Thursday, August 6, 2009

You Are What You Eat, or Cook

I've been thinking hard about food lately. I've even taking to looking back into some of my late, lamented, food-stained and now-seldom used cookbooks, cookbooks from my single days, like New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (which I bought mostly because it had the word broccoli in the title). I've even pulled out my old, stained copy of the More With Less Cookbook, reminiscing about my earnest early attempts at eating "lower on the food chain", as we called it then.

Why? Younger stepson, Young Man of Value, is considering going vegan.

He has been flirting with becoming vegetarian for some time, but would make an exception for fish. Now that he's talking about Vegan, though, I'm looking through all of those old, radical (I thought they were radical, then) cookbooks, and finding out that most of their recipes are not radical enough.

My favorite fancy mac-and-cheese recipe from the Moosewood cookbook? One word: Cheese. The great eggplant recipe I tried for a guy I was trying to impress: That one had cheese, too. And other recipes that I have invariably considered healthy, no-meat stand-bys often had milk or eggs.

I admire Young Man of Value's desire to eat ethically, although I'm not myself fully convinced of the Vegan option. One thing that has been good, though, is that's it has gotten me thinking -- both about food, and about cooking.

I've always had sort of a love/hate relationship with cooking.

I've never felt like I was a good cook. I don't have any tales of terror from the kitchen to relate; it's not that so much as it is my knowledge that I am the kind of person who pretty much sticks to the cookbook when it comes to cooking. And when I see a really long list of ingredients or when the instructions start looking complicated, I tend to panic, like when I try to play a piano piece that is way over my head.

I've gone through stages, though, when I've enjoyed trying new (though not terribly complicated) recipes. In Japan, when I longed for the taste of macaroni and cheese, I pulled out the Betty Crocker cookbook and learned to make it from scratch, plopping cubes of cheese into my white sauce and watching it melt. (I was surprised to learn later that a white sauce can be tricky to make.) Just after returning to the U.S., I fell in with some vegetarians and tried a few easy, but exotic-tasting recipes from the aforementioned Moosewood Cookbook (all in my very tiny apartment kitchen). And shortly after getting married, I relied on my Cooking for Two Cookbook and regular advice from the two home economists who happened to be members of my congregation.

I've also gone through stages (like right after we got Scout, our high-maintenance puppy) when I couldn't imagine coming home from work, cooking dinner and heading back to church for the evening round of meetings. Or I couldn't imagine coming home alone as a single person and cooking and eating all by myself. Or I just couldn't imagine what it would be like to cook and eat and clean up all those dirty dishes all by myself (sometimes the cleaning up part did it). I longed for good food, but didn't have the energy to create it.

This past Sunday, though, an article in the New York Times magazine got me thinking again: about food, and the art of cooking. By current food guru Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma), the article talks about how we are cooking less and less (food manufacturers now market pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, even), but are fascinated with cooking shows. Somehow, he thinks, cooking makes us human. But we have designed our lives with less and less time for these tasks.

Cooking makes us human. Also, cooking makes us healthier, I think. One of the surprises of the Pollan article was the statement that a poor woman who cooks is going to be healthier than a rich woman who doesn't (yes, and that's exactly how he wrote it).

When I cracked open the More with Less cookbook again, after all these years, I remembered the three principles:

1. Eat more whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
2. Use meat and dairy products in moderation
3. Avoid processed and convenience foods.

This is where Young Man of Value has it, I think. It's not in the Vegan diet, specifically, but it's in the commitment to cooking and eating real food. This makes me think about what I am missing when I design a life so fast-paced that there is no time to create a simple meal. This happens more often than I like to admit.

But I also admit to a certain joy when I get something real, however simple, on the table. The other night I made a Greek Salad from a recipe I found in a magazine; I've been eyeing another recipe, with Eggplant and Angel hair Pasta, from the same magazine.

They say you can make it in 30 minutes.

Even better, I've been enjoying the fresh fruit of the season as well. Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, for example. All I have to do is wash and eat, wash and eat. I can't think of anything realer, and simpler, and more gracious, than that.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

The phrase in you posting that jumped out at me: create a simple meal. Good food from scratch need not take a lot of ingredients and a lot of pots and pans. I get kind of overwhelmed and depressed when I do a meal that takes so many dishes and pots that all my counter space is full when I'm done. Complex isn't necessarily more tasty nor healthy.

I'm kind of bored with cooking after all these years, but I still dislike the taste of most pre-prepared food, that I do a lot of from scratch cooking [major exception is Ragu.) But since I make my own bread, I think that a sandwich can be a really good meal. And garden lettuce with other veggies and stuff, and homemade salad dressing is good to look at and yummy.

But I'd probably have pasta with almost anything mixed in if I had to rush home and rush back for meetings several days/week.

Presbyterian Gal said...

Lately I've fallen into awful eating habits.

I remember being in Paris where everyone ate healthy, because they bought the ingredients for their meals fresh daily from the wonderful open air markets.

And you almost never saw an overweight Parisian.

Diane said...

P.S. I want to talk to you about bread baking....

Presbyterian Gal, ah Paris! the memory!

and side note to all: I was fascinated by these 3 ingredient recipe books a few years ago. I don't think any of them were vegetarian, though.

Barbara B. said...

I really liked Omnivore's Dilemma -- lots to think about!

Mompriest said...

Simple. Healthy. Easy. That's the way I like to cook and eat.

I love those cookbooks you mention...and wow, vegan. I could not do that...

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

jeepers you shoulda given me a call... recently i too pulled out the Enchanted Broccoli Forest... and even bought some tofu, some taboule mix, and am seriously working to make healthier meals for myself... even if i'm eating alone! (well mochajava always watches me eat and when i get about 3 bites left, he eyes me hopefully!)

it really does improve one's disposition i think... the trick will be to keep it up when fall programming kicks in and my time gets short. that's why now i'm working ahead making soups and meals to freeze for fall...

good luck!

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I enjoy cooking when I'm not feeling swamped, but as you say, we so often feel swamped. It really does make a difference though. If we happen to be on a vacation where we're eating out all the time (as opposed to renting a place with a kitchen), I start to feel off physically and emotionally.

Anonymous said...

A vegan diet isn't that hard to do, but you can live on vegan french fries, which aren't necessarily healthy. I like your idea of simple meals.

FranIAm said...

Oh this is so good. I was - in the words of my blogfriend Katie - in the midst of thinking about "breaking up with bad food."

I love to cook but often lack the time or just make poor choices. Your post brings me to a sort of attention about it.

Lindy and I talked about you with love all day long.