Home cooking is the preparation of food in the home. It is a subject near and dear to almost everyone, even if they think they can't cook well or don't have the time to cook. Emotionally-charged memories of Sunday dinners, holidays, or a favorite recipe speak of home, tradition, and comfort. The sense of smell is strongly bound to memory, so this really should be no grand surprise.
A brief, culturally-biased history of home cooking
Today, the kitchen is the heart of the home. We all have our own childhood memories of Mom, Dad or Grandma cooking, filling the house with wondrous smells which shiver our hindbrains with delight and memory. Sometimes we're lucky enough to have been handed down some of those recipes. If you're truly blessed, you may be able to recreate some of that same exact feeling... but chances are that the recipe will "never be just like what Mom used to make." That's okay. You can start with her legacy, and move on from there. I've purposely modified some of my mother's recipes to make them healthier, and they still get five stars as comfort food, even from me.
Some people enjoy using a formal dining room. For many others, though, such a room is only slightly more useful than an appendix: It gets used two or three times a year, but otherwise serves only as a hands-off display zone for fancy furniture. My experience as a designer is that there is a movement away from formal dining rooms. What I see in architecture is a serious lag in home design between what is desired (usually a great room, please see below) and what is present in almost any home that is not newly constructed. Great rooms have their own problems, but are far more comfortable for today's lifestyle. The history of this transition goes back to the generations of the early to mid 1900's, where the presence and use of a formal dining room was expected as a matter of course.
In those days, the kitchen was NOT the heart of the home. It was typically felt that there should always be a door between the kitchen and the rest of the house, and that it should be kept shut while cooking. The general idea was that the kitchen is the servants' place; not to be seen, smelled or heard. Granted, servants were going out of style by then, but the few generations just prior (late 1800's and early 1900's) frequently did have servants, so their children were still subject to some social programming regarding them.
After World War II, a number of things happened which affected home cooking, including:
- Modern refrigerators entered mass production.1
- Food rationing ended, and soldiers came back from overseas with new culinary experience.2
- Television was becoming widely available for the first time, and along with it, television advertising.
- New convenience foods such as TV dinners and Jell-O were released on the market.3
There was an explosion of convenience food recipes. It was stylish and liberating to toss a can or two of Campbell's soups together with some pasta, meat and veggies and dub it dinner. Some of those recipes were even delicious, if not exactly the most healthy thing on the planet. It may not mean much to some of us today, but consider that previously, baking/cooking could easily
take up an entire day (interspersed with childcare duties and cleaning, etc., of course.) Easy recipes were a godsend. And since TV was a new fad, TV dinners chinged in on both TV and convenience. What could be better?
Most of my comfort food memories originate from what my mother prepared, and what she prepared dates from that era. My father took over on the holidays. I was the only one he allowed in the kitchen while he worked, and it was from him that I learned how to manhandle 25-pound turkeys and huge hams. (To this day, I regret that I missed his production of a Baron of Beef.) He took cooking very seriously. At one point while in the service during WWII, he cooked for just-returned P.O.W.'s, who got whatever they wanted to eat.
In much older times, the kitchen, at least in a manor house, was definitely a place for servants, though the lady of the house was expected to manage it (as well keeping the spices and running the dairy and henhouse, etc.) I have, in front of me, a page out of the circular for the electrical co-op of this region. It's basically a full-page ad for a cookbook, but it details how Martha Washington (yes, wife of George Washington) ran her household and where she got her recipes. Apparently her recipe book was a family heirloom, handed down from the early 1600's and given to her as a wedding gift. The recipes were for job lot quantities, since they were intended to feed an entire household. In those times, 'household' meant not just the family but all the servants, too, so measurements were not in cups and teaspoons but in gallons and in dozens of eggs.
Home cooking in 2004
Interest in home cooking has heightened in the early 2000's. This interest has been reflected in many venues, including but not limited to architecture, kitchen design, television, the Internet, magazines and magazine clubs, supermarkets, and even such disparate things as vacation packages and competitions:
Very generally speaking, in new construction, kitchens are now frequently being built as one component of a great room. A great room typically is a large, open space which incorporates cooking and living areas, allowing the cook(s) to be more involved with daily life and, during parties, allowing the fun to move into or at least adjacent to the cooking area.
- Kitchen design:
Home renovations sometimes retroactively create a great room: the home owner removes a non-structural wall between a kitchen and a dining room or other adjacent room (often a mudroom or laundry) in order to create a larger kitchen and/or a true great room. In the economic atmosphere following 9/11, many people are turning to real estate and home improvement for financial investment, and remodeling a kitchen produces one of the best possible returns on investment after a home addition.
Kitchen designers analyze a space, design a new layout (sometimes drastically different from the original) with new cabinetry and countertops, and sometimes new appliances and additional products as well. Many people may literally say "I want the same things other people are getting", or reference things they have seen on television or in magazines. Some spend tens of thousands of dollars in the process, if not far more. But in the end, most of them are simply trying to make their lives more comfortable.
Julia Child has been a staple presence for decades and will be sorely missed by many. When she first came onto the scene, the Kennedy family had just got a French chef. Given the reputation of the Kennedys, it got a lot of attention. While she didn't try to take advantage of that, Julia was in the right place at the right time, and because of her background, she was heard. Julia presented to American families the novel idea that truly good food could be had without too much trouble, and that preparing it was a) doable and b) wasn't really all that scary.
More recently, consider the wild popularity of television network channels such as Food Network and the increase in number of celebrity chefs in recent years, including Julia Child's protegee, Sara Moulton, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown, and the soft-spoken Jacques Pepin.
Lastly, dramatic kitchen updates have frequently been highlighted on popular design shows such as Trading Spaces.
- The Internet:
There has been an explosion of websites related to cooking, both professional and private. Many of the former echo television shows, such as Food TV Network's website.4 Others are collections of recipes submitted by browsers, such as SOAR or our own E2 collection, or references like the Cook's Thesaurus.5
Well, what did you expect? Television, websites... of course there are magazines about cooking, as well as magazines, which frequently feature cooking. Some of them have been around for a very long time: Ladies' Home Journal, for example. Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living, etc. are other mainstays. Most of these can be counted upon to periodically produce separate publications, which contain only recipes.
Of special interest are magazines which focus only on cooking. My favorite of all time is Cook's Illustrated. 6 It is subscription-only and contains no advertising. It offers tips, recipes, and no-punches-pulled product reviews. The recipes are fantastic. The writers attempt to create the best possible recipe for a given item, and better yet, they tell you not only WHY the recipe works, but how and why other attempts/ingredients/variations/etc fail. You can also buy a membership to their website which lets you browse their full archive; subscription to the magazine only gets you time-limited access to related extra recipes and product reviews.
When I was little, a "salad" was iceberg lettuce and some salad dressing. If I was lucky, there might be some sliced cucumber and tomato as well. Why no variety? I was small, but I remember the grocery store. There simply wasn't anything else available. Take a look now! Organic baby salad greens (well worthwhile to buy, these days, since the price of greens in general has shot up so much), "exotic" vegetables and spices, bison meat, etc. Part of that's the inevitable trudge of progress, but if there was no interest, it wouldn't have happened. Grass roots interest generated from Farmer's Markets and artisanal farmers has created a group of educated and picky consumers. Supermarkets are feeling the pressure of competition and are introducing both broader varieties of items and more specialty selections as a result. (Can we say, shelf presence? All together now!)
- Vacation packages:
Want to travel and learn to cook something while you're at it? It's out there. Some packages are high dollar and elaborate -- a Mediterranean cruise and haute cuisine lessons -- others might be a simple lesson or series of lessons.
Cooking competitions and challenges spring up everywhere. Local festivals which honor a local crop (such as the famous Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California) sponsor competitions for their prized products. National and even international competitions showcase things like gingerbread houses, chili-head and barbeque cookoffs. There's even something called the Annual Roadkill Cook-Off7, which features game recipes. On the other end of the scale, there is the international Bocuse d'Or, the ultimate competition for a professional pastry chef. Some of these competitions have commercial backing, but it all starts with the groundswell interest of home cooks who are proud of their work.
When there is no home cooking
People who don't enjoy true "home cooking" today generally offer at least one of four excuses:
- No time
- No money
- Never learned to cook
- Too lazy
There are other reasons such as illness and disability, and those should certainly not be downplayed, but of the excuses above, the one I can most sympathize with is number one. I don't have much time to cook, either. For the first few years of my marriage, I was a homemaker, and it was wonderful. I baked bread twice a week, froze and preserved things, daily packed a lunch for my SO (complete with love notes) and so forth. That ended when I went back to work. Working a bizarre schedule makes it very difficult to get anything done, and it is a very common problem.
However, all the first three objections can easily be overcome if you can get up off your lazy-assed duff for an hour or so. If you never learned to cook, guess what? It's not that hard. People have been doing it for thousands of years, and you don't have to spend a fortune to do it. Here is an example.
How to make decent Spaghetti in 10 minutes
This is a very forgiving recipe. Just roll with it. I've simplified it down from what I usually do; feel free to experiment. Once you get out of the rut of fast food, you may, for example, want to bake your own fast and easy cornbread muffins, or (for a variation) cook ahead things like rice or beans for other dishes.
Boil a box of angel hair spaghetti. When it is done to your taste, drain it well, toss it with a tablespoon (15 ml) of vegetable oil, dump it into a gallon zipper-bag, flatten it out, and freeze it.
Wash and trim a whole onion: take the paper off and trim its top and bottom. Wash and trim a whole green bell pepper: Cut off the top. Pull the central seed portion out and throw it away. Shake over a trashcan or sink to get rid of any extra seeds, and pull excess interior ribbing out with your fingers. Chop up trimmed onion and bell pepper into little bits. Put each one into its own quart-sized zipper bag. Press out any excess air, flatten the bags, and freeze them flat. (They stack better that way.)
One day when you need a fast meal:
- Set a teakettle or saucepan full of water on to boil, and put a colander in your sink. Get out your frozen pasta, remove it from the bag and put it in the colander.
- Heat a skillet with quick dash of vegetable oil until it ripples or talks back at you. Take a package (approx. 1 pound or 454 grams) of raw ground lean turkey meat (or hamburger, if you must), break it up, and add to pan. Take out the frozen onion and bell pepper. Flex the zipper bags a bit to loosen the chopped pieces from each other, then add as much onion and bell pepper as you like to the pan. I usually use all of it.
- Fry up the meat and veggie mix until done. Drain any excess fat and season the meat to taste. Pour in a 25.5 ounce (723 gram) jar of spaghetti sauce8. Stir well, reduce heat and let it heat through. Season to taste with Italian seasoning.
- When your water is boiling, carefully and slowly pour it over the frozen pasta, drizzling in slow circles to get as much coverage as you can. When you are done, the pasta should be fully thawed and piping hot.
- Toss pasta with your meat sauce and serve. Topping it with hand-shredded Parmigiano Reggiano and a sprinkle of parsley will dress it up.
- I recommend angel hair pasta since it thaws very quickly due to its extremely narrow diameter. Other pasta shapes may need a much greater volume of boiling water to thaw, and the reason why I cook the pasta ahead of time in the first place is that it takes so long to get a huge pot of water boiling!
- I do not recommend freezing cooked ground meat in advance. For starters, thawing meat in the microwave tends to make it tough. More importantly, even after it's thawed, you should bring it to full heat again for several minutes to kill any bacteria that might have gotten in there... and if you didn't make it tough by thawing, it'll certainly be tough by then!
- If you freeze cooked rice: For goodness sake, section it off in small, measured quantities! (I freeze it in one cup amounts.) If you pack a pound of rice, cooked, into a big zipper bag and freeze it, you will create a huge, near-indestructible brick of incredible thermal mass which will take far longer to thaw than to cook another batch from scratch. Trust me. Also, should you create such a thing, don't drop it on your foot. Trust me.
- If you like Parmigiano Reggiano, do yourself a huge favor: Buy a great big block at Costco ($8-$20, depending whether you buy the real thing or a close imitation), and buy a microplane rasp (about $20 US). The rasp is one of the better investments you can make, if you like to cook. The block of cheese, kept well wrapped and refrigerated, will last you about a year (unless you're a pesto freak) and is another good investment: It tastes infinitely better than that awful junk in the green can, and if you have an audience, you will receive bonus points for showmanship when you rasp a fluffy shower of cheesy goodness over a plate.
- To round out this meal:
- Freshly grated Parm also goes nicely on a green salad.
- If you can do it ahead of time, grab a few club rolls at your grocery, cut them down the middle, spread with butter, sprinkle on garlic powder, Italian seasoning, and yet more Parm. Close them up, wrap in foil and toss in the oven at 325º Fahrenheit (160º Celsius, or Gas mark 3) for 15-20 minutes while you're doing everything else. (Yes, that'll blow your 10-minute deadline, especially since the oven needs to preheat, too, but they can still come out of the oven while you're eating.)
Momomom says: Alternative theory to quick pasta...make the sauce and freeze it in ziplock bags in single or double serving amounts. Frozen flat they defrost quickly in the microwave. I cut the bag off and use a casserole dish to heat them up in....then make your pasta fresh; angel hair only takes minutes to cook. Less mess on the day you eat for sure.
dutchess says: I recently went back to making spaghetti sauce instead of buying it canned; now I mix canned, minced tomatoes with a smaller can of tomato paste, and add spices. Much, much better.
What I'm doing
These days, what I find myself doing is cooking on the days when I'm of or get home before 6pm. Once in a while, I'll go over the top, but usually it's casseroles, home-made soups (starting with bones), stir fries, salads, tacos, couscous with veggies and leftover meat mixed in, a large roast I can re-use in other things, etc... but I adamantly refuse to buy frozen meals such as lasagna or crack open a box of Hamburger Helper. For starters, such meals are almost always heavily laden with fat, sugar and salt, and they are quite expensive compared to made from scratch. (Frozen veggies, on the other hand, are usually a good thing.) Plus, there's nothing that compares to the smiles you get when you set down a bubbling, nummy dish that you made yourself. You don't have to knock yourself out to do so once in a while. There are oodles of websites on bake-ahead recipes and game plans you can use. And, if you resort to cold cereal once in a while, I swear I won't report you.
Lastly, I'll say this: If you are living alone, don't short yourself. Living off TV dinners may be expedient, but you deserve to have good, healthy food. Treat yourself with respect, love yourself, and pull out the stops once in a while. You'll feel better. And, in these days when diabetes is becoming widespread and hypertension already is, it may just save your life.
1.History of the Refrigerator: http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/modern/fridge.html
2. Not a source, but an interesting link: "99 Ways to Share the Meat" (a pamphlet from WWII rationing days). http://www.archives.state.al.us/teacher/ww2/lesson6/doc04p1.html
3. The Food Timeline--1950s foods: http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/fooddecades.html#1950s
See also the commentary on earlier decades, on the same page.
Also, this is a neat website in general. See the homepage at http://www.gti.net/mocolib1/kid/food.html
4. Food TV Network: http://www.foodtv.com/
5. Cook's Thesaurus: http://www.foodsubs.com/
6. Cook's Illustrated: http://www.cooksillustrated.com
7. Annual Road-kill Cookoff: http://www.chillisauce.co.uk/bizarre_festivals/september/roadkill_cookoff.php
8. My favorite store bought spaghetti sauce is Francesco Rinaldi®'s no salt added traditional pasta sauce. It's simple, low cal, and I prefer to add my own salt and seasonings anyway.