by John Ryan
When The Culinary Elevator Is Out...
Cooking From Scratch
What happens when you pick up the phone and find that the line is dead? Or when you get to work and see an "out of order" sign on an elevator? No matter what the cause (freak accident, human error, or some technical glitch) you probably join the great human chorus: @*&!#!!, now what!
That's the nature of convenience. The upside of convenience is, well, convenience. But the downside is dependence. And the ride down is surprisingly steep. For instance, for years I balanced my checkbook with a pencil. And it worked fine. Then one day I bought an accounting program and found myself completely and utterly dependent on my computer. I think that ride took about twenty minutes.
Since I've never been a back-to-the-earth, Walden Pond kind of guy, I've enjoyed the wind in my hair as I coasted into this dependence. The only thing I regret is the way convenience makes bumps in the road invisible. I mean, when my pencil stopped writing, I could see the problem and sharpen it. When my typewriter broke, I could usually see what the problem was even when I couldn't actually fix it. But with computers...forget about it.
Well, unless you've been holed up in an ashram eating brown rice for the last twenty years, you know that convenience foods have turned cooking into a...let's just say that it makes bungee jumping look like the slow way down.
Take bouillon cubes. They started as a harmless shortcut, but I'll bet that for most of us, discovering that a jar of bouillon cubes is empty is like finding a dead phone. @*&!#!!, now what!
Not that I'm against bouillon cubes!
I'm not a fanatic about scratch cooking, I just hate to feel stymied when I reach for the can and the can's not there. And besides, just as writing a letter is sometimes more satisfying than printing one out, some days it feels good to start with real food rather than an assortment of boxes and bottles.
For instance, I generally use canned pumpkin for pies and muffins. I like the results and it's a whole lot easier than dealing with a real live pumpkin. But once in while those little six-pound pumpkins look so appealing I've just got to own one. And while I could pull a Martha Stewart and use the little guy as a centerpiece, it feels good to know how to cook a pumpkin.
There's something primal about buying real food. Some of it is the mystery. Whenever I see a conveyor belt of real food at the supermarket I start wondering.
I mean, everybody knows what you're going to do with a box of frozen macaroni and cheese. But a beautiful bunch of greens? Even a whole chicken makes you wonder. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me what I'm going to do with pile of exotic mushrooms or a cute little pumpkin. (I suspect a fair number of people also think I'm crazy for not simply buying canned pumpkin, but so it goes.)
There's also something a little subversive about buying real food. Think about it. The sworn duty of manufacturers is to get us hooked on their products. So every time you give a bottle of spaghetti sauce a pass and buy a tomato, you help a farmer and frustrate a marketing whiz.
Again, not that I want to go back to chopping wood and carrying water. I just like to think that if the culinary elevator is out I can cheerfully take the stairs.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created October 1998