In the delightful animated feature film “Ratatouille,” fictional chef Gusteau writes a cookbook based on the premise that “Anybody Can Cook.” Better Homes and Gardens magazine has actually published a cookbook of a similar name. So it must be true, right?
Well, let’s define and refine the term “cook.” Webster’s definition of the intransitive verb “cook” says: “to prepare food for eating especially by means of heat.” Sounds pretty simple. So, essentially, anybody with a box of matches can cook?
It’s easy! You open a soup can, you pour the contents into a pan or bowl, add water and either turn the knob that activates the burner or set the time and press “start”, and, viola, by strict definition, you’re cooking! But are you really?
In the last fifty years or so, we have become a culture of non-cooks. Open the blue box, dump the dried pasta in the water, add milk and butter to the orange cheese-flavored stuff, stir it all together and serve it to your family under the guise of macaroni and cheese. Or, if you’re too busy to go to all that trouble, they make the same stuff in a little cup that you can simply pop into the microwave. Unless, of course, you’d rather just take it out of the freezer and warm it up. And do notice that on most frozen food packages, they admonish the stupidest among us to “cook before eating.” (See Webster’s definition of “cook.”)
But is this cooking? No. It’s minimal preparation of food or food-like substances in order to achieve basic sustenance. “Cooking” is about taking the time and making the effort to prepare and blend ingredients for flavor and balance. It’s more than satisfying the body’s basic nutritional requirements – and most of what is prepackaged today barely meets that criterion. Cooking is a creative art, and, like most art forms, it edifies both the creator and the consumer.
Anybody can cook? I don’t know. But everybody should learn. Learn for the sake of self-sufficiency, if for no other reason. I am bone weary of hearing about men who expect – nay, demand – that their women have their food on the table waiting for them. Whatsamatta, Goomba? Something wrong with your hands? You wanna eat? Cook! I can cook as well as any woman and better than most. And I started doing it when I was seven years old. I have never in my adult life had to depend on anybody to put a meal, and a damn good one, on my table for me. You want to be a big, macho man who can do anything? Learn how to cook.
And then there’s economy. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with going out to eat once in awhile. But, with food and gas prices being what they are these days, you’re going to need a second (or third?) job if eating out is the only way you’re going to get fed. The two of us went out for pizza the other day. Large pizza, breadsticks and a couple of drinks. Thirty bucks! Do you know how many pizzas I could make at home for thirty bucks? I could feed the two of us and most of the neighbors for a week! You want to save some money? Learn how to cook.
Everybody complains about being fat. They complain all the way to McDonald’s and all the way back from Baskin-Robbins. Maybe as an overreaction to the deprivations of war and depression, somewhere, fifty or sixty years ago, we got this idea that more is better. Value, you know. More for your money. So, we started super sizing, jumbo sizing, Hungry Man-sizing. We went from nine-inch plates to twelve-inch plates to platters! “All you can eat” screams the sign over the buffet. And yet, we seem to be at a loss to explain the epidemic of obesity. The ability to cook brings with it the ability to choose healthful ingredients and to prepare them in a flavorful manner. It also allows you, the cook, to adjust the portion size, a key ingredient in weight management. You want to control your weight? Learn how to cook.
While we’re on the subject, how about nutrition? As I said, the ability to cook brings with it the ability to choose healthful ingredients and to prepare them in a flavorful manner. “Choose healthful ingredients” is the operative phrase in that sentence. When you can cook, you are no longer at the mercy of the food processors who load up everything they package with enough chemicals and artificial additives to ensure that, long after we die an early death because of the junk they feed us, we will be beautifully preserved. Doesn’t matter whether I’m cooking burgers and fries or an eight course Italian dinner, I know what’s in it because I put it there. I like knowing that if I don’t use something in my refrigerator or pantry within a few days or a week, I’ll have to replace it. I’m not really all that keen on using food that was packaged in the last century for use in the next. I’m not saying everything has to be “organic,” and fresh is not always practical or best. Canned and fresh-frozen ingredients are great. But the point is, when you can cook, you can make those healthy decisions. Move out of the chem lab and into the kitchen. You want to ensure good nutrition for yourself and your family? Learn how to cook.
I can come up with another ten paragraphs of reasons, but the bottom line is everybody should learn how to cook. And I don’t mean learn how to open a box or a can. Learn – how – to – cook!
But how? What if you’re like my dad, who truly could not boil water? One of the funniest memories of my childhood is of watching my father trying to fry eggs on our stove’s flat-top griddle. You should have seen him chasing eggs with a spatula until they disappeared down the little hole into the griddle’s grease trap. We lost about a dozen eggs that way. Maybe somebody in your family has programmed the speed dial on your kitchen telephone with the number for the fire department. Right below the numbers for the ER and the poison control center. You want to learn how to cook? Here are a few of my recommendations, in no particular order:
Read a cookbook or two, or four, or six. Get a couple of good general cookbooks that have lots of basic terms, techniques and recipes. If you really think you’re challenged, they publish “Dummies” cookbooks, too. After you get the basics down, get some cookbooks specific to your tastes. Italian, Oriental, Mexican, French – whatever. They’re out there.
Watch and learn. Buddy up with somebody whose cooking you really enjoy. Find out how they do it. Don’t just ask your mom to fix that special casserole for dinner. Put on an apron and help her make it! And while we’re on the subject of watching and learning, don’t discount those cooking shows on TV. Yeah, everybody likes to make fun of poor old Julia Child. She was a little eccentric, but she taught a lot of people how to cook. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali don’t just teach you how to cook a particular dish; they break down the ingredients and tell you why things should be cooked a particular way. So rather than slapping a gob of sticky, overcooked spaghetti on a plate and pouring a jar of bland sauce over it, watch and learn from somebody like Mario who will educate you about types of pasta, cooking times, tomatoes, oils, spices, herbs, cheeses. You’ll be amazed at what goes into a good dish. But you’ll be even more amazed at what comes out.
Go to school. Not for a culinary degree, but there are tons of places that offer cooking classes of every imaginable kind. Check out your local community college or vocational school. Many of them offer short courses. Most of them have one night classes on various topics. A lot of shops and stores that sell gourmet foods and cookware also offer classes and instruction. You may not learn how to operate an upscale restaurant, but I’ll bet you’ll be more comfortable in your kitchen at home.
Join a club. You’d be surprised by how many recipe clubs there are out there. Or cooking clubs, food appreciation groups, or similar social gatherings. It’s a great way to share what you’ve learned and to get some new ideas. It’s also a wonderful way to meet new people and to get together with folks who know what you’re talking about when you say things like, “my reduction is too thin.”
Seek out and absorb knowledge. If you’re a car or a sports enthusiast or a hobbyist of any kind, you probably read and subscribe to dozens of magazines about your interest. Or you go online and bone up on all the latest. Same thing applies to cooking. Bookseller’s shelves positively groan with cooking magazines and books about cooking. Not just cookbooks, but books about cooking. History, theory, technique, style; it’s all available at whatever skill level you’re comfortable with. And the resources on the web are almost innumerable.
To really learn how to cook is to acquire a passion. If cooking is something you have to do because you have to eat, then it’s a chore. But if cooking becomes a passion, then it’s something you can look forward to and enjoy for a lifetime. Learn how to cook for yourself; it’s an indulgence. Learn how to cook for others; it’s a gift. Learn how to cook just because you can.