12 Dec 2015
Everybody used to start with a pile of grain, a live chicken, and a heap of vegetables with the dirt still clinging to them. This is time-consuming. I’ve spent plenty of time preparing root vegetables I grew (beets, carrots, parsnips) and, boy, do they take time to scrub clean, outside with the hose to get the worst of the dirt off and more time inside. If you save every bit of the carrot tops for soup, that takes more time to wash and inspect them for bugs and dirt.
Women did the overwhelming majority of this work, either for their families (we call them housewives) or for other families (cooks). It always took time. Lots of time. If you’re interested in the history of the industrial-agricultural food complex and why so many women ran with open arms into grocery stores, a terrific book is “Perfection Salad” by Laura Shapiro. Other books that I’ve enjoyed are “Something from the Oven,” also by Laura Shapiro, “From Hardtack to Homefries” by Barbara Haber, and “Better Than Homemade” by Carolyn Wyman.
These are great books if you want to explore why grocery stores look like they do now. These writers have axes to grind so read the books carefully and see what isn’t necessarily being spelled out. Yes, the food industry wants to amortize their expensive equipment and sell you stuff that you could make yourself. It also can save you oodles of time that you can then use for something else, like spending eight hours a day outside your home in a paying job.
Megan McArdle sometimes writes interesting articles about food, previously at The Atlantic and now at Bloomberg. She’s always fun to read, and she does cook from scratch. She’s also considered how long it takes to do so, and the change between a woman cooking for her family back in the 1930s versus today (30 hours to less than 10) is amazing. I’m not sure where she got that figure but she’s reliable with her data and when I think about how long it takes to make a thoroughly from-scratch meal—just one!—and extrapolate that to three meals a day, seven days a week, I can believe it.
The key is to find the balance between homemade and time-consuming. Cake is a good example. I can make a cake from scratch using “Joy of Cooking” (1975 version) or I can use Duncan Hines. Duncan Hines costs way less, takes way less time, and we like it fine. I can’t say that the taste difference is worth the extra work or cost. I make my frosting from scratch as frosting from a can is vile; even if it was free, I wouldn’t use it!
A cake like this, filled and frosted, will cost less than buying a ready-made sheet cake, and it will taste better. I will have far more choice in flavor and styling, and it will take less time than the time I would have to spend at a job to earn the money to buy the sheet cake.
Here’s how the math works. A nice three-layer cake at Giant, filled and frosted, costs $15. At minimum wage, I’d have to work two hours to buy that cake. I can make that cake using Duncan Hines in about an hour; it’ll be bigger and cost way, way less.
Do I make soup from scratch? You bet I do, as I can use up stuff that has to get eaten, I’m far more inventive than any soup company, I control the salt levels, and I make a LOT at one time, leaving leftovers for the next few days.
Do I buy canned soup? Yes, I do. I have a few favorites that make a convenient dinner when I’m so tired I’m blurry with fatigue, and no one else can be persuaded to get into the kitchen. Canned soup and buttered toast is our recipe for fast food. It’s cheap, easy, quick, and I doubt if the salt content is higher than at McD’s.
What is scratch? Is it opening a jar of Ragu? I make my own spaghetti sauce. It tastes far better, I season it the way we like it, I make a lot, and the remainder gets turned into pizzas by my Dear Husband. I would say that opening a jar of Ragu and cooking a pound of dried spaghetti is cooking as opposed to opening a can of Spaghetti-Os. Which are vile. It isn’t that hard to open a jar of sauce and heat it up while boiling water for pasta.
What is scratch? Growing leafy greens in your backyard and turning them into salad? Buying heads of lettuce and tearing them into shreds? Buying salad-in-a-bag, ready to go? They all qualify, compared to going to some chain-gang restaurant and buying chemically freshened lettuce that you don’t know how many people sneezed on.
We even make our own vinaigrette salad dressing. It is pathetically easy: Get a small jar with a tight lid, put in two fingers of any kind of vinegar, add two more fingers of any kind of oil, salt, pepper, and whatever herbs and spices you prefer. Shake. That’s it. Shake with every use as this doesn’t have the mysterious magic emulsifiers that keep supermarket salad dressing shelf-stable and cohesive. Do you want to eat those? I don’t. Vary the oil and vinegar, and you’ll never eat the same dressing twice. It keeps for months in the fridge, too.
What is scratch? Is it opening a bag of frozen chicken tenders? Is it taking a pile of raw chicken breasts, cutting them up and tossing them with seasoned cornmeal? They both end up in the oven alongside the sliced, seasoned potato wedges. I’ve made chicken tenders both ways and I have to say, Perdue is easier and quicker. It is not cheaper, even when bought buy-one-get-one-free with coupons. On-sale chicken breasts with cornmeal and spices will always cost less. Here, I determine how much money I have versus time versus life energy. Perdue Chicken Tenders rest quietly in the freezer waiting for when I need them. Homemade chicken tenders have to be planned for, either buying the chicken breasts and making them right away or remembering to take them out of the freezer early enough so they can thaw. Then there’s the time to prep raw chicken and clean up afterwards.
The potatoes I make from scratch. It’s not that much trouble to peel five pounds of potatoes, slice them up, and toss them with heavily seasoned oil. My oil (whatever kind I’ve got around), my salt and pepper, my spices. Ore-Ida is so much more expensive than real potatoes that this is always worth my time.
What is scratch? Is it growing Brussels sprouts, checking them over for cabbage worm damage, harvesting, cleaning, and cooking them? Getting them from someone else who spent all summer staking them? Opening a bag of Hanover Gold frozen sprouts and pan-frying them in bacon grease with plenty of garlic? I’ve done sprouts all of these ways, and I buy Hanover Gold. It’s easier, quicker, and cheaper. A lot cheaper. I will say that you shouldn’t buy any other brand. I have, and they’ve never been as good. Other brands head rapidly into “green balls of death” territory. Hanover Gold is far superior to every other brand I’ve tried but I don’t know why this is true.
When you know how to cook, you have far more choices available to you. You can customize your meals to suit your diet, your families persnickityness, your budget, and your time. If you can’t cook, you are hostage to restaurants and what they choose to sell you.I learned some of this from a book by Tracie McMillan called “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.” Reading it reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in years. A roommate had worked at a family owned small ski-resort. She would sometimes bring home huge trays of frozen chicken enchiladas and the like, made for the restaurant trade. I had always thought they were made from scratch in a restaurant kitchen. It is, but not the kitchen YOU are eating next to and paying a premium for. It’s an industrial kitchen somewhere else, packaged, frozen, shipped, and stored, until you the customer order it from the waitress.
Restaurants, like all businesses, balance the cost of ingredients and labor versus time versus what they can charge you and make a profit. Do not think for one minute that everything you’re eating was prepared in the kitchen. It may not have been. Many ‘fast casual’ places don’t cook anything. The food arrives in freezer bags from a central, industrial kitchen, and it gets reheated to order. That hole-in-the-wall Chinese place may do more scratch cooking than TGIF.
Next week: Easy Ways to Learn How to Cook