Wednesday
Sep212011

Home Cooking


The quick answer:  After a steady decline in cooking skills, the pendulum is poised to swing the other way.

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We were in Sacramento this past weekend, in our usual gathering place—my Mom’s kitchen—eating bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches.  Mom adds cucumber and red onion, thinly sliced, to complete her sandwich.  She likes to cook, and did it for a family that grew to ten children.  Even with the help of daughters, that was a lot of cooking.  She’s a good cook.  A child of the Depression, she practices prudence and thanksgiving.

Some years back she observed with surprise that her friends had all stopped cooking.  They had raised their families and as their husbands retired from work, they resigned from cooking.  What was the result?  They’re all dead but one, who suffers from dementia.  Mom never stopped cooking and she’s still alive, in her 90s, doing everything she did before, though a bit slower. 

Staying Alive

Why do we cook?  We cook to stay alive. That's the first rule of cooking!

If a stranger does your cooking, nutrition gets lost.  The focus will inevitably be on cost.  If Food Inc. is involved, you can add addictive ingredients (the triage of vegetable oil, salt, and sugar, for example).  The great food companies understand the role of addictive ingredients in keeping customers.  Think of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola or PepsiCo.  

A few years ago I was part of a medical device start-up that developed an improved method of treating brain aneurysms.  The success of our venture allowed me to leave the stress of the work-a-day world.  What do I do now?  Whatever moves me, though there must be a purpose.  Because I wasn’t working I felt an obligation to help in the kitchen so I thought I would learn to cook. 

There are schools for teaching cooking to us late learners, I discovered.  The Culinary Institute of America (fondly known as the CIA and based in a former monastery in Hyde Park, New York), claims to be the worlds best, and had a nearby campus in California’s wine country, at St. Helena.  Le Cordon Bleu (the phrase means “blue ribbon”), founded over a century ago in Paris, France, but with branches around the world including San Francisco, also claims to be the best.  (We were living in the Bay Area then.)

Unfortunately for this post, before I could enroll I got caught up in writing the memoirs of my father-in-law, a project we finished before his death.  That moved me to write a book about the origins of my own family, trying to save in one book the biographies of ancestors who immigrated to America, beginning with the Mayflower.   I finished just before my own father’s death.  My next book was the history of the LDS Church in the Saddleback Valley where we currently live.  In all this I was moved to save the lessons, the wisdom, learned by these people.  I didn't see the connection then, but it was a necessary preparation for the next topic: nutrition.

In my quest to understand nutrition I began to buy and study books. This was an intense effort; within a year my nutrition library had passed 100 books.  I guess I was influenced by the now-silent voices I had studied because, at a visceral level, I believed food tradition was an important guide to figuring out how to eat and be well today.  Public interest in nutrition started in the ‘20s and ‘30s after the discovery of vitamins and (thanks to amazon.com) you can buy used versions of these early books.  I also followed the modern research.

Through all this, one question repeated:  “Could an ordinary person deduce the healthiest course through the food jungle of our industrial age?” My daughter suggested I start a public conversation with real people by writing a blog and offered her design skills.  As most readers know, we started last January, offering one Healthy Change each week.  As we begin the last quarter of the year, the fall season, our attention turns from nutrients and diseases to cooking.

Learning to Cook

I’m a curious cook, if not a good one.  The beautiful wife follows recipes carefully; I experiment.  With her advantage of experience, it’s not likely I’ll ever be as good a cook.  When she walks into the kitchen she intuitively sniffs the air and knows whether I’m overcooking something, or have the temperature too high.  Sometimes she just sighs.  But I do learn from my experimentation, though it’s not always edible.

Traditionally girls learned the domestic skills from mothers, as boys learned a trade from their fathers.  Life is more complicated now; mom may work and even if she doesn’t many demands compete for her time.  There’s been less focus on teaching cooking.  There’s also less need as you can simply heat convenience food (the Kraft blue box foods are a sad example), eat out, or carry home take-out.  Most grocery stores now include a deli.  For these and other influences, there’s been a historic decline in the cooking skill of the average person.  Funny thing, though cooking skills have declined, the number of (dusty) cookbooks in homes has increased. 

The times are changing and it promises to be a good thing.  Besides a growing interest in nutrition over the last decade, there’s a new interest in cooking skills.  On one level it’s a spectator sport (think of the chefs competing on the TV shows, making exotic 20-ingredient dishes), but practical cooking is getting more attention too.  The magazine Real Simple (life made easier) has a Take Back Dinnertime challenge where they visit struggling moms and teach basic cooking skills that fit the need.  Here are examples from the October issue:

  1. A new wife is taught the basic kitchen tools, given a primer on seasonings, and shown how bone-in chicken can be roasted with vegetables for an affordable and nutritious meal.
  2. A no-time-to-cook mom is taught to freeze meals in advance, shown dishes made with meatballs, and encouraged to put her children to work helping.
  3. A mother of young children with a tiny kitchen learns how to organize her kitchen, dress up frozen vegetables, and appeal to her picky eaters.
  4. A mom with teens who wants to kick the take-out habit learns how to make a weekly menu and shopping list.  She also gets tips on using a slow cooker to get a head start on meals.

I applaud Real Simple for this series.  By the way, in the October Martha Stewart Living there’s an excellent article on diet and bone health.  As you likely know, New York magazines, though sold nationally, tend to address the problems of New York people.  Still, though the menus and recipes are sometimes more fancy than practical, you can occasionally find good things. 

The popularity of book clubs among young, hip women of all ages is most interesting.  What if these clubs left fiction and focused on nutrition and cooking?  This would redefine the term “health club” from a subscription gym to a free forum on how to be well.  Each meeting could focus on a cooking skill, and a sample dish could be served, with dessert of course.  What do you think?

Healthy Change

This week we focus on how to improve cooking skills in the home.  As our culture influences the world, perhaps we can one day atone for exporting our fast food by fomenting healthy cooking.  There has been a steady decline in our gross national cooking knowledge in recent generations.  It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way.


Please comment on what you are doing to advance home cooking, or tell of someone who helped you.  Or share your idea on how to spread the word.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (15)

A related post from another blog I read, which might be a good idea for people looking to implement this Healthy Change - A Cookbook Club! (http://www.teaandcookiesblog.com/2011/09/how-to-start-a-cookbook-club.html)

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVee

This is such a great idea! I've been a member of a cooking club before that felt stuffy, like everyone was trying hard to impress everyone else. I like the idea of having it simple - and using health eating/cooking books as the focus. I read the post that Vee shared above - fabulous! I'm excited to start something new. I have a hard time relating to some of the women who live nearby, so maybe this will open doors. Thanks for the post and idea!

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRikki

Skip, you sound a lot like my brother in the kitchen! He experiments and it doesn't always work out, but he enjoys it and finds new creations.

I have noticed recently how people are so amazed when someone cooks or bakes. I grew up never eating out, we couldn't afford it. My mom cooked almost every meal I ever ate growing up. So it is no big thing to me when someone cooks or bakes. At a friends birthday party, the guests seemed shocked that the mother could have made the cake, as well as the macaroni and cheese (neither from a box) that was served. It opened my eyes to the fact that so many people here in America have kitchens that they never use- a sad fact in my opinion. I love baking most. I do enjoy feeding my family good food. I would love to have a group where we could swap recipes and try each others' foods. My sister did that when she lived in Rochester, NY. They would make the recipe they were sharing and everyone got a chance to try it. Sometimes I think trying a recipe you have never tasted an be a daunting task. What if it is horrible and no one likes it? This kind of cooking club would take away that risk because you already know how it tastes.
Most people I know think I am weird for eating differently, but I will try to find others who would enjoy having a cooking club!

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Yes! I'm working on this right now (inspired by a comment you made in the comment section of your last post). ideally I would set up a monthly club where women share their favorite recipes, demonstration style like we see on tv. I know a woman at church who eats exclusively processed convenience food and would like to change, but doesn't know how. These meetings would be perfect for her.

I unfortunately hit a road block this morning. I was hoping to do the cooking club in our church building, because I live in a small Chicago apartment with no parking (and I would like to expand this cooking club outside of my church and invite blog readers to join in). Unfortunately the bishop told me via email this morning that he thinks that cooking in the church kitchen isn't allowed. I was so sad to hear this, I actually cried :(. I know that it's possible to do it at my own place, or the place of others, but it's not going to be the same. I am hoping the bishop was mistaken,p. If that is indeed the policy I plan to try to work up the ranks to find out if someone can grant me an exception.

But you are inspiring change Skip! I can see things like this really catching on. If anyone has any advice for me and how I might make this work with the LDS church I would really appreciate it.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

Jenna, there are several reasons why you can't cook in the church kitchens anymore. They are called warming areas or serving areas now instead of kitchens. One is health code. If we are going to cook in those kitchens, then they are subject to restaurant health codes. There is also the fire hazard issue. I believe it is a church wide policy that only warming and food prep is allowed in the church "kitchens." Sad. :( We used to cook in those kitchens when I was a kid.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Jenna, don't get discouraged with the first obstacle. It's true that for building code reasons the room with cupboards, a sink, and a stove is referred to as a food warming area, but all that stuff can be used for cooking too. Maybe the wives can make a united push for a little freedom to do what's right. Cook!

September 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

A cooking club is such a great idea! I love it. I'm going to propose it to the ladies at our upcoming book club. My only issue is that I'm afraid most of them tend to use pre-packaged foods. The last thing I want is a bunch of recipes that aren't healthy. Unhealthy casserole recipes I've got.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie Hellewell

I LOVE this idea! And am eager to look into developing it. I could see it developing into a freezer meal group or something similar where everyone brings one dish that they can take back to their families for dinner the next night. I like where this is heading... Thanks for the inspiration.

And, yes, I too am slowly discovering cooking. It is fun and delicious. Making time is the tricky part.

Thanks, as always, for the post.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

When I went to college I had no idea how to cook. My mom cooked but she didn't have much patience for teaching us. Also, many of her meals were failed experiments, but don't tell her I said that.
Anyway, I was hungry and poor so I had to learn to cook out of necessity. By the time I was married I was making a few casseroles. Now I'm at a new stage--avoiding the creamed soups and trying to bake from scratch. Is that the French woman's secret? Make everything from scratch and you can eat it, prudently, of course. They know how to make anything from vegetables to creme brulee taste delicious so they enjoy good healthy food in modest servings. That's the kind of cook I want to be.

When I first became an SAHM, a neighbor befriended me and we started a "baking day" every Friday. We kept it up for a few years, usually baking not-so healthy but fun things like chocolate lava cake while our toddlers wreaked havoc with the toys. We stopped a few years ago when schedules changed but I have fond memories of being in the kitchen together, visiting, and creating and sharing in that tranquil domesticity.

My book club is on the path...to the cooking thing. We've READ a few books about health (7 Pillars of Health and Widstoe's Word of Wisdom) and we have had one meeting dedicated to sharing favorite healthy recipes. We're fortunate to be all like-minded in the area of nutrition. Because of this, whoever hosts it usually prepares something fairly healthy. We've had homemade granola bars, merengues with fresh fruit, vegetable medleys, green smoothies. One lady brought several different sprouts for us to sample and showed us how to cultivate our own. I think it would be great to expand on that and share some favorite whole food recipes for family meals.

Great post as always.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

All year I have been designing 4x6 recipe cards of my favorite healthy recipes. I've got my homemade wheat bread, a few soups and salads, marinades, dressings, some more intense entrees, and my favorite dark chocolate mousse (hey, life is still for living!). I plan on printing them and sending bundles of 12 tried-and-true home-cooked treasures as my Christmas card. Hooray for graphic design, my love for cooking, and postage as a business write-off!

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Although I am an avid home cook (taught by both my mother and father) one of the best gifts I ever received was a recipe packet of home cooking type meals for my wedding. Several of my neighbors gave me their home cooking recipes along with Pyrex and other cooking instruments. What great and practical gifts!

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarina

I have wonderful news - my cooking club is going to happen (Skip gave me the idea of course!) The bishop told me today he read the handbook and feels comfortable moving forward with my plans (he is a vegan who just finished reading The China Study and would even like to act as an instructor for the club once or twice!). I will keep you updated on my progress as I develop the club.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

Just did this! First meeting is Monday. Had to jump through some unexpected building use issues (I had so much interest that using a building vs. home was a must.). Thanks for the idea!

October 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

Skip: thank you for the inspired idea! Our club is actually a church sponsored class now and is going strong. Here are some notes from our last meeting. I thought you may be interested in the fruits of your idea.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NDj5dlHL8vbBddBCGW-qtifhMeM8n0Jk3_QsUe3RQC0/edit?pli=1&fb_source=message

The ideas in here aren't perfect. But, it's a start and the goal was to not let perfection become the enemy of the good on those crazy nights when families would families would otherwise resort to Fast Food.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

Hi Meredith

I checked your meeting notes. Very proud of you and what your friends are doing to advance home cooking. Wishing you the best.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

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