How We Cook

May 8, 2011

The Betty Crocker Cookbook was published in 1950. You can still buy the latest edition of this American classic, or simply go online to Clicking on the featured recipe of the day, I find Potatoes Rancheros Casserole, which sports one box of Betty Crocker au gratin potatoes, a cup of taco seasoned cheese (they don’t explain what taco seasoned cheese is or where to buy it), crushed tortilla chips, and the ubiquitous half-pound of ground beef, browned and drained.

From Wikipedia:

Betty Crocker, a cultural icon, is a brand name and trademark of American Fortune 500 corporation General Mills. The name was first developed by the Washburn Crosby Company in 1921 as a way to give a personalized response to consumer product questions. The name Betty was selected because it was viewed as a cheery, all-American name; it was paired with the last name Crocker, in honor of William Crocker, a Washburn Crosby Company director.

In 1945, Fortune magazine named Betty Crocker the second most popular American woman’ Eleanor Roosevelt was named first.

I was born in 1957, one of five children. I’m remembering an edition of The Book with a red gingham cover. I ate my share of food-like products advertised in its pages, but my mother always had fresh food on the dinner table. She grew up on a dairy farm in southern California, the daughter of Frisian immigrants. The farm was contiguous with two other dairies owned by her uncles. All of the surrounding land was agricultural, with scattered farmhouses and the quaint downtowns of Bellflower, Artesia, and Clearwater. The people of this place and time had an intimate connection with food. They kept chickens and grew and ate fruits and vegetables in season or preserved. The area is completely unrecognizable today: a monotonous spread of tract homes, strip centers, supermarkets, and the like. Real estate booms, supermarkets, and modern convenience products have separated most of us from arable land and real food.

I once heard that there is a vast land bank under our feet, under the pavement, just waiting to be exposed and returned to health. My current garden is a small example of this. The previous owner had paved the backyard with concrete in order to serve a three-car garage. I removed the concrete; now I grow food. At the Emeryville Artists Coop, where I used to live, I helped facilitate a similar conversion. We removed tons of concrete. People now grow vegetables and flowers while children play on the lawn. Nice. Raising chickens is trendy, gardening is becoming ever more popular, and not just for geezers; young people are riding bikes and going to the farmer’s market. I do have to admit I may live in a bubble, the home of Alice Waters and Michael Pollen. Buddhists, environmentalists, and vegans abound. And we are oh so foodie. But even here, where Betty Crocker is camp, there is still a disconnect. My grandmother couldn’t buy a tomato in February, the thought would never occur to her, even in Bellflower, where it never snows. She used to tell a childhood story of having at Christmas a special treat… an orange from Spain. It must have been so strange and wonderful, this bright orange pungent fruit in the white Frisian winter. I can walk the one block to Safeway right now, 11:17 PM on March 14th, and buy a tomato or any number of things (perhaps the appropriate noun) that cannot be grown within a thousand miles. It won’t taste like much. In a sense, it’s abstract. Food has become a commodity we expect to have at our disposal, any time of day or night, any day of the year.

In the March 14th New Yorker, in a piece on aging titled “Twilight”, Jill Lepore writes, “Darkness used always to follow day too, but it doesn’t anymore: now we turn on the lights, and the day never ends. Fortune used to be a wheel which turned, and turned again; now it’s a number in a ledger, a score. During the past few centuries, life, along with a lot of other things, stopped being a circle and became a line…”

Cooking traditions are based on traditional ways of life. We no longer raise chickens or have kitchen gardens. We don’t have extended families with stay-at-home mothers, grandmothers, and aunties to pluck the chickens, stir the pot, preserve the plums, or dry the thyme, with gaggles of children to shell the peas or carry buckets of milk from which to skim the cream. We don’t have meat or vegetable stocks made from bountiful trimmings and leftovers. Even for the well to do, with a live-in cook or an entire staff, cooking traditions were based on frugality and economy, best using the local products of farm, garden, and field.

To make a Tuscan peasant stew, we now drive all over town, visiting specialty shops. How do we wanna-be chefs navigate this dilemma between the demands of fine food and the realities of modern life? I’m not suggesting any stringent adherence to a set of food rules. I like bananas and mangoes, coffee, tea, and imported anchovies and cheese. But we can be conscious of the seasons, try to buy local, grow a few herbs, reuse, recycle, and drive less. In the bay area we are fortunate to have resources that can help us live a more connected, tasty, sustainable, way of life.

Here are some things I do:

Use a pressure cooker: Superior vegetable and meat stocks can be rapidly and inexpensively made and can be frozen for later use. We also freeze some stock in ice cube trays, which is handy for small amounts. I can no longer bring myself to use canned or box stock.

Grow food. A good gardener should like weeding, a good cook, washing up. I am still using garlic from a last year’s crop. I grow onions, beans, peas, favas, tomatoes, chard, salad greens, lemons, figs, cucumbers, beets, and more. A surprising amount of vegetables can be grown in a small space under the right conditions.

Avoid processed or prepackaged food and cook from scratch when possible.

Recycle and reuse food: make breadcrumbs, make stock from items you might normally throw away, eat leftovers, compost or use the green bin.

Keep a sourdough; I love making pizza.

Buy organic, sustainably raised products when practical. I am lucky enough to be able to walk to local food shops, and since I work in different parts of town, I can usually shop on the way home at places like Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, Magnani Poultry, farmer’s markets, and many other places we are so lucky to have.

Ride a bike for shopping and recreation.


Chicken cutlets for two:

>Cut 1/2 dried chicken breast in half the long way and pound to 1/4 inch thick with a textured mallet.

>Mix home made breadcrumbs (see below) with salt, pepper and a bit of fresh minced garden thyme.

>Heat enough sunflower or olive oil, about 1/8th inch, and 1 tablespoon of butter in a shallow thick-bottomed pan (cast iron is good).

>Coat chicken pieces in lightly beaten egg then coat well with breadcrumbs.

Cook medium high until done and perfectly browned.

They should be crispy and succulent. It might take practice.

We like this dish with lemon slices, buttered pasta with chopped fresh garden parsley, a beet salad, some chard, or other garden greens. This is good with a dry Riesling.

Breadcrumbs: for this recipe I like La Farine (my local bakery) wheat levain. Choose a bread without fats or oils, like a baguette. A white bread will keep longer; I would avoid whole wheat.

Thinly slice and thoroughly dry bread in oven at 200 degrees for about an hour or until the slices are brittle, do not brown. Process in food processor or blender until desired consistency. If Amish use a rolling pin and a cloth. I like mine to remain a bit course (from fine to 1/8 inch pieces). I think you will agree that homemade breadcrumbs are easy to make and far superior. And bread crumbs are wonderful addition to many dishes, like garlic/mint green beans… but more about that when green bean season comes around.

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