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DIY Does Dinner

December 17, 2008


DIY culture, which evolved from politically minded movements like punk, Riot Grrl and similar offshoots, saw young women (and men) learning to knit, quilt and darn, recycling goods to circumvent the pricey fashion industry. Skills once relegated to Granny territory became cool and coveted as classes, cute shops and sassy magazine columns cropped up everywhere.

Now, baking, canning, food cultivation, traditional methods of cooking, and off-grid modes of self-sustenance are the new big things. How do you make pie crust without overworking the pastry? How many pounds of shin makes a quart of veal stock? What steps are essential to avoid contaminating a batch of kefir? When is string bean season, and once it arrives, what should you do with the bushels you harvest? These are questions many of my friends can answer; a few years ago, none of us had a handle on any of these chores. Just as we picked up needles to fashion our own scarves, we now wield spoons and mandolins with a fair bit of skill.

Growing up, I ate a combination of meat-starch-vegetable meals, leftovers supplemented with potato puffs and tinned peas, and always salad. My mother began working outside the home when I was ten, and my brother and I were assigned nightly chores. She would leave notes reminding us to preheat the oven and take the chicken out to thaw, which we would often forget then have to fake it that “of course we took it out in time! It must’ve been extra frozen!” My favourite tasks were making Shake-n-Bake, which I considered my own private masterpiece, and monitoring the crockpot of stew, imitating my mom’s technique for spearing a hunk of beef and pinching to test its tenderness.

Now, my mother watches me cook, marvelling that she has no idea where I picked up these skills. I remember watching her brine cucumbers from a neighbour’s vegetable patch, and making apple sauce to last a winter of lunches, and I remind her that she taught me how to level a measuring cup, to battle lumpy gravy with a fork and determination, to improvise “buttermilk” by squeezing lemons into 2%.

The exciting part of childhood cooking was feeling like I was in charge, basking in compliments as I passed a plate. Certainly, I was showing off, but it also made me happy that I had something to share, something only I could make. Now, girlfriends and I host weekend suppers where we pick a kitchen skill one of us has and the others want to learn, and spend the evening basting in smells wafting from the stove. There is satisfaction in serving a complex meal, one that could have gone awry at any turn, and which features at least one thing my guests have never had before. My tastes have come a long way from fries and chicken fingers to cooking by season and buying shares in a local CSA farm. The way I eat is informed by a longing for something other than what is right in front of me, and an appreciation for things close to home.

I befriended Juliana when we were fourteen and living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We judged the city unsophisticated and dreamed of moving to France, where we would meet stylish men and eat delectable things. One day we were brought down a peg by our Home Ec teacher, who assured us that was not how one pronounced “Cannes” and that Winnipeg was one of the most diverse cities we could hope to live in. While that, perhaps, overstated what the prairies had to offer two starry-eyed girls, our teacher wasn’t wrong about the large immigrant community and the foods that were available as a result.

Juliana’s parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, settling in Winnipeg and raising two children on a combination of Korean recipes and processed foods from the supermarket. “My mom tried her best to balance what she already knew about cooking and the Western world. It wouldn’t be unusual to go days just eating meatloaf, rice and kimchi. Or, rice, beef stroganoff and salad.”

In a revision of our grade nine daydream, Juliana moved to San Francisco where she found herself immersed in high-end foodie culture, and where she met Bernard. After prolonged wooing via slow-cooked dinners, they married and moved to Paris, living for months with only a hotplate and mini-fridge. Juliana emailed me photographs of the pajeon she invented to meet the limitations of her tiny stove while taking advantage of the excellent local market; delicate Korean pancakes mirroring dinners her mother fixed in Manitoba. Eventually, the apartment gained a small oven, but unlike sprawling North American kitchens, cramped Paris demanded a relearning of culinary habits. “The compact oven goes with the compact fridge, which goes with our very compact apartment and our compact lives.”

Much like a change in city compressed Juliana’s life, a recent addition to Melissa’s family shrank her day and placed new demands on her kitchen skills. I have known Melissa since we were seven. At a time when it was cool to toe the line, especially in your lunchbox, she was a vegetarian who brought peanut butter and cheddar sandwiches on whole wheat bread. We taunted her with cold cuts and poked fun when she could order nothing at McDonald’s. To us, this was a pitiable state of affairs. She just shrugged and told us her sandwiches were really made of mice. Melissa got the best of us with that joke, and likewise, the best diet. Her mother’s dinners were chilli or soup from scratch, wholemeal bread, salad dressing prepared in a measuring cup, not shaken ready-made from a bottle.

Raising a child on a whole, organic, vegetarian diet could be daunting, but my friend discovered that if you forget about the untidy playroom, time is better spent baking ginger cake or making pizza crust from shredded zucchini and polenta. With her husband, she maintains a small garden, puts up fruit and vegetables, and makes most meals from whole ingredients. She was a few steps ahead of our generation, never knowing processed food as a staple and therefore never having to unlearn certain habits. Even still, she initially left behind her mother’s recipes when vegetarian convenience food hit the market, and was recently humbled when her mother reminded her that this “great cookbook” Melissa recommended was in fact one the family had relied on since 1975, and which Melissa had once dismissed as too old-fashioned.

Consulting a cookbook has, itself, become somewhat old-fashioned. Recipe swapping has found a good home on the Internet, replacing the sharing that homemakers once did over morning coffee or after potlucks. Jeanette Ordas had humble beginnings as “mama’s little helper”, taking on bigger kitchen tasks after her mother returned to work. She remembers picking up basic recipes, and never framed cooking as a chore. Now in her thirties, Jeanette broadcasts her culinary experiments via her blog, Everybody Likes Sandwiches. “I have become more adventuresome with my cooking since I discovered food blogging. Sites and blogs demystify the process and make everything seem doable. Also, it’s easier to type a couple items from your cupboard into Google than looking through cookbooks to find a recipe. Being online has made everything easier and has made everything possible.” Readers post comments and links, while feedback and discussion mimics passing a dish down the table at a communal meal. Food blogs are like fusing a test kitchen to your dining room.

The more virtual our world becomes, it feels important that hands remain involved in making our food. Doug DiPasquale is an accomplished chef and holistic nutritionist. We met first at a high school party, and reunited years later over an incredible New Year’s Eve dinner he prepared for mutual friends. Now located in Malibu, California, Doug writes an online column, The Healthy Foodie, exploring the intersection between good eating and good health, and points out that the two are inseparable: “The slow food movement is a return to holistic cooking methods that have all but disappeared. Aside from eating something prepared by human hands instead of a machine, the food is measurably healthier. And the techniques that go along with this kept our ancestors in good health, as well as being social activities.”

Of the dozen friends seated around that New Year’s table, three of us have become nutritionists. Doug and I studied an holistic programme, while Amber followed an officially scientific path, earning a degree as a registered dietician. Whereas our holistic education included hands-on experience milling flour and baking at temperatures low enough to avoid rupturing delicate plant cells, Amber feels disillusioned by the disconnect between food, eating and wellness that predominates her studies. Her efforts to organise a field trip to a local farm were confounded by classmates’ apathy, and communal cooking events also tanked due to disinterest. This absence of excitement about farming and cooking (amongst a group of diet-related health professionals) is surprising, and disappointing.

In contrast, before taking over the family business, Mario Pingue gained hands-on experience from artisanal producers in Italy, then returned to Ontario, determined to apply these standards to his own cured meats at Niagara Food Specialties. “Growing up in a farm community, trust was automatic. Why would we go elsewhere for our food when farmers were growing it right in their backyards?” This trust is brought forward in how Niagara Food Specialties operates–they purchase only animals raised without antibiotics or hormones, fed non-GMO food, and which are humanely slaughtered. Together with his brother, Fernando, Mario produces enough cured meat to supply local chefs, specialty shops and his family’s table.

He tells me about his cousins in Italy who hold white-collar jobs but are equally proficient in working the land. In our generation, it seems we’re experiencing a collective rediscovery of skills that simply went to sleep for awhile. I ask Mario, who began under his father’s direction, if he will pass his skills along to his sons. He assures me that while the boys will be encouraged, and are aware of their food’s origins, it will be their choice whether to continue the trade, and he won’t be surprised if they think it’s dull and chore-like, at least while they’re young.

Are these kitchen skills and passion for the old-fashioned a sign that we’re moving away from industrial processing, which has had a strangle-hold on our dinner tables for decades, and toward being able to feed ourselves from scratch? Or, is this another “fad diet”, merely trendy and short-lived? Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between. There will always be a cycle of learning and relearning, coming to appreciate what traditions represent and the role we each play in maintaining a diverse and delicious food supply. And, once you master a simple pot pie, it seems unlikely you’ll decide, “Forget this, I think I’ll just switch back to the frozen stuff!”

**My mother would like everyone to know that she did not try to kill her children with potato puffs and tinned peas. It was the 1970s–everyone was doing it!**

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. looka permalink
    December 22, 2008 1:39 pm

    I like how we, the younger people, can find ourselves connected to good food and new ways of making it easier. When I was over in NY, it was so good to see all the food shops, bakeries and cafes! Naturally I could have shopped only there…

    Back here, we have many markets with all kinds of stuff from over the world. Together with the things I could chop out of the cooking routine I was ordered to, since I’m small, it makes for great variety when it comes to my lunches.

    Hahaha, your Mother don’t need to worry! She is right, we had those here as well.

  2. looka permalink
    December 22, 2008 1:40 pm

    Oh yeah! And Carrie has brought us to the Korean pancake! It was one of the best things I ever ate…

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