Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Praise of Great Cooks

I think we don't give enough credit to the "great" cooks of the world.  We seem to get distracted by celebrity cooks, by chefs of famous restaurants, by people who can make bubbles of flavored air using technology, and by bloggers (Heavens forfend!).  Are any of these people great cooks?  Maybe.  Their fans certainly claim that status for them.  And some of them claim it for themselves. However, some of them also seem to have forgotten what great cooking is. So, what do I mean by a "great" cook? 
How many times have you heard some modern foodie say (or write) something to the effect that "great cooking starts by selecting the finest ingredients and then cooking them simply so you don't interfere with their quality."  This sentiment, if not the actual wording, is often laid at the feet of Alice Waters, although she seems too wise a cook to have ever said such a thing.  My response to this definition of great cooking is that it is not great cooking, it is great "shopping."  It seems to equate great cooking with an ability to find extraordinary raw ingredients. The cooking involved seems to be merely basic prudent cooking. Not that a certain amount of restraint in the kitchen isn't part of what makes a great cook, but to say that it is the very definition of a great cook leaves out a lot.
A great cook is so much more than top quality ingredients.  In fact, I would say that the hallmark of a great cook is not what they do with the finest ingredients, but what they do with the less than spectacular ingredients.  A moderately well-trained cook, with a bit of restraint, can take an exquisitely fresh wild salmon, just gleaming from the waters it lived in, and create a delicious salmon steak.  They can take a handful fresh flawless organic baby vegetables, shining like jewels, prep them and toss them with a light vinaigrette, and produce a lovely salad.  They can take beluga caviar, Italian white truffles, foie gras, and Sauternes wine and create an appetizer that costs more than an SUV.  But what happens when all that's on hand is a box of frozen cod filets and some supermarket veggies of dubious age? when there are no over-the-top super-luxe ingredients? That is where a great cook shows their colors.
The great cooks of the world are not the celebrity chefs working with the finest and freshest ingredients.  The great cooks are usually found in more humble situations.  They are the home cooks in average families who can take what is on hand, even if it isn't the finest quality, and turn it into food that is so good it makes you grateful to be alive and there to eat it. All the grandmothers and mothers, fathers and uncles, friends and co-workers, and what-have-you that fill our lives and turn out amazing food from ordinary ingredients. There are great cooks in professional situations too.  The cook at your favorite little diner who somehow manages to make diner ingredients into something delicious and worth eating.  The little old guy in the back of that roadside shack who turns out fried chicken and the trimmings and makes you realize why fried chicken became so popular in the first place.  The local caterer who performs miracles with ordinary ingredients.  These are all examples of great cooks.
Personally, I'm grateful to have come not just from a line of great cooks, but from a broad tradition of great cooks. Both sides of my family are rooted in a rural area of northern Pennsylvania.  Both sides had farm and small town folk in the family.  As a kid, while we lived in that area, I was surrounded by great cooks. Mostly the women, given the time and the place, but even some of the men, knew what they were doing in the kitchen. They experimented and swapped recipes and tweaked and perfected, and all the time worked with ingredients that were just the ordinary available things.  Okay, and yes, sometimes they had perfect, jewel-like tiny baby veggies fresh from the garden, the sort that the "shopping chefs" would sell their own mothers to get. But they also worked with canned and frozen veggies.  And as the growing season wore on, they had to do something with the over-grown and blemished produce too. You don't throw food away because it's not perfect; you eat it! And the great cooks of that time and place knew how to make you glad to eat it.
When my family left that area to embark on our peripatetic life, we took that tradition with us. Thrift and care were basic values. Don't spend all your money on over-priced premium ingredients when you can get delicious meals out of under-valued thrifty ingredients. Don't let things go to waste. Put the effort into cooking what you have so that it tastes wonderful and you'll never miss the "luxuries."  Most of all, don't turn up your nose at something of humble origins, just because it has humble origins. Spam may have become a bad word in English to a lot of people, but my mother managed to make a scalloped potato casserole with spam that was always a favorite.
So, who are the great cooks I would like to praise? Well, the ones in my life, who have helped me become the cook I am are my grandmothers, Ellen Weeks and Orva Hyde; my great-grandmother, Nora Thielges; and my mom, Barbara Hyde.  My maternal grandmother, Ellen Weeks, lived a life that demonstrated the values of great cooking.  When she could, she grew her own food.  She preserved food.  She didn't waste.  And she never, ever scorned the less-than-perfect. She was famous for her pies.  Handmade and fresh, they were made with humble ingredients. Apples from her backyard tree, or berries that she picked herself. A smidge of the usual spices, but balanced in a way that just hers.  Her kitchen was never without a pie, waiting to greet visitors.  When she passed away, recently, the whole family remembered her cooking.  And the things we remembered weren't the unusual things.  They were the things like her pies and her pot roast, her baked beans and her liver and onions (okay, maybe not all of the family liked liver, but those of us who did thought highly of hers).  The things she made frequently and which everyone loved.  This was the legacy everyone wanted to make sure got passed on.  I am fortunate that I learned these things from her and was able to get her advice before she died.  She taught me how to cook the "bones" out of my beans so that they would turn meltingly soft and creamy.  She shared the secret of a her pie-crust (one of the secrets is "if you forgot salt, start over.  You can't add salt to pie crust.") And she taught me that the best apples for pie are often the worst-looking ones.
The legacy of my paternal grandmother is different.  She passed away when I was a child, so I never got to cook with her. But I grew up hearing stories about her.  She was famous for her desserts.  Her sugar cookies, kept in a giant Num-Num pretzel jar, were especially good.  Her pickles and other canned foods were a legacy I did get to taste.  Every year, she would work all summer to preserve the harvest.  She always made more than the family could ever use and so, years and years after her death, we still were enjoying the bounty of her kitchen.  The year we opened the last jar of her mustard pickles was a worrying one.  Could we possibly manage to make pickles to match hers? Between a hand-written recipe, memories of watching her work, and a few sneak peeks in old copies of the Ball Blue Book, the pickles were recreated.  Still much seemed lost. Then, when I was a teen-ager, I found a couple of steno-pads full of hand-written recipes from her. She'd originally written them for my father, but they'd slowly drifted to the back of the shelves and been mostly forgotten. It was like I now had a chance to cook with my grandmother. I found a copy of her sugar cookie recipe and worked with it until even my father said I'd recreated them. Working through her recipes for mincemeat, slaw, beef birds, sour-cream raisin pie, and others, I learned her lessons (be generous, cook with love, put things by).
My great-grandmother, Nora Thielges, left me another legacy.  One of patience and quiet caring.  She didn't say a lot, and what she said was in her own time, but she shared her love with her family and no-one ever was hungry around her.  Every week, she made her bread fresh.  She made a rhubarb custard pie that remains my favorite dessert in this world.  And when she knew I would be visiting, somehow, coincidentally, there was always a fresh one on her counter.  From her, I learned timing.  She would be sitting at the table, just watching as my grandmother, aunts, and mom (and later I) busied ourselves in the kitchen cooking a big holiday meal, or just a family dinner for everyone who was visiting, and she'd get up and wander over to the stove and poke something just at the perfect moment to turn it and keep it from over-cooking or bubbling over, or whatever.  Maybe it wasn't just timing.  It was an awareness of the food and timing both. A caring and a watchful eye.
And then there is my mother.  She'll probably laugh to hear that she is a great cook.  She doesn't even like cooking. Maybe that's why she's great. If she is going to cook, the results better be worth it.  And she is the one who first taught me to cook. I still have some treasured notes from when I first started cooking for my family and my mom would leave me instructions in the morning so that I could cook in the afternoon.  My mom's cooking is simple.  She doesn't like fussy preparation or abstruse ingredients.  She certainly doesn't sneer at pre-made food.  And yet, nothing she prepares is less than delicious.  Her herbed baked chicken is always perfect: savory, aromatic, crispy and tender.  Her lasagna is rich without being heavy.  Her cheesecake is a family legend.  And while she will quite accurately tell you that the recipe came from the Philly Cheese package, I've tried that recipe and it doesn't come out like hers.  There's a bit of a turn of the hand there that makes hers come out creamy and luscious and out-of-this world.
And there it is, the difference between a good cook and a great cook.  The turn of the hand that changes an ordinary recipe into something special. From my grandmothers, from my great-grandmother, and most especially from my mom, I've learned that lesson and I've applied it to my own cooking.  Of course, I've done so in my own fashion.  My mom teases me about my obsessive precision in chopping and prep work.  Her exact words are "ditsy little pieces."  For me, it works.  Take something as simple as cranberry relish at Thanksgiving.  The recipe is on every bag of Ocean Spray cranberries ever made, I think.  So, what's the difference? From my family, I learned: use a food grinder, not a food processor.  And my own turn of the hand is to peel the zest from the oranges and mince it until it is almost a powder.  Then, I discard the pith, and use just the zest and orange flesh rather than putting the whole orange in. The result: a relish that is bright and sweet and tart and never bitter. Every one of the great cooks I know has it.  Every one has their own personal little turn that elevates their food to a higher state.  And so, I think they are owed the praise they often don't get.  The acknowledgement that while food fads will come and go, celebrities will flicker by, and "shopper chefs" will strut in the foreground, the true great cooks of the world are the ones who feed us and bring joy and sustenance to our tables, day after day, year in and year out.  For the true foodies, these are the cooks we should aspire to be.

Note to my sister: you are a great cook too.  If I ever learn to make pralines like yours, I will consider myself to have accomplished something.

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