Home Ec Redux -- or, Am I a Kitchen Dinosaur?

One of the positive things about being diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, etc. is that the sodium restrictions eliminated most of the foods normally found in my mother’s house (never mind that she was diagnosed with T2 years before me!), giving me social leave to rediscover the “health foods” that were popular in my university living group. Furthermore, in the absence of “multiple-issue” cookbooks, I needed to “roll my own” – to experiment and find out what would work, and what would not. In short, I was on my own, culinarily, carefully stepping my way through the minefield of health information, dietary information, theories of diet, and food preparation in general.

Some things were easy to adapt: swapping out take-out Chinese lunches for fresh salads and home-made chilis; making pasta sauce using no-salt-added canned tomatoes; substituting whole-grain pasta for semolina pasta; measuring out everything into reasonable serving sizes. (For what it’s worth, we almost never used jarred sauce at home.) Other issues were more challenging: most breads, even whole-grain breads, are extremely high in sodium. (Perversely, many whole-grain artisanal breads are much higher in sodium than Wonder Bread.) Baking whole-grain, no-salt breads from scratch is still a bit of a challenge for me – but I don’t let that stop me from trying!

The more I reworked my diet and my “old stand-by” dishes, the more easily I recalled a number of “standard” combinations of seasonings, and the more interested I became in playing with those combinations to “spice up” my meals. (It didn’t hurt the “roll your own” experiment that Spice Hunter and Horizon Organic salt-free seasoning mixtures are both expensive and hard-to-find.) The process brought me back to one of the things I love about cooking and baking: the opportunity to be creative.

The plus side of this culinary rebirth is that I’m not afraid to experiment in the kitchen. I’m confident in what combinations of ingredients will work, and given the need or the opportunity, I can create a basic plan-of-attack for creating many dishes and condiments off the top-of-my-head, and go forward from there.

It’s a sort of “Iron Chef” cooking, at the home-kitchen level.

The minus side is, while I can tell someone what ingredients go into a condiment, what the basic seasonings are, and the method of preparation, I can’t provide the specific proportions unless I prepare the item myself and log it. So if you tell me you need, for example, a recipe for barbecue sauce, I can tell you to start with tomato paste, cider vinegar (or balsamic vinegar for a sweeter taste), Splenda brown sugar blend, onion powder, garlic powder, ground mustard seed, and ground chili dried chili peppers – but I can’t tell you offhand exactly how much of each ingredient to add in other than, “until it tastes right”. (I can give you a rough guesstimate if I think about it, but you’re still going to have to experiment and correct when you make it up.)

It seems to me that most moderately-intelligent adults should be able to take that basic ingredient list and come up with their own barbecue sauce (or whatever else the request is)… but in an era of tight schedules, packaged foods, and no home ec classes, am I expecting too much? Has “Iron Chef” home cooking gone the way of the dinosaur?

I have absolutely no idea how to get from a list of ingredients to a sauce or cake or whatever. I follow a recipe blindly and cross my fingers. I guess I’m just a poster child for the generations that have never really learned to cook. I have a couple of dishes I can make, but no recipes of my own.

Do you get asked about doing your own cookbook often?

I don’t get asked about doing a cookbook, but I have been compiling recipes as I come up with them. Most recipes today are a lot more prescriptive (specific amounts, specific preparation) than the recipes our great-grandmothers (or their great-grandmothers) followed, so it’s sometimes a bit of a chore breaking things down for the prescriptive cook.

The interesting thing is, that while I can’t easily follow a recipe from, say, 200 years ago, my mind works with short-cuts similar to the way those recipes were written – based on a known (or assumed) level of background information, and open to adaptation. OTOH, I will write down quantities of everything (except dried seasonings) as I go, so I can calculate the nutritional values afterwards.