I've been frequenting the library lately in an attempt to plow through my reading lists (another post for another day). Being surrounded by books, I inevitably end up browsing and checking out a few home, though I really don't have time to read for fun. (Though I do anyway.) As I snagged the very interesting Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language (Napoli and Lee-Schoenfeld, 2010), I also grabbed Kathleen Flinn's The Kitchen Counter Cooking School (2011). And proceeded to neglect reading other things (including my student's work) to rapidly consume it.
Flinn's other book, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, is part of my scholarly project on the genre of cooking memoirs, so I was intrigued. In The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Flinn decides to find volunteers who feel apprehensive in the kitchen and teach them basic skills. The experiment begins with a chance encounter with a woman in the grocery store; after giving her a few tips and helping her shop for more wholesome foods (instead of processed foods), the woman left excited and grateful. Flinn sought out ultimately nine women who shared similar fears about cooking with real ingredients and gave weekly lessons on knife skills and cooking vegetables, chicken, beef/pork, bread, and soup, not to mention what to do with leftovers and how to reduce waste in the kitchen.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it made me think about my own kitchen and habits. While I don't particularly rely on convenience foods and feel comfortable in the kitchen, I sometimes opt for eating out or boiling a box of macaroni and cheese (it was organic! and on sale!) in lieu of cooking. Flinn's purpose is not to make her readers feel guilty for the occasional foray into convenience/processed foods, but to point out how these foods are often easy to make with a bit of planning--and that the flavor is usually immeasurably better.
Her volunteers discover the same things. Flinn visits their houses and has them prepare a meal for her; the majority prepared foods primarily from cans or boxes. When pressed if they enjoyed the flavor, they invariably shrugged and said not really...it was just easy. It seemed that the major transformative moment for the volunteers was when they discovered that all the additives and chemicals in processed food actually tasted horrible, and that fresh, real food was far superior.
More importantly, the volunteers lost their fear about the kitchen. They learned that cooking doesn't have to be overly complicated or difficult--a few simple flavors can turn something simple into something simply delicious. They learned how to wield their knives to chop vegetables with skill and ease; they learned how to take a whole chicken and break it down. They stopped being afraid to cook with whole ingredients, and discovered the joy that can be found in cooking.
For me, it was a refreshing reminder of how far I've come as a cook, conquering my own fears in the kitchen. While my own mother wasn't a terrible cook, we far too often relied on processed, flavor-less dishes, so the way I eat now is a far cry from what I grew up eating. I'm lucky that I managed to figure out how to cook with often "strange" ingredients, that I get a lot of joy out of trying new recipes, and that I'm not afraid to experiment and try new things. Flinn's book made me realize that my story isn't typical of the majority of American cooks. Even Flinn herself--a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu--found herself rethinking her approach to cooking and food.
If you're looking for a good read with some good tips for basic, simple cooking (it has some delicious recipes!), check out Flinn's book. It has inspired me to cook a bit more this week--I have set up a chart on my fridge with the contents in my fridge and some possible recipes to make with those ingredients to try to avoid food waste and to actually use what I have on hand. More than that, it was a prompt to reflect on my own cooking experiences and seek out the opportunity to continue learning more.