Friday, January 28, 2011

Grandma's cooking

My grandmother was an excellent cook.

I might be a bit biased, but it's true.

Most of what I can remember of her cooking revolved around holiday meals. She would put together these elaborate, delicious, and filling meals, and she did it more or less by herself up until her health started to deteriorate.

My grandfather was no help in the kitchen, and to this day that is still true. My mother told me that Grandpa got this idea in his head to make himself a snack once when she was a young girl. Minutes later, there were flames licking the ceiling and my grandmother banned him from the kitchen forever. So that left Grandma to take care of business.

Perhaps the best credit I can give my grandmother is her transformation from a small town farm girl into an cultured, expert chef. My grandparents grew up in a small, rural farm town during the 1940s. Unlike most at the time, they both went to college and my grandfather went on to become a professor at a state university. This left my grandmother in charge of a lot of entertaining. Now, this is not to say that farm girls cannot cook. Rather, in that era, they had a much more limited variety of food available, and as such, much less experience with fine cuisine. Case in point: My grandmother didn't have an english muffin until she was in college (She hated it, by the way, because she was expecting a traditional muffin and got, well... an english muffin.).

At one point, my grandmother taught an international cooking class, so that should give some unbiased credibility to her cooking abilities. I recall my grandfather telling me that he especially enjoyed all of the new dishes she would try to make before showing them in class.

Now, to my knowledge, my grandmother never went to culinary school, and she didn't just whip these abilities to cook out of thin air. She had tools to teach her what to do.


My grandmother had tons of cookbooks. To this day, they are sitting in the buffet at my grandparents' house on three shelves each stacked two-deep. Since my grandfather obviously has no use for them, they sit there unloved for much of the year. My mom and her sister occasionally pull one out over the holidays to look for a particular recipe, and I have rifled through and borrowed a few now and then.

This cookbook collection is extensive, with books on all sorts of cuisines from over five decades. There is one from a 1948 PTA fundraiser. There is Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There are cookbooks on every type of international cuisine (likely from my grandmother's class). There are family cookbooks and church cookbooks and an entire encyclopedia of cooking. And then there are my grandmother's favorites. Her Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, for example, was so worn that she took it out of its original binding and split it between two three-ring binders. Today, my edition of that cookbook is my go-to source for cooking questions, because I learned to trust that cookbook from my mother, who learned it from her mother.

The greatest treasures in those shelves, however, are my grandmother's handwritten recipes and file of clippings. She has an entire binder and a recipe box full of her family and friends' recipes. She has an accordion folder, so old and so full it won't collapse, filled with hundreds of clippings and notes. There's an empty cranberry bag in there with recipes for cranberry sauce that's easily as old as my sister.  She has recipes clipped from the newspaper older than my mother, and some from a few years before she died. Many of the recipes have notes scrawled all over them about my grandmother's opinion of how it turned out and changes she made to the recipe. She also wrote notes about accompanying recipes for sauces or sides and where to find them in other cookbooks.

I found a photocopy of a recipe for Waldorf Astoria Red Cake with a post-it reading "A copy of Grandma's 'legendary' & 'official' b'day cake (A+ least w/our family)." Now this gets interesting because my husband's family has a similar red cake birthday tradition with another recipe. We've decided to make both cakes soon and see which is better. This could get ugly.

A few days ago I decided to borrow a few cookbooks from the collection to inspire me to eat better. I selected the 1948 PTA cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a Pomeranian cookbook (because much of my family is from there and my husband's a "meat and potatoes" kind of guy),  Crepes & Omelets (because I'm a fan of both), and my grandmother's binder of notes.

These cookbooks are going to be inspiring and challenging simultaneously. I love them because there is much more "real food" contained in these books than in some of the others I own. I hate them because they expect me to actually know how to cook without instructions. For example, my great grandmother's recipe for Hot Cross Buns looks like this:

1 c. scalded milk
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter or margarine
1/3 tsp. salt

Combine above and cool to lukewarm. Mix 1 tsp. sugar with 1 yeast cake, dissolve in 2 Tbsp. warm water. Add to above mixture, then add:

1 beaten egg
1/2 c. raisins
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. allspice
3 1/2 to 4 c. flour

Mix and knead as bread or rolls.

First of all, what is scalded milk? Second, what do you mean "Mix and knead as bread or rolls"?! What temperature is the oven? How long should I put it in there? How big should these rolls be? What size pan should I use? YOU CAN'T JUST STOP HALFWAY THROUGH THE RECIPE!

I think Crepes & Omelets will be the easiest to deal with because it is new-er (1976) and still holds true to the "real foods" concept. Probably the most difficult part will be figuring out how to fold everything.

I haven't made anything out of any of these cookbooks yet, but I definitely want to try. I'm going to set a goal to make one recipe from one of these books each week. This way, I can hold myself accountable. Next week, since it is my birthday, will be the red cake face-off.

I'm not sure what's going to happen to these cookbooks in the future. My grandfather made me check out the books I borrowed library-style and leave a note of what I took. I suppose it's so they're available for skimming around the holidays. I asked my mom if she knew and she said she figured they would be divvied up among the kids who wanted them when the time came. I not-so-subtly hinted that there are probably grandkids (aka me) who might want a share of them as well, so here's hopin' I guess. Meanwhile, I'll just enjoy what I've got and maybe copy some of my favorites into my recipe box.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The other day while I was pining over In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, I toasted a couple slices of carrot bread to eat when I came across these words: "According to the Harvard economists' calculations, the bulk of the calories we've added to our diet over the past twenty years has come in the form of snacks," (p. 191).

Can someone say irony?

I did finish my toast regardless, and in fairness I had skipped lunch because I had a late breakfast. And it was carrot toast NOT potato chips! But still, Michael Pollan's message radiated through me: Food is meant to be eaten communally at meals, not every couple hours, alone.

I will be the first to admit, I am a very guilty snacker. And if yesterday was any indication, it will be a hard road to break that habit, too. It started late morning when I had to man a recruitment table for an organization I work with at my alma mater. I ran into an old friend manning another table covered in heart-shaped lollipops to lure unsuspecting recruits to them. Without even thinking about my goal to eat healthier, I took one and ate it! Then, they had a snack table and I eyed some scotcheroos. I thought to myself, My dog ate the leftover scotcheroos last week and I never got one. So I went to the table and got one. And some popcorn. Then I went back later and got another scotcheroo.

Then I stopped at the store on the way home to pick up the loaded baked potato bread they promised they were making yesterday and saw they had hummus on sale, so I grabbed a container. I came home and ate two pieces of carrot bread (this time with hummus). Then I ate the leftover tilapia ninety minutes before dinner! Then after dinner, I grabbed the hummus at the corn tortilla chips and ate again.

Yesterday was bad. But it certainly wasn't my worst day. And all things considered, I had skipped lunch again (I think I'm seeing a pattern here), and at least the second half of my snacking wasn't garbage food.

On the other hand, this may be the one thing I don't entirely agree with Michael Pollan on. Yes, I snacked too much yesterday. Yes, most snack food is junk food. Yes, it is much harder to control portions. But I thought it was better for your body if you ate several smaller, evenly spaced mini-meals throughout the day?

I think it's safe to say that I'm not going to give up snacking. Life does not always give us the opportunity to eat three square meals, and sometimes you need to get by with a couple midday snacks. However, I do need to be more mindful of what is in my snacks and how much snacking I do.

Perhaps the worst snacking I do is at work, and with good reason. I work long (up to 10) hours at the restaurant and my break is at the very beginning of my shift nine out of ten times. So to not snack, I would have to go the majority of my long shift without food while I watch other people scarf down right in front of me. What's worse is that free food is pretty readily available. Anytime a cook messes up an order, it generally gets put on the break table for us to devour (and let me tell you, our cooks are far from perfect!). Anytime we get new menu items (almost always plural), they make it for us to try. And to top it off, my workplace does not serve organic, all-vegan food. Or really anything close that at all. And most of it is cooked in oil.

So how do I escape probable tragedy? I could start by bringing my own snacks. I'm working on having more fresh fruits and veggies at the house, which are pretty good snack foods if you ask me. I typically bring my own "lunch," so adding a few extra goodies to snack on shouldn't be too hard. I work later today; we will test this hypothesis and see what happens.

As for at home, I really just need to monitor my impulse eating and try to eat something filling (aka not chips and hummus!) so I'm not tempted to go back to the kitchen for more. Probably the hardest part for me will be distinguishing between meals and snacks. Pollan strongly encourages eating with others, which can be difficult when my husband and I are on different schedules. He usually leaves before me and gets home after me during the week, especially on my days off, so I'm at home without supervision during those long hours between breakfast and dinner (since I seem to have this bad habit of skipping lunch). I keep trying to justify my snacking as a late lunch, but it's really not. Not the way I'm doing it. Maybe I just need to find a lunch buddy who will eat a late lunch with me. Or I need to sit at the table and set out exactly what I'm going to eat, instead of scrounging around until I think I'm full.

Hmm... more on that later I think.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Michael Pollan

The vast majority of the map for my food journey will likely be contained in the pages of Michael Pollan's books. I first heard of him through my Women and Food class, and he would occasionally pop up in my other food endeavors. My husband bought In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto for me last summer, and I finally got around to reading it... yesterday. Let me tell you this:

Michael Pollan is my hero.

First of all, he is a journalist. His writing is simple and clear. He breaks down those lengthy and boring journal articles and puts them into plain English. Pollan does not claim to be an expert in food, but his words simply sum up all that is wrong with our eating habits and give us a straightforward solution. Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

The book begins by telling us how our eating habits got so out of whack. As Pollan put it, "what other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?" (p.2). Pollan chalks it up mostly to capitalism, which effectively destroyed our local food systems. In short, manufacturers began processing the food we eat to make it easier to carry it long distances without spoilage. As time goes on, much of the food we eat is hardly food at all, and it seriously lacks in variety. A whopping 1,670 calories (roughly two-thirds) of what we eat each day come from four plants: wheat (768 calories), corn (554 calories), soy (257 calories), and rice (91 calories) (p. 117).

Pollan discusses how scientists are attempting to reduce food to the nutrients that make it up, and then add those needed nutrients to the processed "food" to make it healthier. But much like the formula vs. breast milk debate, the real deal is always better for you. The Western diet has been linked to four of the top-ten causes of death in the United States, so the answer seems simple enough: Stop eating it. Unfortunately, Pollan says, there is hardly anything left in the supermarket that hasn't been tainted with science. So where does that leave people like me that want to make healthier food changes?

Pollan finishes to the book with some basic guidelines for good eating. Simply put, Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Perhaps my favorite advice is to go back to your roots and eat the foods your great-grandmother would eat. Think about it, traditional ethnic fair has been around for hundreds of years. The food can't be that bad for you if it wasn't killing off your ancestors, right? Pollan also recommends eating as much local food as possible and even planting a garden if you're able.

All in all, a great read. I'm probably going to publish this post and then get on Amazon to order his other books.

Monday, January 24, 2011


I suppose I should start by telling everyone why I'm writing a food blog. My ultimate goal is to learn about my food. And from that knowledge I want to put the best nourishment possible into my body.

Let's not kid ourselves—food blogs have been done before. I might even go so far as to say "They're all the rage right now." So what can I add to the food blogosphere?

I grew up with pretty typical American eating habits. I rarely ate breakfast as a kid, and when I did it was usually Pop-Tarts or cereal. I bought my lunch at school. For dinner, there was a pretty even mix of family meals at home, eating out, and fending for myself. My family shopped at the regional chain grocery store, but every once in a while we'd go to the local farmer's market and get corn, fruit, jam, or baked goods. I didn't really like vegetables and it was rare for us to serve anything more exotic than broccoli.

I went to college at my state university, majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and Psychology. I also earned minors in History and Chemistry and have a concentration area in Women's Studies. I just finished applying to graduate school to earn my Master's in Public Health and am waiting to hear back. I ate dorm food for the majority of my first two years; then after I moved into an apartment I got back into the old routine of alternating between cooking, eating out, and scrounging. Lately, however, I've been trying to cook more and get my husband to do the same—though somewhat unsuccessfully on both counts.

I work as a server at a chain family restaurant. On my days off, I usually go to my internship at a local non-profit that provides fresh, organic produce to low-income families.

For whatever reason, I have found myself continually drawn to food and healthy eating. It probably started in late high school, when I decided to give up meat for Lent. About halfway through Lent I decided, on a whim, to stop drinking soda and have kept it largely out of my diet ever since. I began to eat less fast food (McDonald's in particular), and cut out the Golden Arches for good after I saw "Super Size Me" in early college. I took a few photojournalism classes, and both of my major projects revolved around food. My favorite class, perhaps, was Women and Food, and it was the driving force behind my ideal lifestyle changes.

That's basically what got me to where I am now. I want to have a better relationship with my food, so that I can be healthier. I'm not fat or trying to lose weight. My cholesterol is a teeny tiny bit high, but not enough for medication or even enough for me to take it seriously. I'm not an expert, but I enjoy eating and cooking. That being said, I don't always make enough time for either. I enjoy eating overly-processed junk food—much less than when I was a kid, but more than I should. I want to force myself to try foods outside of my comfort zone. I want to know more about where my food comes from and what it does to my body.

So what will this blog be, you ask? More than likely my convoluted journey to food enlightenment. It will be a food journal of sorts: I will try to log what I'm eating (hopefully with some pictures!) and include the (mostly borrowed) recipes I'm using. I am a semi-avid food reader, so I'm sure I will post about books/articles/etc. that interest me. I'd also like to learn more about food in larger contexts such as food systems, fair trade, and the like, so I'm sure I'll post plenty about those things too. Probably more will come, but that's a good start anyway.