“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….
By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5
“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….
Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1
In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.
I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.
“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”
“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”
“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”
“What should my three points be?”
“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”
Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.
To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.
Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.
Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.
In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.
Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”
Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.
After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?
Then, the pandemic hit.
Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)
For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?
I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.
Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:
- Eat locally and sustainably.
- Eat seasonally.
- Shop at farmers’ markets.
- Plant a garden.
- Conserve, compost, and recycle.
- Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
- Cook together.
- Eat together.
- Remember food is precious.
Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.
Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?
I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.
Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.
“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”
“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”
“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.
I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.
How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?