Monday, April 11, 2005

Soup of the Day

Last Thursday I stopped at the fabric store to see what I could find, and, lo and behold, I found something. Saturday I dragged J down there with me and we pulled four or five rolls of silk fabric off the poles and took them to the big mirror next to the store's front window, next to which a man in his late 50s (?) was sitting, obviously one of the proprietors. The first one, a gorgeous peacock blue (with shimmery hints of green and purple) was wonderful, and he commented that it looked good. We looked at the others, all in the blue ranges, and after each one he noted that the first one looked best. He was right, too; there really wasn't any question about that. (His contribution was actually quite entertaining--it was very matter-of-fact, not intrusive at all, merely the response of someone who had clearly spent many years in the business and who clearly had an eye for it.) He hacked off a swatch, and away we went, with a checkmark next to one more task. Plus, C got his ring on Saturday--it's made by a technique called mokume gane, which is a little like making streudel with different metals.

Yesterday I skipped yoga so we could go buy a TV on sale. About 15 years ago--maybe more--I bought a 13" color TV, and it has served me just fine. The problem is, it's not cable-ready, as they say, so you can kind of attach the cable cord to it, but it doesn't stay very well, and I've never gotten a little converter plug, plus the network channels are horrible, because you're getting both cable and regular reception. We don't watch all that much TV, but what little we watch is often in bed--the news, or Law & Order, or, if we moved the cable box (which we did), The Daily Show, or, if C's not home, Nightline. I've been putting off buying things like TVs, but I finally succumbed--it was only about a hundred bucks, so it's not like we wheeled a big-screen flat-panel plasma monstrosity into the apartment. And, I'm supposed to be getting more paychecks this month! We came home and I did my share of the weekly cleaning, and did my finances, and then I set to work doing my lunch cooking.

As part of the Austerity Plan, we've been making our lunches since around the first of the year. As I expected (hey, I've spent more than a decade around recovering alcoholics, so I know a few things), C was all about making the lunches at first--his enthusiasm knew no bounds! Now, though, not so much, though I have some faith that he'll get back to it. I've been steadier about it, in part because I was tired of spending as much money as I was spending on lunches, plus I wanted to lose a little weight, which is easier to do when you know what's gone into the food you're eating, and easier still when you actually put it there and can, for example, cut out a lot of the fat and its accompanying calories. So I've been rummaging through my cookbooks, looking for things that freeze well, that can be portioned easily, that are suitable for lunches, and that aren't big wads of food (big lunches make me sleepy). This mostly means stews or thick soups (which Mrs. Doubtfire would regard as redundant); I'll make a batch of brown rice on Mondays and bring some of that to accompany whatever else is on the menu. The best cookbook for this, by far, is the Moosewood Low-Fat Cookbook (MLF). My favorite Moosewood cookbook used to be the New Moosewood Cookbook (NMC)--and I still use it for several things--but the recipes tend to have WAY too much fat in them; one really does not need three tablespoons of oil where a teaspoon or two will do.

Yesterday I went nuts: I made the Basque White Bean soup (which was much better than I expected--so good that I made a second batch and thereby used up all the cabbage and celery that I would otherwise have watched rot in the vegetable drawer) and the Golden Split Pea soup, both from MLF, and a Moroccan/West African-esque stew, based on two recipes from NMC, that enabled me to use up the last of the sweet potatos, the zucchini I bought a couple weeks ago, the rest of the can of tomatos I opened for the pea soup, and the last two onions. (I went through a whole bag of onions yesterday.) I felt extremely virtuous by the time I was done, plus I now have at least three or four weeks' worth of lunches.

So as I was in the kitchen, chopping and cutting and stirring and washing and pouring and portioning and so on, I fantasized some more about my eventual business. (Not the real one, the fantasy one. The former may have some things in common with the latter, but the latter is more of a wish-list than a business plan.) And I want to offer cooking classes of some kind. Too damned many people have no clue how to cook. This frustrates me to no end, not least because there are all these instruction books out there--cookbooks! with recipes in them!--and if you follow the instructions, you get food at the end. It's just not that complicated, or so I thought, but I seem to be wildly wrong about this one.

There are some cooking or baking techniques that require practice or instruction, but you can feed yourself pretty well without knowing any of them. If you really don't know anything, Joy of Cooking will get you pretty damned far (especially if you can get your hands on an older edition, which practically taught you how to skin a woodchuck, rather than this latest version, which apparently leaves out all of the freezing and canning info). It's how I learned most of what I know, except for peeling carrots and potatos and cutting up potatos for roasting.

I haven't figured out where cooking fits into my class schema, though. Eating, yes, but not cooking. I know that, for families like the one in which I grew up, if the mom knew how to cook, she did it, because it was cheaper than going out. In the 50s, a lot of women expected to do the cooking, and there were any number of resources, including their mothers and grandmothers, to assist with that. But the 50s and 60s are when prepackaged foods really began to take off. (Laura Shapiro wrote an absolutely fascinating history of women and cooking called Perfection Salad; it's in paperback, and very readable, and I highly recommend it.) If it could be frozen, canned, or otherwise pre-made, it was sold that way, because it was more "convenient." It also tended to be more expensive, which probably helps explain why my mother didn't go for that stuff. On the other hand, my parents didn't have "dinner parties," which I think were a more middle-class thing, or, more likely, a more urban thing. Cooking was about feeding the family, perhaps the extended family at a holiday, not about impressing the neighbors, unless you're talking about baked goods at the PTO bake sale.

In any case, it used to be the case that the poorest and the richest people cooked at home. The poor people cooked because it was cheaper--you can buy food in bulk, you can bring your own lunches, etc. The rich people cooked as a kind of display, e.g., at the aforementioned dinner parties. Julia Child convinced American women that they could learn to cook fine food, so a bunch of them set about doing that. But in the last 50 years or so, things have changed, I think. At this point, it's often nearly as cheap to get takeout as it is to cook at home, and, as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in Nickled and Dimed, if you don't have a stove or refrigerator, you can't do that bulk cooking anyway. I'd add that it's equally difficult if you live in a housing project where the utilities are uncertain, or if you have a long commute. The middle classes, the 20-somethings, they all have Trader Joe's and the like, where there's an abundance of food that can be heated, and Whole Paycheck has huge frozen food aisles. None of this involves cooking, however.

I feel like such an anachronism (I often feel that way, if you want to know), but I think cooking is one of those basic skills that everyone should have. So I'll have cooking classes at my shop.


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