Food & Water featured

Learning to cook

April 4, 2023

So planting did not happen on Lady Day. The temperature dropped precipitously early in the morning of the 25th and by dawn it was 20°F. This, after being warm enough on the 24th to walk home from work without a coat, although the wind was already nippy. So, on Saturday there was solid frost in the garden and the rain was actually snow, enough to cover everything again and negate all the soil warming in the raised beds. I don’t think even the brassicas will germinate at 39°F, which is what my soil thermometer read when I not very hopefully stuck it in the ground.

I am trying to remain optimistic. I did manage to get peas and spinach out of last year’s very late planting. So hopefully, this year’s switch to summer heat will similarly not be too sudden or too soon. If it stays cool, but not cold, well into May, I’ll get to harvest spring-season foods before summer sends them bolting to seed — which did happen to the arugula last year. But I have some of that growing in the cold frame, so I can get my fill before the heat. (Though… is it possible to get your fill of arugula?)

In contrast, two spring markers have happened, letting us all know that the seasons are changing, if not the form of precipitation. First, the sugaring season is underway. There are daily photos and articles in the local paper on gathering and boiling the sap. We’ve had a few weekends of ‘sugar on snow’, a central Vermont tradition which is about what it sounds like — a local farm festival featuring fresh-boiled maple sugar poured over shaved ice (real snow doesn’t actually taste all that great in New England). There is music and kiddie entertainment, but most people go just for the sugar.

The other marker happened in my garden. The snowdrops under the backyard cedars, the bulbs that are most protected from huge mounds of snow, are finally blooming. And I noticed that there were also shoots from many other bulbs coming up, particularly in the sheltered spaces around the yard. Seeing shoots prompted me to move the big annual planters out from their wintering spots right next to the house foundation, so the bulbs under them can come up for sunshine. This subtle change has outsized effects, transforming the slumbering perennial bed by the house into a bed of anticipation.

And I am definitely in a dither of anticipation! I’ve organized all the seeds into filing folders. I’ve put the year’s planting map into a spreadsheet arranged by beds and weeks. I bought some plant supports since my barrel of sticks seems to be dwindling. (New England damp is hard on stick collections.) These are all piled on my front porch since I can’t bring myself to put them away in the garage. That seems like capitulation, and I am nothing if not stubborn. If this weather doesn’t become properly vernal soon, I think I’m going to do something stupid like buy grow lights and plant veggie starts in the basement. Fortunately, I’m not sure what happened to my seed-starting trays, and as long as I don’t know where they are I can’t use them. (It’s possible that they got tossed, victims of the highly charged atmosphere around that last divorce-prompted move…)

In the interim, I am eating out of the freezer, which to be honest is still full of last year’s bounty. So it’s not like I need to harvest anything right now. I still have several gallon-bags of green chile, many pints of sweet corn, a full bin of strawberries and raspberries, about a dozen bags of blueberries, and lots of squash-related things — from purée to muffins. For last week’s dinners, I made a delicious soup from soft goat cheese, six roasted green chiles, a small bag of blue potatoes, a couple sweet potatoes, a large turnip, and a gallon of roasted butternut purée. All but the chile were grown within a few miles of my house; the turnip and squash were from my garden. I baked focaccia to go with this creamy concoction. The wheat for that travelled a bit further, but it was ground by a local, worker-owned mill and sold at the local food co-op. So I don’t think I’m hurting — neither myself nor the planet.

As I was foraging in the basement cold storage, I had one of those arresting moments of sudden clarity. My basement contains not only the binned veg and the freezer; it also houses most of my nonfiction library, which includes about thirty linear feet of cookbooks — books I hardly ever use. People give them to me. I walk out of bookstores with them. I enjoy reading them, especially in the winter months. Cookbook browsing is a cheap form of travel. Cookbooks are lavishly filled with color and culture and flavors that I can savor in my mind with nary a dish to wash nor an odd ingredient to obtain. I may get ideas for new combinations and I use the ratios in baking, but I rarely follow a recipe as it is written.

I learned to cook from someone who owned no recipe books: my grandmother. She had a vast repertoire of food knowledge stored in her head, but I don’t think I ever saw her use as much as a notecard for reference as she was cooking. She was a young woman in the Great Depression and, through necessity, learned to cook what was available. This is a vastly different method of preparing food than that found in cookbooks. This is what came to me in the basement, surrounded by the incongruous shelves of books I don’t use and the bins of food that I needed to use. A cookbook requires the cook to go out and find ingredients, perhaps even acquire specialized tools. When you cook from the book, you may not have to think as hard about dinner, but you lose a bit of the creativity that goes into turning raw plant and animal materials into food. But most importantly, cookbooks make it very difficult to cook out of the pantry, using what is in season, what is stored, and what is local.

My grandmother took what she had on any given day and turned that into dinner. She did not go shopping for a list of ingredients. She bought what was fresh and readily available — and usually cheap, given that quite a lot of what is in season needs to be sold quickly — and transformed whatever came home into delicious meals. She did not stockpile a large assortment of tools (though she did have an impressively bewildering collection of serve-ware). She also didn’t go in for nouveau technique. She favored simple, a small bag of tricks that produced seemingly infinite variety. With slight changes in proportions or preparations, perhaps a subtle variation in herb and spice, she could make a different meal out of potatoes for weeks on end.

This is not at all the same as cooking from a book. A book forces you to conform to what is on the page. You select a recipe and then obtain what is necessary to follow it. You may be able to select recipes that fit what you have, but this takes quite a bit more work in searching — and quite a large catalog of recipes. Very few books are organized around seasonal gluts or the average yield of a chest freezer in March. And even those books that are purportedly seasonal usually contain recipes full of ingredients that do not come out of the garden or pantry in any given month. Nor even out of the same geographic location.

This is mostly a problem of publishing. Cookbooks are expensive things to produce, filled as they are with illustrations and expert advice. So they are written to a generalized audience, divorced from time or place, in order to sell as many of them as possible. Like most mass-produced goods, cookbooks are often fantasies of limitless desire — January tomatoes and maple-glazed sea-bass. It is food unbounded by living reality or growing requirements. A cookbook is tied to global supermarket supply chains, not the garden. You can more easily find cookbook recipes that mix halibut, capers, and lemons — organisms that do not live anywhere near each other — than a list of things to do with halibut that incorporate local ingredients that are readily available in the cold North Atlantic during halibut season. In fact, it’s unlikely that your cookbooks will even admit that there is a halibut season because that might limit sales.

A cookbook that is useful in a truly local, seasonal kitchen would be so highly tailored to place that one print-run would exhaust its market, because to be a loca-vore, to eat with the lowest resource-use cooked into your food, you must accept limits. For example, unless you live in the tropics (in which case, why cook at all…), you aren’t going to be able to prepare dishes that involve avocados. And if you do live in the tropics, potatoes are rather lacking. But there are many cookbooks that include both potatoes and avocados — and no information at all about when or where those plants are available. A cookbook assumes potatoes and avocados because it can’t assume limits.

Learning to cook the way I did is, in many ways, the ideal preparation for eating local and seasonal. This was not my grandmother’s goal. She was after minimizing cost more than anything else, but she had aesthetic standards that excluded the ‘cheapest’, highly processed foods. (OK she was a food snob…) But eating low-cost food also means eating local and seasonal — and learning to efficiently store the harvest glut rather than rely on expensive winter transport. So I learned from an inadvertent loca-vore.

I learned general techniques that could be applied to many ingredients. I learned the general anatomy of basic foods like bread and soup. I learned what ingredients do in a given recipe and what other things could fill that role — or whether that role was even necessary. I learned to think in flavors to be able to invent recipes in my mind. I learned to be spontaneous and creative rather than rigid and conventional. I honestly didn’t know that béchamel sauce had to be made exactly to recipe; I treat all recipes as sketches, line drawings that need to be filled in with local color. I will admit that there are mistakes, but these become infrequent with age and experience. However, I never have a problem coping with the massive influx of August zucchini.

I will also admit that this is a more difficult way to approach food, particularly if you’ve been raised by the book. I once read a semi-autobiographical novel about an immigrant who was looking for a wife in 1950s New York. His mother despaired of finding a woman who could provide for her son; none of them could cook to her standards. The man was perplexed by this because there was so much good food all around them — and so many lovely cookbooks in shop windows, filled with tempting recipes. These, his mother particularly deplored. When he asked her why, she replied ‘What happens to dinner when you lose the book?’

Cooking with what you have requires a deeper understanding of everything that goes into cooking. You can’t rely on a book (and so, don’t have to worry about losing it…). It is intensely knowledge-based, fueled by memory and ingenuity. Much like learning a language, it is more difficult to acquire this skill set as an adult. In fact, it is exactly like learning a language. We don’t have fixed recipes for speech; we have general rules that are filled with the specifics of place and time in order to create novel communication in time and place. Like telling a good story or talking about the day’s events with your loved ones, my grandmother’s style of cooking is not easy — nor easy to describe — even though it is usually quite simple.

In any case, cooking with what you have is really the only effective way to feed yourself out of the garden. You could have a basement full of cookbooks, and still not have a clue what to do with a harvest basket overflowing with eggplant, string beans and yellow squash. You could spend precious evening hours paging through recipe after recipe, trying to find something to fit the day’s yield. Or… you could quickly invent something based on not much more than first principles. The book is not going to get dinner on the table before bedtime, nor is it going to help much with creating variety out of repetition. Those last weeks of zucchini season are trying even for me. The book cook is reduced to a quivering mass of jelly in the face of such relentless harvest. To competently cook locally, you have to know how to cook.

So as I was loading up with a random assortment of foodstuffs in the basement, I realized that other people need to be able to do this. Maybe every householder needs to be able to do this: load up the arms with a pile of whatever is on top and then convert that into dinner. Even better if that meal is such that it can be dished out of the pot for many nights so that cooking tasty food takes very little time and energy. Add in the healthy, wholesome nature of unprocessed, natural and organic foods, and there is all the impetus you need to take on the task of truly learning to cook.

The books are still nice entertainment. Occasionally, they’re even good for fits of inspiration. I’m not giving up my library any time soon. But I don’t need it to eat dinner.

I suppose the lingering question is: barring a wider distribution of Depression Era grandmothers, can you learn to cook out of a book? Or a blog…


Photo by zero take on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient food systems, cooking from scratch, Reskilling