's great for a lot of things, especially bakeware. But if you bang it with a foam rubber mallet or drop it on a firm mattress, it's gonna dent or bend out of shape. And if you spray paint it with a thin coating of copper-colored paint, within a fairly short span of time that paint is going to scratch up and flake off like nobody's business. 

Real copper is ridiculously expensive. A single Mauviel twelve-inch 1.5 mm copper fry pan with a stainless-steel interior is going to set you back to the tune of about $295. For one pan. A good quality twelve-inch stainless-steel pan – say, something by Calphalon – goes for about $110. An enameled cast iron twelve-inch pan from Tramontina will cost you around $70. And even a plain old Lodge cast iron workhorse sells for twenty to thirty bucks, depending on where you get it. So do you really – I mean really – think you're getting anything resembling real copper or real quality for $19.95 – two if you order now? Really?

Baa, baa, copper sheep. Have you any sense?

It all evolved from a single snake oil salesman – er, I mean “marketer” – who conceived the original concept a few years ago. The stuff they were pushing then may or may not have actually been worth what you paid for it, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not just cheap gimmicky pots and pans anymore. It took about a week for all the copper-colored crap that's out there now to start flooding the market. Like the frickin' “copper” handled spoon! Really? A “copper” knife that “never needs sharpening”? C'mon! At best, it's an inexpensive ceramic knife with a coat of paint. “Copper” fry baskets? Why? “Copper” crispers to “turn your oven into an air fryer.” Riiiight! “Copper” grill mats, “copper” roasters, “copper” baking pans and muffin tins? What's next? “Copper” oven mitts? (If I see one of those in the store next week, I swear I'm gonna scream.) There must be enough soft-headed suckers with no sales resistance out there who keep buying this garbage or they wouldn't be able to keep selling it.

I don't know why but that great old 1968 comedy routine that Johnny Carson and Jack Webb did on “The Tonight Show” just jumped into my head.

Webb (As Sgt. Joe Friday): This is the city. Los Angeles California. Some people rob for pleasure. Some rob because its there. You never know. My name's Friday, I’m a cop. I was working the day watch out of robbery when I got a call from the Acme School Bell Company. There’d been a robbery.
Carson: There’s been a robbery.
Webb: Yes Sir, what was it?
Carson: My clappers.
Webb: Your clappers?
Carson: Yeah, you know those things inside a bell that makes them clang.
Webb: The clangers.
Carson: That’s right, but we call them clappers in the business.
Webb: A clapper caper.
Carson: What’s that?
Webb: Nothing Sir. Now can I have the facts? What kind of clappers were stolen on this caper?
Carson: They were copper clappers.
Webb: And where were they kept?
Carson: In the closet.
Webb: Uh huh. You have any ideas who might have taken the copper clappers from the closet?
Carson: Well, just one. I fired a man. He swore he’d get even.
Webb: What was his name?
Carson: Claude Cooper.
Webb: You think he…….
Carson: That’s right ! That’s right! I think Claude Cooper copped my copper clappers, kept in a closet.
Webb: Do you know where this Claude Cooper is from?
Carson: Yeah, Cleveland.
Webb: That figures, that figures.
Carson: What make it worse, they were clean.
Webb: Clean copper clappers?
Carson: That’s right.
Webb: Why do you think Cleveland’s Claude Cooper would cop your clean copper clappers kept in your closet?
Carson: Only one reason.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: He’s a kleptomaniac.
Webb: Who first discovered that the copper clappers were copped?
Carson: My cleaning woman, Clara Clifford.
Webb: That figures. Now let me see if I got the facts straight here. Cleaning woman Clara Clifford discovered your clean copper clappers, kept in a closet, were copped by Claude Cooper the kleptomaniac from Cleveland. Now is that about it?
Carson: One other thing.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: If ever I catch kleptomaniac Claude Cooper from Cleveland who copped my clean copper clappers that were kept in a closet....
Webb: Yes?
Carson: I’ll clobber him.

Hey, at least that's funny. Countless cadres of consumers committing copious quantities of cash to acquire colossal collections of crappy counterfeit copper cookware with which to clutter their kitchens is not.

Remember, folks, all that glitters is not copper. Especially not at $19.95 plus shipping and handling. If you really want copper cookware, save your money and buy some of the real thing. And don't forget to pick up a gallon jug or two of Wright's Copper Cleaner or Brasso while you're at it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? How About A Day Honoring Sliced Bread?

What's So Great About Sliced Bread?

C'mon, you know you've said it: “It's the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Of course, since practically nobody knows what unsliced bread is anymore, that bit of hyperbole has lost some of its punch over the years. Still, pretty much everybody knows that the classic idiomatic phrase refers to something extraordinary – especially a newer discovery – that will likely be a significant improvement. “But what,” you may ask, “is so great about sliced bread?”

Bread has been around for a long, long time. There's archaeological evidence that a rudimentary form of flatbread was known in Europe thirty-thousand years ago. Most of the breads we recognize in Western culture today are the leavened variety that come out of ovens as loaves. Some loaves are round, others are elongated, some are oval shaped, and some, like what we commonly call “sandwich bread,” are kind of squarish. The round, elongated, or oval loaves can be broken apart for consumption or even eaten “as is,” but the traditional “sandwich loaf” pretty much has to be sliced in order to be of any use. And that can be a problem.

People who live in the “modern age” where all you have to do to make a sandwich is open a plastic bag and take out a couple of perfectly machine-sliced pieces of bread don't really have an appreciation for what it takes to slice bread. My grandmother had to do it. And I do it myself. It takes a good bread knife and a keen eye to achieve uniformity. You don't want slices that are too thick or too thin. Or a thick slice paired with a thin slice. You particularly don't want slices that start out thick at the top and wind up thin at the bottom or vice-versa. There's also a talent to slicing up a loaf of bread – especially fresh bread – without crushing it as you cut. Slicing bread can be a time-consuming, frustrating chore.

Enter a guy named Otto F. Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa. Over the course of about a decade of trial and error, he came up with a concept for “A Machine For Slicing An Entire Loaf Of Bread At A Single Operation,” an idea he patented on November 26, 1928. But the initial reaction among commercial bread bakers was not exactly what Rohwedder no doubt hoped it would be. In fact, the contraption was something of a hard sell at first.

To begin with, bakers were unconvinced that consumers wanted pre-sliced bread. Up to that point, I guess, nobody had been beating down the bakery doors asking for such a commodity. Then there were concerns about freshness. An unsliced loaf of bread stays fresher longer. Once you cut into it, it begins to go stale fairly quickly. To address these concerns, the inventor originally conceptualized the use of pins to hold the sliced loaf together. Since unpinning individual slices of bread wasn't an idea that appealed to anybody, Rohwedder approached the issue from a different angle: he amended the way the sliced bread would be packaged. There were no convenient plastic bags with little twist ties in those days. Instead, Rohwedder suggested wrapping each freshly-sliced loaf in thick wax paper. And so it was done. Eventually, cellophane took the place of wax paper before ultimately giving way to plastic. Come to think of it, I can actually remember wax paper-wrapped bread covered in cellophane packaging. Jeez, I'm old.

Anyway, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, decided to give Rohwedder’s unconventional device a shot. They installed his machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The local newspaper carried both a front page news story and a full back page advertisement for the new-fangled gimmick in an effort to convince people that sliced bread really was a great thing. Selling points included statements like, “After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.” The article goes on to prophetically enthuse, “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”

Needless to say, sliced bread quickly became the greatest thing since......well, you get the idea. By 1930, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis had built its own slicing machines and was sending its soon-to-be-iconic product, Wonder Bread, pre-sliced and wrapped in wax paper packaging festooned with red, yellow, and blue balloons, to retailers nationwide.

And now there is legislation pending in Jefferson City asking Missouri lawmakers to officially designate July 7 as “Missouri Sliced Bread Day.” After all, Chillicothe, a town of about 9,500 folks, goes all out to promote its claim to fame as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” There's a recently erected historical marker in front of the red brick building at 100 Elm Street that formerly housed the Chillicothe Baking Company and there's an annual Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Music Festival, too. Supporters of the bill recognize Chillicothe's “piece of very positive history” and believe such a celebration would stimulate the local economy by bringing more tourists to northern Missouri. According to the Chillicothe News, if the proposed holiday becomes a reality, local residents are encouraged to engage in “appropriate activities and events” to celebrate Otto Rohwedder’s game changing creation.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't live anywhere near Chillicothe because I would have a hard time engaging in any appropriate activities. Personally, I don't eat sliced bread. Not since I started baking my own bread many, many years ago. Now, I'd be lying like a politician if I said sliced bread had never passed my lips. Are you kidding? I grew up in the '50s and '60s when moms were assured that the aforementioned Wonder Bread “helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” I think I got shortchanged on about eleven of those ways, but that's neither here nor there. The point is I grew up consuming my fair share of the soft, gummy commodity we're talking about celebrating. But no more. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to make an emergency purchase of store-bought sliced bread in the last several years. Of course, back in Rohwedder's day, bread was still bread; made from flour, water, salt, and a little yeast. Concerns about bread going stale were legitimate in those days because real bread really would spoil in a fairly short amount of time. Unlike today's preservative and additive laden bread-like substances that can sit out on the counter for weeks at a time and still maintain what passes for “freshness.” In other words, it's still nice and soft and gummy. But I still wish Chillicothe luck in their pursuit of sliced bread fame. It's not their fault, or Otto Rohwedder's, either, that the baking industry would ultimately turn a basic, natural dietary staple into a form of chemically enhanced Frankenbread.

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder what was the greatest thing before sliced bread?”, I may have an answer. Apparently that would be wrapped bread since early advertising for  sliced bread touted it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Although I imagine if you were to start saying, “That's the greatest thing since wrapped bread,” people would just give you funny looks. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll make a pilgrimage to Chillicothe just so I can have a slice of bread and stimulate the local economy. I've done stranger things.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why Are The Romance Languages Romantic?

There Were These People In Togas.....

Ahhh, the Romance languages! The languages of love and affection. Of sentiment and rapture. Just the thought of a little French drove Gomez Addams into a wild-eyed frenzy (“Tish! That's French!) Everybody knows how fiery Latin lovers can melt a woman's heart with just a few words in Spanish or Italian. These are the languages of the heart, of the soul, languages spoken by hot-blooded, fervent people of intense passion and ardor. Right?


I know it's February and there are hearts and flowers and depictions of Cupid everywhere you look, but I'm gonna rain on your love parade just a little bit when it comes to the origins of romance. Or at least of romantic Romance languages.

Once upon a time, there was this bunch of people who ran around in togas. I'm not talking about John Belushi in “Animal House.” No, these were the folks who sort of thought they ruled the world …..because, for a while, they pretty much did. That would be the Romans. From their home in Rome they roamed o'er land and foam until they established an empire that encompassed much of what was then the known world. And in doing so, they impressed their native language upon the natives of that far-flung empire. That language, of course, was Latin. More specifically, Vulgar Latin.

Now that doesn't mean that the people who spoke Latin were crude and unrefined......although I'm sure some of them were. The word “vulgar” in this case means “common.” Classical or “high status” Latin, the “dead” language you struggled with in high school, was the official, formal language of the empire. Upper crust, educated Romans used it in decrees and formal speeches and such. Vulgar Latin was the common language of the common folk. Certain socioeconomic classes spoke both forms, but it was the “common speech,” the “sermo vulgaris” or “Vulgar Latin” that eventually evolved into the Romance languages.

I'm not going to go into all the arcana of “dialect leveling” and other complicated and, frankly, boring aspects of linguistic evolution. Let's keep it real and relatable. Compare a map of the ancient Roman Empire with one of the modern world. Go ahead, I'll wait. See there? The bulk of the western Roman Empire consisted of Italia, Gaul, and Hispania on the Iberian peninsula. These roughly line up with modern day Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. And, of course, although there are dozens of subsets, the main Western Romance languages are Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

So where does all the romance come in? Quite simple, really. “Romance” as we use it today is a fairly modern concept. The origins of “romance,” however, have nothing at all to do with hearts and flowers and Cupid and love: it is merely a reference to something related to Rome, something Roman. The word “romance” itself is a derivative adverb of the early Latin “Romanicus,” meaning “of the Roman style.” “Romanicus” became “romanice” in later Latin, and evolved into “romanz” in Old French, and from there, ultimately, to “romance” in English. So when you use the term “Romance language,” you are simply referring back to Vulgar Latin, which was the “Roman style” of speaking. Disappointing, right? Kinda takes all the romance out of it.

As to how “romance” became connected to the lovey-dovey stuff, well that's pretty mundane, too. Back in the early Middle Ages, the French people particularly began telling – and later writing – heroic tales for their own amusement and entertainment. These stories usually involved knights and maidens and fantastic, chivalric deeds and, because they were told or written in the vernacular French language, they became known as “romanz” stories, sometimes expressed as “romancier,” meaning “to narrate in French.” By the 17th and 18th centuries, such “romance” adventures were being commonly thought of as love stories and the word “romance” itself soon became associated with love and all its attendant attitudes, trappings and symbols.

There you have it. That mushy hearts and flowers and Cupid and lovey-dovey stuff all traces back to common people in togas. Well, sort of; only citizens were actually allowed to wear togas, but that's another story. Anyway, maybe now you don't feel quite as romantic as you did before, but at least you're a bit smarter.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Apocalypse Edges Nearer as Olive Garden Introduces A Nacho Knockoff

I Would Say, “Say It Isn't SO!”......But It Is

What hath Darden wrought!? Olive Garden, the “Italian” restaurant chain that is far more representative of the tastes of Rome, Georgia, Florence, South Carolina, or Naples, Florida than of Rome, Florence, or Naples, Italy, has unleashed a new culinary abomination in the form of a nacho knockoff called “loaded pasta chips.” Yeah, you read that correctly; an “Italian” restaurant is now serving nachos. And not even real nachos, at that, but a bastardized “Italian” version of a Tex-Mex conglomeration thrown together by a guy named Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at a Mexican border town restaurant in 1943. Does OG ever do anything that isn't derivative? As my Italian ancestors spin their way out of their graves in Emilia-Romagna, let me describe the dish.

Take fried lasagne strips to represent tortilla chips. Top them with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and a three-meat tomato sauce loaded with chicken, meatballs, and sausage. Throw on some cherry peppers to double as jalapeños and drizzle it all with cloyingly creamy Alfredo sauce. Add a garnish of Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, and fresh parsley, and, tah-dah! – you have an instant Italian classic. And every Italian on the planet says, “che cazzo!?” Or at least, “uffa!”

Ostensibly, the......the.....creation is intended as a Super Bowl nosh, but it's going to be available until April 1. Perhaps we're all just victims of an extended pre-April Fool's joke.

Since I generally only go to Olive Garden when there are no Italian restaurants within a fifty mile radius (or when I get a gift card), I have not yet sampled this....this.....whatever this is, but surprisingly, I'm told it's not too bad. Or maybe not surprising since the ingredients are all Italian or Italian-ish. I mean, at least these.....these.....these Franken-nachos have decent DNA. I've even heard them described as “wickedly good.” Of course, a lot of people think lutefisk is wickedly good, but I wouldn't exactly expect to see it on an Italian menu.

But then again maybe I should expect to see it on an Olive Garden menu. After all, we're talking about a place that uses “evolving the brand,” “reinvigorated dishes,” and “we're bringing new things to the table” as part of its marketing strategy. The sign on the building still says “Italian Kitchen,” but what the hell; I have an “Italian kitchen” too, and I recently catered a wedding reception where the customer wanted a taco bar. I guess that means I'm “evolving the brand,” huh? Sometimes you just have to do what the customer wants even if you have to do it with clenched teeth. And apparently Olive Garden's culinarily challenged customers want Italian nachos. Boh!

Darden needs to either remove the word “Italian” from their logo or add the word “American,” because while there's a huge Italian-American influence in the kitchen, there's not much that's veramente Italiano. And the problem as I see it is that far too many Americans, especially those in the hinterlands (remember Marilyn Hagerty, the sweet if somewhat palate-numbed restaurant “critic” in Grand Forks, North Dakota?), are being led to believe the stuff they are being served at Olive Garden is the epitome of real Italian cuisine. It's bad enough they are being deluded into thinking that overcooked, under-seasoned pasta and unlimited breadsticks are Italian hallmarks straight out of a mythical “Culinary Institute” in Tuscany, but now they're throwing in freakin' nachos? Porca miseria, gli italiani sono fregati!

I'm thinking of organizing a nationwide protest. Maybe recruiting Italian nonne to march around with signs saying, “quello è NON italiano,” or “basta dire di no a nachos,” or just simply “sono incazzato.” Yeah. That ought to do it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why I DON'T Hate To Cook

Cooking Is A Rewarding, Fulfilling Experience

I've never understood people who can't cook, don't cook, or won't cook. I've never been able to fathom the kitchen aversion that drives the popularity of philosophies like the ones behind Peg Bracken's I Hate To Cook Book. Really? You “HATE” to cook? I just don't get it.

Maybe it's because of the way I started out cooking. I was about seven years old and already an outrageous lover of bacon. Don't tell anybody but I used to sneak a nibble of the stuff raw while I was waiting for Mom to cook me some for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meal snacks. I know, YUCK! I feel the same way in retrospect and my grandmother used to go apoplectic and start screaming “trichinosis” whenever she caught me in the act. But it's just an illustration of how much I craved bacon in those days. And in those days the only way to fulfill that craving was to pester my long-suffering mother to fire up the stove to cook me some because there were no microwaves or “ready-to-cook” strips you could just toss therein. When I wanted bacon, somebody had to cook it and Mom eventually decided that somebody should be me. Since I was just about tall enough to reach the built-in flattop griddle on our gas range, she armed me with a spatula and stood over me as I learned to prepare my favorite food for myself. So right from the get go cooking became a rewarding experience.

Research on the subject published in the Harvard Business Review divides people into three groups: (1) people who love to cook and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook and avoid cooking by heating up convenience food or by eating or ordering out and, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation. The most recent results of that survey show that forty-five percent of Americans “hate” cooking, forty-five percent are “sometimes” cooks, and only ten percent make up the demographic that loves to cook and cooks often. Those are scary numbers, made even scarier by the downward trend they imply: fifteen years earlier the same researcher found the ratio to be fifteen percent cooking “lovers,” thirty-five percent ambivalent, and fifty percent “haters.” I guess the fact that the “lovers” and the “haters” both dropped by an offsetting five percentage points should be seen in a positive light, but still the prospect that ninety-percent of people in this country either loathe the idea of cooking or only do it occasionally when and if they “have to” is a sobering one.

I know people in that ninety-percent. Lots of people. They're the ones that grab coffee and doughnuts on the way to work, hit the cafeteria or food court for lunch, and pick up “supper” at a fast-food place on the way home. Or they line the pockets of the executives at Kraft, Nestlé, General Foods and other Big Food companies as they assemble “homecooked” meals from Stouffer's frozen entrees, Hungry Jack potato flakes, Green Giant canned vegetables, Pillsbury refrigerated dinner rolls, and Duncan Hines cakes or Mrs. Edwards pies. They're also the ones that will require very little embalming when they die because they are already preserving themselves with the chemicals and additives in what they eat.

My wife and I are definitely “10 percenters.” The kitchen is the center of our home and we love to cook. Not only do we love to cook for ourselves, we frequently feed friends and neighbors and hire out as personal chefs and caterers to feed others. We just finished a wedding that left us footsore and weary, but as we sat recovering in a booth at a friend's restaurant, we raised our glasses to one another and toasted a job well done. The bride and groom were happy, their families and guests were happy, and we were happy to have made them all happy. How can it get better than that? We used to have a “love/hate” relationship with our restaurants. We hated the stress and the long hours, but we loved the sense of fulfillment we got from satisfying our customers.

But you know what? Even when we're not cooking for hundreds – even when we're just cooking for each other – it's still a fulfilling experience. In the first place, we enjoy working together. Always have. In the second place, we are both creative individuals. She's a graphic artist and I'm a writer and a retired entertainer. Far from being a “chore” or a “task,” we find cooking to be another creative outlet. When we work with images and words or music, we produce things that are aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. When we work with ingredients and techniques, we render things that are physically and emotionally satisfying. Same creative process. How can you “hate” that?

“But I can't cook,” you say. To which I say, “balderdash.” Of course you can cook. You just have to have the desire and the ability to learn. Nobody is born with a wooden spoon in their hand. Did you come out of the womb with a license and the innate ability to drive? No, you had to develop a specialized skill set. You had to learn. If you can read and understand a recipe, you can cook. And just like whatever occupation you pursue for a living, the more you practice and the longer you do it, the better you'll get. I started out making macaroni and cheese from a box mix. Now I make my own pasta. You can cook, but do you want to?

Back in the “old days,” almost nobody cooked for the pleasure of it. It was a pretty simple paradigm: everybody had to eat so somebody had to cook. Servants were for the wealthy and visits to restaurants were a rare and expensive treat. A hundred years ago, women like my grandmother spent an average of thirty to forty hours a week in the kitchen. And they were laborious hours. Most all the food preparation was done by hand with what we now consider primitive tools. Modern electric conveniences were either unimaginable or unaffordable and even basic equipment was labor intensive. Along with washing, ironing, mending, and sweeping, cooking was something you had to do in order to continue eating, wearing clothes, and living indoors. It was a “chore,” defined by the dictionary as “an unpleasant but necessary task.” And the task most often fell to women. Men wore the white coats and tall hats in professional kitchens and everybody called them “chef.” Women donned faded house dresses and worn aprons at home and were usually called “mother.”

Then came the economic boom of the post-Depression, post-war era. From the late 1940s through the '60s, newer, faster, cheaper, and easier ways of doing things were being developed every day. And nowhere was this trend more impactful than in the kitchen. Canned food, boxed mixes, frozen foods and myriad new ways to prepare them meant that a woman raising a family in the '50s only spent about twenty hours a week in the kitchen. And it was more than just a change in food products and preparation techniques; thanks to Madison Avenue, there was a sea change in attitude taking place.

Clever advertising convinced women that they were being “freed” from the “drudgery of the kitchen.” Why “waste” all that time cooking the way your mother did? All that chopping and stirring and kneading and roasting and braising and boiling. Why, that, the ad men would have you believe, was tantamount to slave labor! Open a can or a box or a pre-packaged, pre-cooked frozen “meal” and “free” yourself to do other, more important, more fulfilling things! No wonder women began to view cooking as onerous and hateful and something to be avoided. It was being marketed to them as an affront to their very womanhood and self esteem. And they took the bait: nowadays women spend just five and a half hours a week in the kitchen. About what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers spent in a day. And most will tell you it's because they're “too busy” to cook, they “hate” to cook, or they simply “can't” cook. All because of the successful effort begun two generations ago to demonize, denigrate, and disparage cooking as an “old-fashioned,” soul-crushing, life draining “chore.”

If there's a ray of hope peeking over the horizon, it's the increasing awareness among members of the current generation of the importance of fresh food and the rise of so-called “subscription” meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others. More the former than the latter, I believe. Meal delivery operations are a small step in the right direction mainly because they introduce generations raised on artificial food-like stuff to the healthful and substantive advantages of real food. But they are not in and of themselves the answer to the larger problem. An opinion piece I read in the New York Times entitled “You Don't Need A Blue Apron to Teach You to Turn On Your Oven” echoes my own thoughts on the subject. The author praises the subscription delivery model for bringing American consumers closer to the way the rest of the world shops for and prepares food, i.e. keeping a basic stock of staples in the pantry and shopping for fresh ingredients on a daily basis. But at the same time, the author opines – and I agree – we're not actually teaching people how to cook that way, only how to prepare meal kits. It's kind of like the public school system teaching kids how to take tests rather than to impart real learning about actual subjects. Sure, you can make a “gourmet meal” from the ingredients and instructions Blue Apron provides, but if you are not willing or able to take the next step and develop your own creations from ingredients you source yourself, you're really just making upscale versions of boxed mixes.

To those who are able, though, it's a good entry point to the scary world of measuring and seasoning and sauteing and all those other mysterious things your grandmother used to do when she laid out the big feasts you probably still remember. If you are willing to approach cooking as a creative exercise rather than as a depressing chore or a necessary evil, you've already won the battle. And you'll quickly outgrow the meal kits and move on to more adventurous kitchen adventures. As the author of the Times article wisely said, “the whole point of training wheels is that eventually you don’t need them anymore.”

And if you're a complete nervous novice, there's nothing wrong with starting out with a few comfortable, unintimidating boxes and cans and frozen entrees. Anything to get you into the kitchen. I was the master of Minute Rice when I was in junior high school, but I didn't stop there. I read, I observed, I asked questions, I took classes and from there it was just a matter of practice, practice, practice. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, a top chef in his own right, says, “it's about creating good habits. It's about learning good solid technique and methods. Much like learning to play a musical instrument, you have to understand basics, you have to understand theory. And then from there you can improvise.” So maybe you'll never cook for hundreds. That's okay. Even if you only cook for yourself, you'll be so much better off. There isn't a medical or dietary expert on the planet that won't tell you cooking at home with fresh ingredients is more healthful and beneficial than eating out or cooking with preservative-laden junk.

Start now. I started as a kid, but when it comes to cooking, it's never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks. I've been at it for more than fifty years but there isn't a week that goes by that I don't pick up something new. And I still get all happy every time a new technique or process or ingredient works out and makes me say, “Wow! I've never tried that before.” The thrill of discovery and the expansion of knowledge and the development of skill – those are the things that make cooking a creative and fulfilling activity and not just something I do because I have to eat or feed somebody else. And that, miei amici, is the way it should always be.