books, cooking, food

Confessions of a cook. If that’s what I am.

Before I got married, I seldom cooked. By which I mean, I occasionally boiled water. Living in Lansing my first year of marriage, away from family, cooking became a matter of survival [there are only so many times you can eat take-out] so I promptly learned all the desi dishes my mother made. I made them from scratch since Shan wasn’t available where I lived [Shan’s a good [though high-sodium] hand-holder for learning new recipes]. I shocked both my family and myself with the things I learned, Shami Kabob, aloo gobi, chicken kardhai, plau. All from the basic ingredients in my cupboard.

Sometimes I made other things too. And by make I mean, I picked up a frozen packet of teriyaki chicken, defrosted it, served it with a salad and felt pride at the meal I made. In this spirit I served apple cobbler, blueberry pies, cheesecake, all from mix and match and coat and serve, and took credit because I opened the box. I assembled the ingredients. I cooked! [In my defense, my cooking resume just six months earlier involved burnt eggs and boiled water].

I soon broke free of frozen meals but the break from my long standing dependence on packaged food came by accident. I promised breakfast pancakes to visiting friends and that morning woke to discover an empty box of Bisquick. Panicked, I searched the internet for options. Pancakes came in a box because making them from scratch had to be difficult. Except, I learned, it isn’t. Flour, milk, eggs, sugar. Really, that’s about it. I was astonished. Not only was the result easy, cheaper, and healthier with less preservatives and additives- it tasted fabulous! And it made me wonder: if pancakes are this easy what about other things? Are they similarly uncomplicated?

Yes. Hashbrowns. Mashed potatoes. Cranberry sauce, and stuffing. One after the other, easy, and according to K, tasty. And those that were not easy, that perhaps took a bit more time, I found a particular pride in making that was different than tossing frozen fries on a baking tray. I found the ability to grow creative with my cooking, trying my own touches, my own twists. And the feeling of watching your loved ones enjoy what you made, what you really made? It was indescribable. If its tastier, and cheaper, to make it from scratch, why, I wondered, did I feel so intimidated for so long, questioning my ability to even try?

The food industry, I am now learning. I’m reading Something From The Oven, a look into the evolution of American cooking from the 60’s to today and exactly how influential the food industry was in pushing our dependence on boxes, mixes, and freezers. Magazine editors, television chefs, the shapers of our foodie culture were given a lot of incentives by the food industry to popularize cooking via box. A box of bisquick is a lot more profitable than selling flour. Society at large resisted at first, but ultimately, succumbed, leading to me, a reasonably educated person, absolutely intimidated by the prospect of pancakes.

I guess now I could say, take that food industry! I make my own food now thankyouverymuch! I am free! Except, I’m not. That is what this book made me see. Yes I make Pad Thai, but I use peanut butter as a base. I don’t crush the peanuts myself. I use Kikkoman soy sauce instead of boiling soy beans [if that is how soy sauce is infact made]. I make Thai Red Curry, but the Red? It’s from a paste I got in a jar from the store and the coconut milk came from a can, not an actual coconut I chopped and boiled.

So then, did I really cook these meals? Can I truly claim credit?

As Eid approaches I’ve been planning what desserts to make and was debating between a heath bar trifle or chocolate eclairs. They get rave reviews and I was super excited to make them. Except, both are really box creations. Different boxes, but still- boxes The trifle involves boxed cake. Frozen whipped cream. Dried pudding. Heath bars. It was then I realized, as much as I try to wean myself from processed basics for my cooking, when it comes to desserts, I’m a Betty Crocker poster child.Β  And this made me feel sick.

I’m not making it I told K. I can’t make it. It’s not me. It’s just boxes. But- as much as I want to make it from scratch I feel overwhelmed by the work required to authentically create each part. I’ll bake cookies from scratch I told K but he was having none of it. He loves it and assured me that if I’m truly opposed to making box-based items he’ll eat my share himself. He’s selfless like that. So I’ll make it. But can I really take credit for it?

But how far does one go in the quest for authentic cooking? I’ve never milked a cow for my day’s milk, nor would I want to. Nor do I foresee myself purchasing my own wheat to make my own pasta. It could be I’m overthinking this. [Who? Me?] It’s just that I love cooking. I take absolute pleasure in the act. But feeling like a fraud, sucks.

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20 thoughts on “Confessions of a cook. If that’s what I am.”

  1. Let's not get carried away, Aisha. Giving up cooking from a box is laudable, those things taste awful and do not compare with the 'real' cooking. But to be ashamed and feel like a fraud for not making your own butter, or coconut milk (I thought the juice inside a coconut IS the milk) or grinding your own flour?! Come on…

    You can make chocolate eclairs without resorting to premade boxed stuff. And I guarantee they may not look quite as perfect (even though who regulates perfection in cooking?), but they are absolutely scrumptious! Hand made pasta IS better than anything else, as is home baked bread that you knead by hand. Give it a try.

    I do not really understand the cooking from a box thing, but on the other hand I grew up with rations for all basic food, flour, oil, sugar, bread… cooking was a must. But don't let yourself intimidated by making fancier stuff. It is not as difficult as one might think.


  2. You are from Michigan? Me too…but the Troy area. Where Shan packets are readily available πŸ˜€ Not that I can cook myself. Feel bad for the future hubby 😦


  3. I know exactly what you mean & I think about this a lot as we try to cut out all processed foods — we have a garden so that's a start — we grow almost all veggies we eat *in the summer*, but we buy bread and pasta and other “modern conveniences.” Sometimes we make our own of those too, but then what? You keep backing up…. mill the wheat? milk the cow? As my husband said yesterday: “let's start planning now by planting winter wheat.” He was only half joking because how else will we ever really know where our food comes from or what's truly in it? I am so curious about the book you mention, and I will definitely check it out. I share your quest for authentic cooking! No, not overthinking (or I am too) just pondering what has become a modern way of life… great post!


  4. I agree that cooking from a box isn't as satisfying on some SOUL level. But at the same time, unless you really want to limit your diet, there are some things it's just not practical to produce yourself. Soy sauce, coconut milk, flour, etc.

    I used to raise goats for milk/cheese & (the neighbor's) meat. Chickens for eggs are easy, though I don't think I could eat a pet chicken. But it quickly becomes your life, and if you stick to it, it leaves very little room for anything ELSE.

    A couple of book recommendations–Coming Home to Eat–Gary Paul Nabhan & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver–about producing/buying extremely locally all their food for a year or more. In a larger sense, these 2 books were at the very forefront of the locavore movement, but they're very applicable to what you're dealing with right now.

    My own balance? I have a way to go to get back to my ideal where I bake my bread, cook homemade pasta, and make sauces from veggies from my own garden. But I dont' buy mixes for things that are easily made by me–cakes, cookies, and yes, Pancakes! mac & cheese, spaghetti sauce, soup, etc. are homemade. But basic things that would require a production level that I'm not willing to commit to? – meat, milk, cheese, flour, sugar, oil, I'm happy to buy from someone who specializes in those items. (Though homemade butter for a special occasion is divine!)

    I can't wait to read the book you mention, as it sounds fascinating–the thing to remember, though, is that subsistence farmers who grew just about everything they ate, lived very limited, very hard lives. Lives that, quite honestly, I don't want to experience!

    I'll be really interested to read where you find your own balance on this issue. And this REALLY makes me wish we lived closer. Pasta or tamale-making are so much more fun if you're doing them with friends!


  5. Kmina, you're right, a balance is important lol! It's true when I make desserts completely from scratch they usually aren't as pretty- but they do often taste better. I gues you can only do as much as you can do.

    deepbluesea, I lived in Lansing for a little less than a year! I came from Florida though. Troy, etc had a lot more diversity than where I was. lolas for cooking, like I said I barely boiled water so there's plenty of time to learn should one want to! πŸ™‚

    Julia, that is so impressive that you have such an extensive garden and make your own things from it! Do you also can the left overs etc? Thanks for letting me knkow I'm not the only one thinking quite a bit of these issues.

    Susan, yet another reason to wish I lived closer to you πŸ™‚ I'll have to research how to make my own pasta, and bread- bread is something I've been wanting to do for some time since it doesn't seem THAT complicated and would help me avoid all the stuff w/ persevatives [which even a lot of organic bread has]. I hope you read the book, curious for your thoughts and will definitely check these other two books out. Thanks!!


  6. Ahem! I confess – I am not a fan of cooking at all, and when something turns out well, I am actually surprised.

    I make my own ghee, that's the one thing I make, but I don't know how to make coconut milk, and I won't have the flour done at home or anything….


  7. St Elsewhere, wow, ghee! That is some hardcore stuff! I think its important to make balance like ou said. Realistically will I make my own coconut milk? Unlikely, since Kmina pointed out that the milk is what's at the center of the coconut, not made from boiling the coconut, lol. We all do the best we can I guess! Thanks for your comment.


  8. Really thought provoking post, Aisha.

    I never understood why my MIL sneered at me when I'd serve dinner and everyone would declare it delicious. “It's all from boxes and cans!” she'd say… even when it wasn't like I used any sort of one-pan meal-in-a-box — when I had actually COOKED… but for her, I had never cooked anything authentically because I hadn't gone to the mill to buy the flour, taken eggs from my own chicken, the vegetables from my own garden, killed my own meat, etc. (That is the reality she grew up with.)

    Obviously convenience products save time, and in many cases, they save money. Once you add up the cost of making everything from scratch, (I mean REALLY from scratch), you've spent a lot more than if you had bought the more modern version. I don't know about you, but I can't afford that.

    I also take pride in my cooking, and I try to go back to basics as much as I can. When I bake a cake, like you and your pancakes, I mix my own flour, sugar, eggs, etc – I don't use a box mix unless there's some sort of cake emergency. LOL.

    That being said, I think you just have to find a balance. Maybe in our modern times, in the society that we live in, going all the way back to the way our ancestors fed themselves just isn't possible anymore. We don't live in a village where we can walk into the market and trade with our neighbors. We don't live on farms that provide everything we need.

    Cutting out processed foods and preservatives is smart, but it would take a lot of dedication to take it to the level you want to.

    (BTW, during the 1950's and 1960's, when women started entering the workforce, convenience foods were part of their liberation. Not needing to spend as much time in the kitchen meant they could have careers. Frozen dinners/TV dinners were seen as a modern convenience and were very exciting at the time. Look at some of the advertising back then. It's really interesting how it all evolved – even if it means the unhealthy lifestyle we have today.)


  9. Existential cooking angst indeed! After watching 6 seasons of Top Chef I feel I speak with authority when I say YES you did cook those meals and you can claim credit! πŸ™‚ I have seen those chefs make a meal out of potato chips (from a bag) and re-heated nacho cheese sauce, and they certainly took credit!

    But seriously, while I think it is admirable & desirable to “cook from scratch” as much as you can, there has to be a line. We simply don't have the resources (or skills) to do everything ourselves. I mean, how far do you take it? Will you feel compelled to travel to the ocean once a quarter to distill your own salt? At some point you have to accept that our life is built around having some measure of modern conveniences (like salt in a box! πŸ™‚ I think balance is the key.

    I also think that cooking is about more than the ingredients which go into a dish…it is about time, effort, intention. If you “cook it with love” I think it still counts as cooking even if you are using boxes as a chef's aid.


  10. Thanks for your take on this Tracy! You're right there's only so far you can go with this. Interestingly enough, what you said about why convenience foods came about- that is whats so riveting about the book! Women, even with full time jobs, WERE NOT making food from boxes, freezers, etc. They still enjoyed cooking from scratch. But the ads, and the pushing ultimately made their dent into the american psyche. I guess that's what disturbed me most about the book- that ppl were fine working, and cooing, etc but the industries, and society told them “no, not really”

    Cylinda, I do'nt watch Top Chef because if I can't eat the food that is displayed, then its just cruel and unusual punishment. [Well, that and, I no longer get BRAVO]. you're right- you can only take this so far- You have to do the bes tyou can, and make from scratch the things you take pleasure in. And as much as I love the ocean, distilling my own salt sounds not the way I'd like to spend time while there! Thanks for the perspective.


  11. That is disturbing, Aisha. (Sounds like a good book.) … But the food industry telling housewives they needed these modern conveniences – and ultimately convincing them, really isn't different from anything else we've been “sold” over the years, if you think about it.

    Going back to El Salvador recently made me realize just how many “necessities” I have – and I'm not talking about air conditioning and such. I'm talking about before we even got on the plane and I had to pack all the products I “need” for my skin and hair maintenance.


  12. Very interesting and thought provoking. I'm trying to make things myself, particularly for Rania. I do find it more satisfying to make food from “scratch”, but don'always have the time, energy or ingredients. I say that cooking from a box or a packet is still “cooking”, it simply may not be as tasty or as satisfying. I do, however, love me some Shan masala lol. You should post some of your recipes! I'd love to try them. πŸ™‚


  13. i worked in the industry for quite sometime, glad i don't do it anymore!! i wish i could say i enjoy cooking now, but it is not my cup of tea (unfortunately), i really WISH i enjoyed it more. have you read Kitchen Confidential by anthony bourdain? while i haven't read it myself, pretty much everyone i know has (including my husband, who used to be a chef) and they all say it's a great book.


  14. I've thought about similar issues, especially as a food blogger. I mean, where do we draw the line between reheating and actually cooking? And then I decided to give myself a break. I've read lots of posts about how Thai kitchens will use bottled curry paste because the quality ingredients necessary to make your own simply aren't available here, and it's actually more wasteful to buy a giant bunch of lemongrass and use one or two sticks and throw the rest out. Oh, and we always have a packet of “plop n' bake” Pillsbury cookies in our fridge for cookie emergencies (i.e., my need for post dinner cookies every night). I guess what I'm saying is, I think it's totally okay to rock out with the boxed cake, especially because you're not just plopping it on a plate and serving it as is (though really in my huge condition, I'd even eat boxed cake, sans frosting) πŸ™‚


  15. Tracy, that's a really good point. Do I need a mac? Do I need a flat screen TV? A ''smart'' phone? It's more about what I've fallen for via advertising and culture as opposed to me personally desiring on my own accord. Good perspective.

    Jamila, shan rocks! I just have minimized my use of it because it has MSG from what I've read so for that reason I try not to use it too much, but for haleem- I can make it no other way!

    Kate, that book sounds good, will have to look for it! As for liking cooking, I should preface by saying, I love the act of cooking, but I hate the act of cleaning up after 😦

    Azmina, my foodie guru sanctions my box-ing intentions so I can now rest easy! Seriously, you're right, I didn't even think about that- that some ingredients may not be easily available here- plus it would be awful to waste food since you need such a little bit you'd end up wasting a whole lot of red curry sauce. Thanks for the perspective!


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