Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Evolution of Cooking

I have been pondering lately how much cooking has changed through the years. I made shrimp curry today. It is not something my grandmothers or great-grandmothers would have made. Could they have even found the ingredients? Not likely. But now, I can go to my local grocery store and buy a pretty good Thai red curry paste. Add a can of coconut milk (99 cents at Trader Joe's), some fish sauce ($1.49 a bottle at the local Chinese grocery) and some brown sugar and you have a curry sauce for the ages. Throw in some onions, peppers and shrimp and you have a really excellent meal.

My mother talks about going to help her grandmother with the cooking during the threshing season in Iowa in the 50's. They would start the day early by setting the bread before fixing a huge breakfast including biscuits and sausage gravy. Then there would be sweet rolls and coffee mid-morning and at lunch would be a big hot meal like fried chicken, creamed peas & new potatoes and more biscuits and gravy (evidently my great-grandfather had to have that at every meal). Then someone would be sent out with cold drinks and sandwiches in the afternoon and then a big meal at supper too like ham hock and beans and biscuits with tomato gravy. It was long days of cooking and washing dishes.

My grandmother had ten children so every meal included enough food to feed an army. My father recalls when he was dating my mother that whenever he stayed for supper at her house, it felt like a party because there was so much food and so many people. My grandma was well known for her home cooking and she was a master hand at many of the dishes I mentioned in the above paragraph. She didn't do a lot of experimenting because she had a big family to feed and couldn't afford to waste food. She did make some Italian food and when my grandfather became a diabetic she worked on keeping sugars and starches out of their diet. She is also a great source for recipes and I regularly ask her for a recipe of something she has made that I remember fondly such as her oatmeal cookies.

My mother, being the wife of a pastor for forty years, has had to do a lot of entertaining. She has always done a lot of cooking, canning, pickling, baking and experimenting in the kitchen generally. Every year she throws a big Christmas party for the church people and she does all the food. It always includes some particularly impressive finger foods. This year there was a cheese ball that had been shaped and decorated to look like a snow man. She had a cream puff Christmas tree sprinkled with powdered sugar. People come every year just to enjoy looking at and eating her food.

Now we come to me. About a year ago, I came to realize how much I really love to cook and that it was more than a chore for me -- it was a hobby. I love to talk to other people about their cooking and eating experiences. One of the judges at the court where I work loves to bake and we hold quite serious conversations on the merits of various baking methods. At a family reunion, I discovered that one of my cousins shares my passion for cooking (see the Julie Jams blog) and we have become much closer in talking about food in general and organic foods and community supported agriculture in particular. I pour over cookbooks and websites and the Food Network. I subscribe to Bon Apetit and actually make some of their recipes from time to time. I have even made some of Martha Stewart's hideously complicated recipes a few times. (My dad refers to any recipe that dirties half the dishes in the kitchen as a Martha Stewart recipe.) As my husband says, I love to cook and he loves to eat so its the perfect match.

And it was all this that got me thinking about what a tremendous time it is for cooks particularly in America. We can get all kinds of unusual and exotic ingredients and spices. We can make Indian curry, Filipino lumpia, Greek baklava, Spanish paella and a host of other ethnic foods. I can get fresh fruit, fish, meat and veggies year round. I have access to Hungarian paprika and Creole seasoning and fresh ground pepper. In other words, the world is my oyster!

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