Before I got married, I seldom cooked. By which I mean, I occasionally boiled water. Living in Lansing my first year of marriage, away from family, cooking became a matter of survival [there are only so many times you can eat take-out] so I promptly learned all the desi dishes my mother made. I made them from scratch since Shan wasn't available where I lived [Shan's a good [though high-sodium] hand-holder for learning new recipes]. I shocked both my family and myself with the things I learned, Shami Kabob, aloo gobi, chicken kardhai, plau. All from the basic ingredients in my cupboard.
Sometimes I made other things too. And by make I mean, I picked up a frozen packet of teriyaki chicken, defrosted it, served it with a salad and felt pride at the meal I made. In this spirit I served apple cobbler, blueberry pies, cheesecake, all from mix and match and coat and serve, and took credit because I opened the box. I assembled the ingredients. I cooked! [In my defense, my cooking resume just six months earlier involved burnt eggs and boiled water].
I soon broke free of frozen meals but the break from my long standing dependence on packaged food came by accident. I promised breakfast pancakes to visiting friends and that morning woke to discover an empty box of Bisquick. Panicked, I searched the internet for options. Pancakes came in a box because making them from scratch had to be difficult. Except, I learned, it isn't. Flour, milk, eggs, sugar. Really, that's about it. I was astonished. Not only was the result easy, cheaper, and healthier with less preservatives and additives- it tasted fabulous! And it made me wonder: if pancakes are this easy what about other things? Are they similarly uncomplicated?
Yes. Hashbrowns. Mashed potatoes. Cranberry sauce, and stuffing. One after the other, easy, and according to K, tasty. And those that were not easy, that perhaps took a bit more time, I found a particular pride in making that was different than tossing frozen fries on a baking tray. I found the ability to grow creative with my cooking, trying my own touches, my own twists. And the feeling of watching your loved ones enjoy what you made, what you really made? It was indescribable. If its tastier, and cheaper, to make it from scratch, why, I wondered, did I feel so intimidated for so long, questioning my ability to even try?
The food industry, I am now learning. I'm reading Something From The Oven, a look into the evolution of American cooking from the 60's to today and exactly how influential the food industry was in pushing our dependence on boxes, mixes, and freezers. Magazine editors, television chefs, the shapers of our foodie culture were given a lot of incentives by the food industry to popularize cooking via box. A box of bisquick is a lot more profitable than selling flour. Society at large resisted at first, but ultimately, succumbed, leading to me, a reasonably educated person, absolutely intimidated by the prospect of pancakes.
I guess now I could say, take that food industry! I make my own food now thankyouverymuch! I am free! Except, I'm not. That is what this book made me see. Yes I make Pad Thai, but I use peanut butter as a base. I don't crush the peanuts myself. I use Kikkoman soy sauce instead of boiling soy beans [if that is how soy sauce is infact made]. I make Thai Red Curry, but the Red? It's from a paste I got in a jar from the store and the coconut milk came from a can, not an actual coconut I chopped and boiled.
So then, did I really cook these meals? Can I truly claim credit?
As Eid approaches I've been planning what desserts to make and was debating between a heath bar trifle or chocolate eclairs. They get rave reviews and I was super excited to make them. Except, both are really box creations. Different boxes, but still- boxes The trifle involves boxed cake. Frozen whipped cream. Dried pudding. Heath bars. It was then I realized, as much as I try to wean myself from processed basics for my cooking, when it comes to desserts, I'm a Betty Crocker poster child. And this made me feel sick.
I'm not making it I told K. I can't make it. It's not me. It's just boxes. But- as much as I want to make it from scratch I feel overwhelmed by the work required to authentically create each part. I'll bake cookies from scratch I told K but he was having none of it. He loves it and assured me that if I'm truly opposed to making box-based items he'll eat my share himself. He's selfless like that. So I'll make it. But can I really take credit for it?
But how far does one go in the quest for authentic cooking? I've never milked a cow for my day's milk, nor would I want to. Nor do I foresee myself purchasing my own wheat to make my own pasta. It could be I'm overthinking this. [Who? Me?] It's just that I love cooking. I take absolute pleasure in the act. But feeling like a fraud, sucks.
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