This post will be the first in a series drawing on what I've learned from my collection of vintage cookbooks and home economics books.
As some of you may know, I collect vintage cookbooks and home economics textbooks. I got started on this at a fairly young age, probably 7 or 8, when my dad brought home a 1950s-era Betty Crocker kids cookbook. I had started cooking with my mom around age 4, helping stir, peeling and cutting up vegetables, etc. So many of the recipes were within my reach immediately, without need for further lessons. I loved how neat and tidy the results looked: the messy chaos of food preparation could produce a gorgeous meal.
I'm not sure how old I was when I cooked dinner for the first time (mostly) by myself, but I think I was about 8 or 9. I sat down with the aforementioned cookbook and selected a menu (the book included several) and proceeded to read the instructions on how the food should be prepared. In my opinion, this is a concept sorely lacking in modern cookbooks- it's rare to see any mention of the order of operations, or how to combine foods to have a balanced meal That is, you must plan your dishes, but you can't cook everything at once. You'll end up with burnt toast, under-cooked bacon, and rubbery scrambled eggs, if you're making breakfast. And where's the fruit? But I digress. I went on to make dinner that night, and many other nights. I wasn't an expert cook, but I knew I could make a meal. As I got older, I could take over for days at a time- a huge help to my mom for sure, and a great skill to take into marriage.
Now don't get me wrong. I definitely enjoy modern food, and I think that a lot of current recipes offer a variety of flavors completely unknown to the humble housewife of the 1950s. But I loved that old, battered cookbook and its idyllic pictures for another reason: it, along with my mother's patient tutelage, prepared me to feed a family. I had to think about the whole meal.
A lot of people now grow up learning how to grill a fantastic steak, or bake beautifully light and fluffy cupcakes. But the basics of putting a full meal on the table - main course, vegetables, salad, bread, and dessert - seem lost today, left to holidays and other special occasions. Cooking meals at home enjoys trendy phases, but most families are too busy to do it on a regular basis.
Perhaps once again embracing this concept could help with several issues today, including our obesity epidemic. Healthy, balanced meals cooked at home can be tailored to a family's needs, and reduce the risk of missing out on vegetables or overloading on portion sizes. Maybe we need a basic cooking class as a graduation requirement for high school students. It could go along with financial literacy and resume writing, spread out over a year. Students could learn the essential skills of cooking, as well as how to shop, plan balanced meals, and prepare a meal. This shouldn't be an elective skill. Meal preparation is something everyone will have to do at some point.
I definitely don't want our generation to lose sight of the fantastic flavors and textures that young chefs are creating right now, but not everyone is as lucky as I was and grows up knowing how to plan and prepare meals for a week. It's time to reclaim the full meal from the holidays. Let's bring healthy, well-rounded, balanced meals back to our homes, and teach each other how to cook them so we can feed our families.