We were watching my current favourite TV food show, Ugly Delicious with David Chang the other night. It was the Home Cooking episode, and it brought up some interesting thoughts about food and our relation to it.
First of all, let me go on about Ugly Delicious. This show is probably the most cerebral food show I’ve ever seen. Bourdain’s No Reservations was along the same lines, but Ugly Delicious really gets into some deep thinking – which I adore. (Chang was a friend of Bourdain’s and had a chapter in The Nasty Bits.) David’s partner in this show and his magazine Lucky Peach, Peter Meehan, is a food writer who also owns a huge food oriented book store that I really need to go to. These two explore food in a way I’ve never seen in a show before. They look at the roots of it, the people who make it, the people who consume it and the social contexts of all this. It’s brilliant, really. You should watch it.
Anyway, aside from my fangirling, this show always leaves me thinking about it after I watch an episode. The episode we watched the other night was about home cooking, and it in, Chang and Meehan go to Chang’s family’s Thanksgiving feast. They cook the “white people” food and Chang’s mother does the Korean food. (The spread was MASSIVE!!) During the episode, Chang talks of his childhood spent watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen, learning how to do the family recipes. He went to culinary school, where the French methods rule, and felt that his Korean food heritage was somehow less than the fancy French cuisine he learned in school and cooked in the restaurants he worked in. It took him a very long time to come around to the fact that his family’s comfort foods may not be pretty, but they are ugly delicious and they deserve to be represented in the world of cuisine. That’s what spurred him to open his first restaurant, Momofuku.
All this discussion about home cooking, made me reflect upon my own upbringing and the foods that I remember the most. I mostly remember my grandmother’s cooking. It was never fancy, but always good. We always had a massive garden (1/3 – 2/3 acre or so) and I clearly remember watching my Gran putting up Silver Queen corn (cream style), green beans, tomatoes (YES Alton Brown, you CAN can tomatoes!!) and making blackberry jelly. I also remember her making fudge and what she called cream puffs, but were actually éclairs, and chocolate pie (my favourite!). She’d make Stack Cake with homemade apple butter at holidays.
Speaking of holidays, my Aunt and Uncle (mom’s brother) would always host the holiday family gatherings. It was mostly Aunt Vera’s family and my grandmother’s sisters and brothers. There’d be a HUGE buffet with turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, all the standards. Some of the women would bring things, but it was mostly my grandmother and aunt who did the cooking.
Years later, we were visiting a friend’s grandmother during Thanksgiving and of course, we were encouraged to eat. So we did and I was surprised to find that her grandmother’s cooking was almost identical to what my family made. So, there’s your proof that cooking is indeed regional, perhaps more than even I suspected it was!
So, back to the family foods thread. My mother was not what I’d call a great cook. She knew all the standard stuff (regional dishes), but when she married my father, he demanded that she cook like his mother did. Apparently his mother was a fan of overcooked, very greasy food. So my mother cooked the stuff that he liked and in the way he liked it. Then came the 70s and casseroles – OY, so many casseroles. My mother could make a good fried chicken and a good turkey, but most everything else was mush. And she did not like to cook, so I really believe that her dislike of it is what ruined the taste and made her food unremarkable. My dislike of her food is why I started cooking for myself. I tell you, if the food culture back then had been what it is now, I’d already be a chef with 35 years experience. I watched Julia Child and Jacques Pépin when I was a kid and was fascinated, so the desire was there even then.
Then a friend on FB mentioned kids’ anxiety and how it seems to be related to being over scheduled, and how this has made them anxious if they don’t have something to do. She mentioned sitting on the porch snapping green beans with her grandmother as a kid – as I did. THAT got me to thinking about how perhaps all this stimulation and busy-ness could have something to do with the proliferation of all these chef boxes with prepped food that you just have to cook. For me, food prep is my happy place. I don’t listen to music, I just get into a groove of cutting and measuring and enjoying the process. I think that kids who’ve been brought up with helicopter parents and every minute scheduled and monitored don’t have the ability to just BE. They really can’t just do nothing or enjoy the simplicity of snapping green beans for an hour. We were never scheduled as kids. We thought up things to do or wandered around the neighborhood. I remember making up commercials and acting them out when I was bored. Kids don’t do that now, they are scheduled, anxious and antsy. No wonder the thought of an hour of standing in one spot cutting veg is horrifying to them!
It makes sense to me that kids brought up with never having downtime would be terrible at food prep. It is a meditative process. Ask anyone who does it for a living! Anne Burrell once commented on her cooking show that shelling peas is one of her favourite things to do, but she “doesn’t get to do it” now that she’s an executive chef. Notice the GET in that sentence. It’s not a chore, it’s something she LIKES to do. I totally feel that way, too. I can’t WAIT to do prep all day. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. (Now, ask me that after doing it for six months in a restaurant kitchen! LOL I might have a different view!)
The idea that I’d like to get across in this post is the thought provoking nature of Ugly Delicious and how much I really do think about food and how people relate to it. Everyone feels that their home cooking and comfort foods are no big deal and not worth cooking in a restaurant. BUT. Look at how dining out has changed in the last decade! Comfort foods are everywhere. There are grilled cheese restaurants FFS!! Pretty much all the ethnic foods you seek out are comfort foods for that culture. Western (European) cuisine has been about fancy and pretty for a very long time, and I, for one, am glad that we’re moving away from that. I really detest fussy food. Which is why I’m a great cook, but a terrible “Foodie”. I don’t like spending $100 a plate for things that I can replicate (even if they are fancy). I am almost always let down with fancy places, honestly.
I’m very, very happy that comfort food is its own culinary thing now. It is what I cook, what I’m good at, and hopefully what my customers will like. My recipes are literally from my kitchen. They may have exotic Asian ingredients, but they are truly what I cook for us. I don’t make much of the foods I grew up with, but I intend to remedy that. I’ve done canning for years and I’m going to try to see if I can channel my Gran and make some of her favourite desserts – especially that stack cake, which is an Appalachian regional item. I won’t make my own apple butter, but I am pretty sure I can make the cake part – it’s basically spice pancakes. I am a horrible baker, but I think I can give pâte à choux a go, and I know I can make pastry cream for éclairs. I’ve made chocolate pie before – it’s just pastry cream with chocolate in it. I am good with pies, madeleines, galettes and biscuits, but cookies elude me! Oh, and I can make lava cakes. I can even make soufflés, but cakes and cookies? Not so much. Come to think of it, Gran didn’t do cakes and cookies much, either. Perhaps it’s genetic! :D
I encourage YOU to think about the food you grew up with and your relationship with food. If you don’t cook, why not try some simple recipes? I’ve got dozens on this blog that are easy. If you do cook, do you make foods from your culture or region? Why or why not? Food sustains us, but it’s also a big part of our upbringing. I think that it is also an important part of our culture(s). I’m going to get out my Gran’s cookbook and see what I can find in there. I encourage you to do the same with your family’s cuisine. Bon appétit!