Don’t Let Cooking Intimidate You

It’s neither as hard, nor as time consuming as you fear.

I used to have a neighbor who would introduce me to her friends and then say, “She bakes!” in the same sort of tone you’d use to introduce somebody who had recently relocated from Mars. My neighbor was both mystified and awed by the fact that I seemed to always be taking something out of the oven, or stirring something up when she’d pop over for coffee.

“I don’t know how you do that,” she’d say. I’d shrug, and mumble something about its being no big deal, and then we’d move on to whatever it was we were talking about in those days. It was the late 1980s. We both had kids still living at home, so there was plenty to talk about.

I cook because I love it, but there was a time when there were many good cooks who didn’t love cooking. They cooked because there was no other way for their families to have meals. No cooking meant no food, plain and simple. My parents got married in 1934, and my eldest brother was born in 1937, the same year Spam and Kraft macaroni and cheese were introduced. There were no fast food restaurants. At the grocery store, frozen foods consisted mostly of vegetables, and even if you could afford them, the freezer part of a refrigerator was too tiny to bring much home anyway. Convenience foods were limited to things like canned stew or soup and a few cake mixes.

This is not even to mention the social stigma faced by cooks who used them. Even a terrible, unwilling cook would sooner put inedible glop on the family table than resort to “bought” meals. Many women developed a single mistake-proof recipe that would be relied on for the occasions such as potluck church suppers and pinochle clubs when non-family people would be eating — and judging — their cookery.

By the time I came around in the early 1950s things had begun changing. Swanson’s TV dinners were introduced in 1954, accompanied by plenty of marketing and advertising to convince reluctant home cooks that eating dinner from a foil tray in front of the TV was a great family experience.

My mother taught me my first recipes, which is pretty much the way things used to go. It didn’t take long for me to realize I enjoyed doing it, and had a knack for it, so I quickly branched out into trying new recipes from magazines or the newspaper. My mother was happy to let me loose in the kitchen. At the time I thought it was a special privilege. It would be a long time before I realized she never liked cooking all that much.

Ma’s constant stream of magazines such as Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, and later, Woman’s World were packed with ads and articles about food. In the 1960s there were dozens, if not hundreds, of new convenience products coming on the market, so of course the women’s magazines cooperated with their advertisers and came up with uses for the stuff. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ma’s Spam Salad, which is not what you might think. No, this was a “green dinner salad.” It featured cubes of Spam, with chopped hard-boiled eggs, canned peas and lettuce, dressed with Miracle Whip.

For the true excess of the era, check out the Gallery of Regrettable Food

In Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro writes:

[D]uring the postwar era, time became an obsession of the food industry and eventually of American homemakers as a manufactured sense of panic began to pervade even day-to-day cooking. Advertisements and stories plowed across the media reminding readers again and again how busy they were, how frantic their days, how desperately they needed products and recipes for quick meals.
“If you’re a typical modern housewife, you want to do your cooking as fast as possible,” wrote a columnist at Household magazine who was promoting instant coffee and canned onion soup. Not even cold cereal got to the table fast enough. According to Kellogg, what mothers really liked about the new Corn Pops was that the cereal was presweetened, a boon they found to be a great time-saver.

Really? How much time does not adding sugar save? Five seconds? Ten? There’s likely to be a mess, if the kids are little, with or without sugar, so…

Fast was the main message, and easy was the secondary one. There was no longer any need to spend hours preparing vegetables, or working with finicky and accident-prone pie crust or cake recipes (or so they’d have you believe), when all you had to do was reach for the box or the can on your shelf. By the 1960s, freezer compartments in refrigerators had expanded far beyond that tiny ice cube shelf, and food companies had plenty of options to fill that space.

In 1970, Hamburger Helper was introduced on the West Coast to make the more or less standard ground beef casserole even easier than opening a can of cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup to add to cooked macaroni and burger. Despite the fact the cost of one box of the product was three to five times as much as the soup and pasta bought separately — and it really didn’t serve “the whole family” as a main dish — General Mills says 1 in 4 American households bought it once the product went national in 1971.

It would take me several years to get around to trying Hamburger Helper, but I didn’t see it as an improvement. The time saved was about zero, and the taste could only be described as “fresh out of the factory.” I was never brave enough to try the potato-based versions.

Later, I started having questions about packaged dessert mixes. I’d used my share of cake mixes, and often the varied kinds of desserts you could make out of a box were just enough for my family of three. Sometimes they’d come out with something fun and intriguing, such as Jello 1–2–3, which made its own topping and came out in three layers.

They were expensive per serving when compared to a scratch recipe, but I never had to throw out any leftovers, either. They got more complicated though, with often three or even four little packets of stuff — your base cake or pie crust, say with a filling and a topping, each with its own set of instructions. I could see that not only was there no time saved, but it wasn’t any easier to make one of those than it was to make something similar from scratch. I started to take a long, hard look at the back of the box before taking any more of them home.

We seemed to have come full circle. Boxed dessert mixes reached their pinnacle of complexity with the Duff Goldman Ace of Cake mixes, which require as many as six different colored batters to make tie-dye or camouflage cakes. These are still available, but they’re so detailed, you’re better off watching one of the many videos on You Tube before you try to make one, to see if you’re up to the huge mess it’s all going to make! It’s that sort of thing that gives cooking and baking a bad name.

Consider this: I made my first pie — blueberry, from scratch — at the age of ten, while my mother offered suggestions from the sidelines. My son made his first batch of cookies from a recipe and no help from me, at age nine. My 11-year-old granddaughter makes good bread, cakes and cookies, and can easily follow a recipe. Dare I say it: Cooking is so easy, a kid can do it! If you can read a recipe, you can cook — and don’t let marketers tell you otherwise.

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