My friend (we will call her Susan) and I often discuss the local food scene. Is there really a scene? Are people really passionate about local food, supporting small farms and eating well? Or are they going to the farmers market so they can wear a floppy hat and tote a canvas shopping bag just to buy a pastry and a $5 jar of jam.
Does anyone really know what to do with tarragon? Or kholrabi? Or beets? Or any other produce item at the farmers market? Is it a place to shop and feed our families or is it a place to be seen?
My friend has a slightly more cynical view than I do, believing most people buy a bunch of Swiss chard only to let it rot in the fridge while ordering take out from the nearest restaurant. I disagree. The Swiss chard rots because good intentions fall hard alongside old habits. We as a generation of eaters need to relearn how to eat, how to cook, and, in some cases, how to grow food. At least a little bit.
“I think we’ve realized that we’ve gotten to this place where, over time, people have lost that skill. Learning how to cook is not passed down through families,” explained Courtney Pinard, Ph.D, a research scientist with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. “And now we have the backdrop that hamburger helper is OK for dinner.”
She's got a point. The recession in 2008 marked a steady rise in home cooking, followed by a smaller but equally steady rise in scratch cooking, but now that incomes are on the rise scratch cooking rates are going down. According Symphony IRI, a market research firm, 48 percent of consumers planned to cook from scratch in 2011. That’s down from 55 percent the year before, which marked at 20 year high. Really? Just over half of us cook from scratch? The worst part is that most of us don't even realize that we don't know how to cook in the first place -- thinking that heating soup from can or mixing brownies from a box is cooking. Where do we draw the line? Are we all supposed to make our own pasta? Can our own jams? Are we allowed some room for convenience or other skills?
I take issue with home dinners needing to be fine dining experiences. It’s a ridiculous expectation created, in part, by the Food Network. It’s like we suddenly feel the only way to show our family we love them is to make a six-course French-inspired meal or in our desperate failure throw our hands in the air and order takeout. It might sound shocking coming from a food writer, but I’m glad that there are people in this world with talents and interests that don’t involve sauce pans or chef’s knives. I’ve often mentioned to my husband that if the back to the farm movement were the back to the sewing table movement I would want to stab myself in the eye. I don’t want to sew my daughter’s dresses or knit a sweater. I don’t want to spend time at a fabric store or learn how many yards are needed to make a pair of pants. I’m sure there are plenty of people who think I’m nuts, and I’m glad those people exist because I will buy Halloween costumes and quilts and baby blankets from them. The thought of spending 30 minutes at the stove or hunched over in a garden during 98 degree weather sounds crazy to a whole host of people, but not me, there is little else I would rather do. Spending 30 minutes hunched over a sewing table? No, thank you! That being said, sewing clothes verses buying them will not directly contribute to my health or the health of my family – cooking at home does. I may not know how to make a dress, but I can hem a skirt, fix a tear and sew on a button. The same could be said for cooking. You don’t have to be a food evangelist or a classically trained chef, but you should own a knife and know how to make a meal or two from scratch.
When things become trendy as food, farmer’s markets and cooking have become then interest grows, which is great, but so does intimidation. We shouldn’t judge the eating habits of others, rather we should create opportunities to wake up our sleeping memories about scratch cooking. You can cook something fresh, with little time, little prep, little clean up and feel confident in the kitchen. Embracing dinner, seasonal eating and local food is about trying something out and bit by bit growing your mental recipe box.
Maybe the farmers market, slow food, local food movement should really be a cooking movement. Now that we know we should eat our veggies and we know where to find them we should also welcome others into our kitchens and our lives to taste these seasonal treats, cooked in the simplest of ways as neighbors and friends, not as foodies and bloggers. Just people who eat.
Wanna know what to do with kohlrabi or beets or tarragon? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will give you some quick ideas – all of which can probably be executed with a baby on your hip. If you have a simple recipe for farmer’s market food, email it and you could see it in next month’s column. Please put recipe in the subject.