Just cook it

Visiting science historian Ken Albala challenged Oregon Staters to cook from scratch
Food historian Ken Albala, University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, demonstrated how to make pasta from raw wheat (including how to grind it into flour) as well as how to make pasta sauce using only tomatoes, olive oil and locally-grown spices. (Photo: Patrick Giblin)

Food historian Ken Albala, University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, demonstrated how to make pasta from raw wheat (including how to grind it into flour) as well as how to make pasta sauce using only tomatoes, olive oil and locally-grown spices. (Photo: Patrick Giblin)

I admit it. I’m an armchair chef. I enjoy perusing heavily illustrated cookbooks. I fantasize about delicious dishes, with names like “Gnocchi Gratin with Gorgonzola Dolce.” But when it comes time to make dinner, I’m stumped. I’m usually too intimidated by actual recipes with expensive ingredients and complicated techniques to cook up a meal from scratch.

I’ve had a recent change of heart. In November, I attended a week’s worth of lectures given by Ken Albala, a historian of food science at the University of the Pacific and this year’s Horning Visiting Scholar at OSU. He’s fascinated by the culture that surrounds food: how it is grown, cooked and shared. This celebrated historian has studied food traditions in cultures from ancient Rome to modern day New York. But he’s especially concerned by Americans and their indifference to food.

As Albala explained to us, Americans have grown increasingly reliant on convenience foods over the past century. “The proliferation of convenience foods,” he worries, “has left an entire hapless generation bereft of basic cooking skill sets.” Most of my friends stuff their cupboards with top ramen, cake mixes, and granola bars. Indeed, we don’t know how to cook. How will we learn?

Toss Out the Cookbooks

This creative academic thinks he has the answer. Albala is no idle cook; he’s a culinary crusader. He wants Americans to reclaim their kitchens and to master the art of cooking. He proposes a revolutionary plan to restore our confidence: throw out our cookbooks and start cooking.

Getting started with ingredients for Beans and Greens Soup. (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

Getting started with ingredients for Beans and Greens Soup. (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

And, after listening to Albala, I was inspired to tie on an apron myself, fling open my cupboard doors and take back my kitchen. So I did. I challenged myself to cook up a pot of soup and to have some fun.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was actually unsure about how to begin to make soup. Did I need to buy packaged chicken stock? Should I purchase a specific jar of spice? So, to get an idea, I consulted Albala’s excellent guide to cooking, The Lost Art of Real Cooking. This award winning author has written many entertaining and informative books on cooking, including Food and Faith, The Lost Art of Real Cooking; Eating Right in the Renaissance; and, my personal favorite, Pancake: A Global History.

But, interestingly, The Lost Art of Real Cooking doesn’t provide any recipes. And the only pictures are pen and ink sketches of ingredients. Surprisingly, it is written just like any other non-fiction book, complete with chapters. Albala and co-author Rosanna Nafziger provide cooking instructions in full paragraphs, not cooking cliff notes. As these rebellious cooks explain in their introduction: “This book is an effort to loosen up. Cooking is not a science. And dictating strict recipes really teaches aspiring cooks very little, apart for a slavish obedience to directions… We invite readers to wander off on their own in the kitchen, be creative and inventive, even spontaneous.”

Modern cookbooks, Albala claims, actually discourage us from cooking. They teach us to disregard our instincts about cooking and to rely on the judgments of published chefs and bakers.

Frozen Chicken

Indeed, when I’ve cooked with recipes in the past, I’ve found myself spending more time in grocery stores searching for precise ingredients and less time in my own kitchen. A total reliance on recipes has taught me total obedience but little else. I once tried baking frozen chicken in an oven heated at 145° Fahrenheit. Unbeknownst to me, the manufacture had misprinted the cooking directions on the package. Still, I was honestly surprised when, two hours later, the chicken was still an icy pink.

Albala believes that the best way for people to learn how to cook is, for the most part, to ignore cookbooks. He dares his audience to venture into their kitchens with good ingredients, a general idea of what to do, and adding a dash of common sense.

Starting a Soup

Ingrid Ockert (Photo courtesy of Ingrid Ockert)

Ingrid Ockert (Photo courtesy of Ingrid Ockert)

So, to begin my cooking adventure, I selected “Beans and Greens Soup,” a simple, delicious soup that called for beans, carrots, celery, onions and greens. While I cut the celery, diced the carrots and caramelized the onions at the bottom of the pot, I read over the description. There were no impossible ingredients, no established cooking time, just plain, clear instructions. I felt liberated.

Indeed, as I began to get into preparing the soup, I started to relax. I stopped reading the recipe. I trusted my own instincts. I tossed in a few handfuls of carrots and celery and added a can of beans. Soon, orange chunks of carrots swirled together with green strands of celery and bright crimson beans to create a mosaic of flavor. Inspecting the green broth, I realized that I didn’t have any greens. So I decided to be creative and poured in some frozen corn. Sweet saffron kernels of corn bobbed between the copper carrots and burgundy beans. As the broth simmered, I tasted the colorful concoction. Not too bad.

Surprisingly, I had enjoyed the process of preparing the food: chopping the vegetables, throwing them into the pot, and stirring them until they softened. I felt like an ancient alchemist, combining strange ingredients together to create a powerful potion. Like many Americans, I have been conditioned to dread actual cooking and to try to do as little of it as possible. The average American, Albala said in his lecture, spends only 32 minutes a day preparing food and cleaning up after meals. “Most Americans,” he surmises, “ view cooking as some sort of odious chore, to be finished as quickly as possible.”

Trusting the Chef

But, as I discovered, cooking is too much fun to be a chore. As I stirred the pot, the smell of corn and carrots sweetened the air. I breathed in the delicious aroma. I thought back to Albala’s lecture. “Cooking is satisfying,” he had explained. “It’s what makes us human. Taking your creative energy and letting it flow through something and letting it sustain us is one of most valuable things you can do for yourself and for others.”

Almost ready to eat. (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

Almost ready to eat. (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

At one point, I wasn’t sure how to spice the soup, but I was starting to trust my own judgment. Albala’s book suggested oregano, but I decided to go with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of cilantro. I didn’t agonize and trusted my instincts.

A half an hour later, I had a steaming pot of sweet bean soup. I was surprised with how easy the process had been. Most importantly, I had learned how enjoyable cooking can be. I was starting to agree with Albala. Maybe cooking from scratch wasn’t so hard. Indeed, as the historian had enthusiastically explained during his lecture, “I think cooking from scratch, and especially without recipes, without the fear that you’re going to fail, or impress people… I think that the more people get into the kitchen and have fun, the better food will taste in general, the more connected people will be to their food, the more willing they will be to spend time in the kitchen and to share their food.”

After a bowl of my soup, I was converted. I had prepared a delectable dish with some basic guidelines. I discovered that it is possible to cook great food without the help of overbearing cookbooks. I learned that cooking doesn’t need to be stressful. There’s no need to cry when you can’t find the perfect ingredient. Being a creative cook is fun. Besides, I learned a little about trusting myself.

Culinary liberation! (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

Culinary liberation! (Photo: Ingrid Ockert)

So, Ken Albala, thank you for opening my eyes to great food. You’ve inspired me to take back my kitchen and feed myself. The next item on the menu, fresh bread. I encourage you, my reader, to take heed of a historian’s rallying cry. To paraphrase Karl Marx, “Cooks of the World, unite ! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Additional Links

Ken Albala hosts an excellent blog, Ken Albala’s Food Rant, which chronicles his own cooking adventures. He posts tempting recipes as well as his delightful musings on the history of food. Recently, he traveled to Milan to search out some fresh ingredients for an Italian Paneton.

To listen to Albala discuss his thoughts on food production, check out “Why We Don’t Cook,” a speech available through TEDx. Albala also talked about “The Lost Art of Real Cooking” recently on the Radio Heritage Network.

Beginning bakers and cooks have access to many cooking resources through Oregon State University. Interested in learning how to make healthy and tasty dishes? Check out Iris Brand’s Sustainable Cooking page. Brand, a senior in nutrition with a dietetics option, shares recipes for gluten, nut, and dairy free meals to promote whole, nutritious, and sustainable foods. Want to make strawberry jam just like Grandma? Oregon State University’s Extension Services, which recently celebrated its hundredth anniversary, provides detailed instructions on canning and preserving.

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