Author Michael Pollan, who for decades has been analyzing our country's dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship with food, has now decided that at its root the American Food Crisis is actually the American Cooking Crisis. In the era of frantic schedules, industrial farming and processed "food," fewer and fewer folks are preparing healthy meals from scratch at home in their kitchens.
I've been wondering why. Yes, we know all the usual reasons cited -- no time, cheap fast food, supermarket imports, etc. -- but perhaps another culprit has also discouraged more and more of us from whipping up dinner: recipes.
Lately the whole idea of recipes has taken on a sinister tone for me. Who are these domineering "experts" who tell us that we need exactly 1/8 teaspoon of cumin or 6 ounces of blueberries in January? They seem to take it for granted that we'll jump into our cars and whip over to the bulging industrial supermarkets able to provide the most esoteric and carbon-unfriendly imported ingredients out of season.
Fascist recipes are starting to remind me of high school science experiments. Grumpy chemistry teachers exhorting their unhappy students: exact measurements or -- disaster!
But people didn't used to cook like this. For generations home cooks worked from familiar patterns, over and over. Simple, healthy and familiar dishes that -- because they were handcrafted -- were different each time, depending on the "real food" that was growing that season in backyards and nearby farms. Most of these delicious meals were quick and easy to prepare from whatever was at hand. Complicated preparations were left for leisure hours and special feasts -- often communally prepared.
I began to wish I could be more like those old-fashioned home cooks. I imagined them having an almost instinctive understanding of the ingredients of their particular "terroir" as they cooked by the seasons with local ingredients and local flavor.
Slowly I started to sense the deep "pattern recipes" that lie at the core of many of the more precise recipes in the endless cookbooks. Luckily, the internet makes this research easy.
Take "soup" for instance. I read hundreds of recipes for soup to discover the underlying patterns in each set of ingredients and instructions. To free myself from detailed recipes that squelch improvisation and creativity, I boiled them down to a set of simple steps that are open to many variations.
For example, at its core soup involves sauteeing onions (and sometimes chopped carrots and peppers) in oil, adding garlic and more chopped veggies and herbs, plus stock (vegetarian from veggie scraps or meat stock made from last night's bones) and perhaps legumes or pasta. After a period of simmering, additional delicate veggies (julienned chopped greens, perhaps) and flavorings can be added at the end. You can then blend the soup to make it smooth, or leave it "as is."
That's basically it. And from that pattern, the world has created literally millions of delicious variations. The challenge is to create your own tasty version variation from the freshest, healthiest, closest-to-the-earth ingredients on this particular day.
"Stir fry" is another pattern recipe that has sustained life in Asia for thousands of years. The home cook doesn't follow a recipe, but rather improvises every day from what is available in the garden, the pantry or the nearby market. As a matter of survival, parents have taught children these patterns since the dawn of humanity.
So let's follow Michael Pollan's advice and address the real food crisis in America by teaching basic healthy cooking patterns to our children. Perhaps this is the new "Home Economics."