By Robert Jensen
Published in Edible Austin, July/August, 2017 · July, 2017
A young friend recently stopped by my house as I was cooking dinner—a favorite rice-and-greens dish that is simple, cheap, tasty and nutritious. I’d just started sautéing the onions and garlic in some olive oil. My friend watched for a moment then said, with inappropriate reverence, “I don’t know how you do that.” “How I do what?” I thought. Cut up an onion, slice a clove of garlic, pour some oil and turn on a burner? It’s not exactly painting a masterpiece or performing brain surgery. I likely would have made fun of my friend if not for the fact that, at one point in my life, I would have found sautéing onions and garlic exotic, as well.
That evening, he and I talked about learning to cook in a world of fast food and microwave meals. Human health requires eating healthfully, and that starts with understanding cooking, but that’s not always easy in a culture that makes it convenient to eat without cooking. Because so many of us have had so little experience with “real” food, it can be intimidating to cook from scratch.
Here’s some advice from experience: Don’t be intimidated by the Iron Chefs, or anything else on TV. Remember, people were cooking long before there were expensive restaurants and gourmet cookbooks. Start with what you know and build from there. Pay attention to the ingredients in decent meals you eat in everyday restaurants, and watch friends and family who cook. Don’t worry about being good at it—just cook something for yourself and eat it.
At least that’s how I did it. And, at first, it wasn’t pretty. Here’s the “recipe” for the first dish I cooked: Cut a block of tofu into cubes and put them in a pan. Add a big can of tomato sauce. Steam some cauliflower and, when it’s tender, throw it into the sauce. Simmer that for a while. Boil water to cook rice. Cook the rice. Dump the tofu-cauliflower sauce on the rice. Serve.
Okay, that’s barely cooking, and it sounds kind of nasty. But it was my first step. I can’t recall how I came up with the idea for that meal—it was probably a version of something I ordered in a restaurant—but it was edible and reasonably healthful. Along with the vegetable, the tofu and rice made a complete protein. I also bought tomato sauce without added sugar.
I’m not, and never was, a “foodie.” At 30, my interest in cooking developed not from wanting to keep up with cultural trends but from reading critiques of industrial agriculture—where I became aware of not only how unhealthy, but how ecologically unsustainable, our food system is. That reading included Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.” In response to the question about what city people can do to help family farmers, Berry answers, “Eat responsibly,” one aspect of which is to practice “the arts of kitchen and household” that make it possible to eat more cheaply and know more about what you’re eating.
My tofu-cauliflower creation was a first step toward responsible eating—helping me get past my fear that cooking required some ability that I didn’t have and couldn’t acquire. From there, I have become a reasonably competent cook. Don’t look for me on the Food Network, though; I still have no interest in what I would call “fancy” cooking. I don’t fuss about making everything from scratch, and I’m too lazy to follow recipes closely. I’m a good-enough cook, though—I learn just enough about making a dish so that it tastes good enough that my partner and friends will eat it. Lots of vegetables, beans and grains, and some dairy for a bit of fat and flavor. I don’t cook with meat, but I don’t object to others bringing it to the table.
I’ve now been cooking for a quarter-century and it has improved not only my physical health, but also my mental health. I’m a teacher, and I spend a lot of my day in my head—reading, thinking, writing, talking. Cooking is one place I regularly use my hands for something other than typing, and it forces me to pay attention to my body lest I slice off a finger while cutting vegetables. But these days, I’m often very sad when I cook, too. The friend from whom I learned the most about cooking, Jim Koplin, died a few years ago, and every time I cook, his memory is with me. Cooking has become a very specific kind of communion, a time to review fond memories of how I learned what Jim called “peasant cooking.” In fact, the rice-and-greens dish I made for my young friend was one of Jim’s signature dishes: a synthesis of what he had learned not only on the Minnesota farm on which he was raised, but also what he learned about food from time spent in rural Tennessee and France.
We often cook with others, and we often cook to feed others. If Jim and I had eaten together only in restaurants or at his house over microwaved frozen dinners, I doubt that he would be on my mind so often when I’m preparing and eating food. The industrial food system produces a lot of food, but it doesn’t necessarily generate or support a healthy culture or healthy people. I think Jim would be proud at how far I’ve come on the path to eating responsibly, and I hope, like me, my young visiting friend took something away from the experience.