Musings

The Real and the Make Believe

Get comfortable, I’ve got a lot to say today….

When I was little I had, like many children, a very active imagination.  I existed, at times, in my own world, my own adventure, my own alternate reality.  It was fun.  I was…an exciting, improved version of me.  I took the stuff of me that I liked, and expanded on it, leaving the boring, shy, awkward stuff behind.  In my other worlds, my other lives, I was brave and adventurous and strong and had all sorts of adventures which I survived thanks to my brain, my MacGyver-like skillz, and my ability to climb trees. 

Sometimes when it was time for dinner, I didn’t want to leave my imaginary world behind, or revert back to my regular, boring self.  I would hang out in the kitchen while my mother cooked dinner and I’d tell her of my adventures.  I told stories that were real to me, and, in order to keep me on the straight and narrow, she’d ask if the story I was telling was true or not.  If I had trouble deciding how to answer, she’d say something like “you have to learn to tell the difference between the real and the make-believe.” 

That phrase, along with a few others, has stuck with me.  I may have even trotted it out with my own kids once or twice or seventy times.

I probably absorbed a lot of information and advice in the kitchen back then, hanging out, and eventually helping, while my mom prepared dinner.  I remember peeling onions, a job I’m thinking I need to pass along to my little sous chefs about now.  I learned to bake bread, to make pie crusts, to use a knife, to cook eggs, to peel an orange, to sweat onions, to roast a chicken, to make a quiche…you get the idea.  I learned a lot, and what I didn’t learn in that kitchen, I taught myself in other kitchens over time.  And I’m still learning.  That’s part of the fun of cooking and baking.

My parents had a vegetable garden.  Actually, I remember one year we shared a huge garden with another family (they had more land, so the garden was on their property).  I don’t remember a whole lot about that garden except that I was given radishes to plant.  I didn’t like radishes back then.  But they grew quickly, and it was cool to see them push those first little leaves through the dark soil, and then more leaves, and all the while the little radishes would get rounder and redder beneath their little loamy coverlets.  I liked that part, even though I did not like their sharp flavor in my salad.

But I digress.  We had a garden.  Gardens – both flowers and vegetables.  And my grandparents, who moved into a house on the same block when I was seven, had a garden, too.  So did their neighbor.  He used to grow enormous zucchini and put them into my grandparents’ garden in the dark of night.  My grandfather was not fond of vegetables.  Or of the neighbor, for that matter.

And we used to go fishing.  So did our neighbor.  He liked to fish for blackfish, or tautaug.  We would fish for summer flounder and bluefish.  We’d catch a lot of sea robins, which looked really cool and we always threw back.  We didn’t catch a lot of fish, as I recall.  But what we kept, we ate.  I remember newspapers on the kitchen counters and my dad gutting and filleting the fish, then rinsing them clean in the sink.  Sometimes we’d find roe, the fish eggs, inside a female, and my mom would sauté those in butter.  I loved the creamy, ever-so-slightly grainy texture.  And I loved the fish, whatever kind it was.  I loved going fishing, as well, even if we didn’t catch anything but a few tiny crabs as they tried to scavenge bait from the hooks. 

Dad had friends who were fishermen.  Sometimes they’d bring us a huge striper and my mom would stuff it with a Ritz cracker stuffing, bake the whole thing in the oven, and we’d feast on it.  My great uncle, visiting with his wife, my grandmother’s sister, from London, used to call the fish “striped bash” instead of striped bass.  He was a dear man with great humor.  Years later we became pen pals.  His name was Arthur, and when I was very small I called him “Uncle Ah-ka-thuh.”  His wife, Georgina, was “Aunt Dawdee.”   

And now it is many years later.  I fell in love with a man who loves to fish.  A man whose mother grew vegetables and flowers of all kinds around the edges of the back yard.  A man who likes the sharp flavor of radishes in his salads.

And we have our own house, our own gardens, and our own children.  And we are teaching them, gradually as they grow, how to tend the gardens, and how to catch and gut and fillet fish, how to dig clams, and how to cook food. 

Real food.

In recent years, we have become more focused than ever on growing our own vegetables as much as possible.  On extending our growing season with the winter gardens we’ve had set up.  I have taken up canning (something both our mothers did when we were young), and I plan to do a lot more of that this year. 

We are also, gradually, weaning ourselves from all the junk out there.  It’s not easy – habits are hard to break, and convenience is hard to pass up.  But every day I am more and more convinced that the less we buy in the grocery stores and the everything stores like Target (and I love to shop at Target), the better off we will be, health-wise.

Now, I know I am fortunate that I learned to love cooking when I was young.  I’ve said to my husband, my mother was the reason I am fearless in the kitchen.  She introduced all sorts of different cuisines to us.  Indian, Chinese, Spanish, English and Scottish (because we are of English and Scottish descent, with a pinch of German), Greek, Italian, French, Swiss (fondue!)….probably more.  Some things we liked (Indian curries!) and others we didn’t like (wiggly bean curd – ugh!), but the point was, we were exposed to a wide variety of foods from all over the world, or as far away as we could get with what was available in the stores at that time. 

I wish every child had that same exposure to different cuisines.  To that variety.  And the fun of cooking it at home.

We weren’t rich, by the way.  My dad had his own business – he was a photographer (still is, actually), and when I was little my mom was home, helping out Dad and taking care of us and the house.  We ate cheaply, but well. 

We didn’t go out to eat much.  And we didn’t have a McDonald’s in town (or any of the other now-ubiquitous fast-faux-food places) when I was little.  At least, not that I remember.  I was maybe a young teen or a “tween” when McDonalds showed up.  I could be wrong.  But I don’t remember any of that sort of food when I was little.  I remember it from my teen years and beyond.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a little article in our local Sunday paper.  I saved it.  It’s on the second page of the Consumer Journal section of the paper.  January 8th, 2012 edition.  

The title caught my eye:

“An Argument for eating, ordering out.”

Now, before I launch into anything else, I freely admit that we get pizza delivered from time to time.  We have bought our share of McDonald’s and Burger King and all the other fast food stuff over the years.  And we eat out every now and then.  But it’s not the norm.  It’s the very occasional. 

So I was curious to see what this argument might be.

If you want to read the whole article, it’s still (as of this typing) available online here.  It took me a while to find it online, as I couldn’t (quickly) dig it out of our Providence Journal website.  The piece, written by Paula Sirois, a contributor to McClatchy Newspapers and basedin FL, is pretty short. Go ahead, read it.  It’s not very long.  I’ll be excerpting it here as well.

I read the subtitle and first paragraph or two and immediately felt my chest tighten and a low growl start in the back of my throat.  Really. 

Here’s the subtitle:

“It can be quicker, cost less, and offer more options for the kids to either dine at a restaurant or order takeout”

And then the first paragraph:

“We’ve all heard the advice that it’s cheaper to eat a home-cooked meal than pay those pricey restaurant tabs.  We keep hearing this, and all of my friends and family tend to agree.  But I am firmly convinced that it’s cheaper to eat out.  Here’s why:”

Okay.  Yeah, maybe it’s cheap to eat out at some places, and if ALL you care about is money spent, then that’s probably enough.  But what about quality?  What about nutrition?  What about what’s in your food and where it came from? 

Apparently that doesn’t enter into this discussion.

The next paragraph is what made me growl:

“Time is money:  Unless you’re one of those star chef wannabes, the whole dinner routine is an exercise in frustration.  First there’s figuring out what to eat and then pilfering through the kitchen to make sure you have all the necessary ingredients—which you usually don’t.”

Um.  Several things.  First of all, time is not money.  Time is time.  We all have to decide how we want to spend our time, but sometimes you can’t place a dollar value on how you spend that time.  Some things are beyond price. 

Second.  I’m not a star chef wannabe.  I’m not a wannabe at all.  I’m a plain ol’ person.  A daughter, sister, wife, mother.  I have no delusions of grandeur, nor do I dream of stardom.  But I can cook.  And I’m usually not frustrated during my dinner routine.  I think about what we have in the house – in the freezers, the fridge, the pantry, the cupboards, the garden – and then I make dinner with what I have.  Or I’ve PLANNED AHEAD, and I have ground beef and pasta and the makings of spaghetti sauce ready to go.  I don’t need to pilfer through the kitchen, and guess what – I usually DO have the necessary ingredients.  Because I start with the ingredients and create the meal from the ground up.  If I want to do something of star chef wannabe quality, then I plan to make it in a day or so and make sure I have those special star chef ingredients (butterfly eyelashes, unicorn milk) and if I don’t have them, I stop at the store on the way home from work and pick them up. 

The whole tone of that paragraph alone reminds me of this commercial I’ve seen a while ago for some gadget that helps you peel a hard-boiled egg.  The commercial starts out in black and white, because of course all people who can’t peel hard boiled eggs lack color.  We’ve got Harried Housewife in front of us, her clothes awry, her hair ratted and crazy because of all her egg angst, and she is practically in tears as she attempts to peel yet another stubborn damn hardboiled egg.  Her black and white fingers tremble and clench, and the shell and egg fall apart in ugly, unappetizing chunks.  Ugh!  She can’t take much more of this, you know!

And then she gets the amazing hard boiled egg peeler thingy, and it’s like Dorothy stepping into Oz – a munchkin choir harmonizes in the background, Harried Housewife’s clothes are neat and attractive and colorful, her hair is soft and tamed, and her easily peeled hard boiled eggs are smooth and shiny on that platter of deviled eggs.  Thank goodness for the hard boiled egg peeler thingy or she would have died, buried beneath shells and chunks of egg white, in that dreadful black and white world where people had to do their own peeling.

That’s what that paragraph reminded me of.  That melodramatic spin on what should be just a normal, uneventful, regular old part of the day.  Making dinner.  It’s not that hard.  Or that stressful.  And if it is, then you need to rethink your game plan, not drive out and get Big Macs for everyone.

It’s not an exercise in frustration, or it doesn’t have to be.  If you don’t have the necessary ingredients, then you need to figure out what those necessary ingredients are for you and your household, and then, over time, work on stocking your cupboards or pantry and fridge and freezer with the things that will enable you to put dinner together without pulling your hair – or anyone else’s – out. 

Calm down. 

So…moving on…

“Then there’s the driving to the grocery store, walking the aisles, standing in the checkout line, driving back home, lugging the bags into the house, putting them away and starting to cook.  By the time you’ve finished eating and putting away the dishes, a couple hours have passed.  You could be doing anything else in the entire world with that time, maybe something more productive or beneficial to you, your family and your world.  Take-out requires two minutes to order by phone and then 30 minutes of free time while you wait for the doorbell to ring.  It takes one minute to toss or recycle the containers and you’re done.”

Sigh.

I’m sorry.  Going food shopping is not the hexathlon of events Ms. Sirois makes it out to be.  Walking the aisles?  Well you don’t even need to that in most places – you could borrow one of those motorized chairs with the basket on the front so you can SIT while you shop.  And SIT in the checkout line, too.  Because it’s such a hassle to shop.

Once again, it doesn’t have to be done this way.  Know your family, know your likes and dislikes, know what you need on a weekly basis.  Eggs.  Milk for cereal.  Half and half for your husband’s coffee.  Bread (or you could make your own).  Stuff for lunches.  Stuff for – novel idea – dinners.  This way you don’t get home and then have to go ALLLLLLLLLLLL the way back out again and crawl, exhausted and black-and-white, through the grocery store. 

And “lugging the bags into the house”  – consider that your upper body workout.  See that?  You’re multitasking!  Or, if you’ve already been to the gym, get your kids to carry the bags in.  That’s why you had them in the first place, isn’t it?  So when they’re big enough, you can foist the chores off on them!

What else…okay, her time frame.  A couple hours.  To shop, make dinner, eat, put dishes away.

I’ll start right off by admitting that I don’t always do all the dishes after dinner.  Sometimes I do, other times I’ll let the pots and pans soak.  The water does the work, I wipe the loosened out stuff off everything in the morning.  There’s no law that says you can’t do that.  And we have a dishwasher, so we can put the plates right in there after the meal.  I think that takes a minute, just like throwing away or recycling the containers. 

Now…instead of making dinner, I could be doing anything else in the entire world.  Really?  Like what?  Something more productive or beneficial to you, your family and your world.  Hm.  Well I guess that all depends on your definition of productive and beneficial.

While I make dinner (or while Bill makes dinner – he cooks, too), my kids are doing their homework if it’s a school night.  They’re right in the next room, too, so if they have questions one of us can help out (and usually continue peeling our eggs at the same time).  After homework, the kids might play with their friends, or practice guitar, or draw, or, yes, watch a little tv.  Then, when it’s almost time to eat, the kids set the table.  Then we all eat.  Together.  We talk.  We laugh.  We remind Julia that she has to eat what’s on her plate before she takes any more.  You know.  Regular old stuff.  It may not sound like “anything else in the entire world,” but I believe it’s definitely all productive and beneficial.

Sometimes the kids help with food preparation.  They already help out in the gardens.  Julia knows how to fry or scramble eggs.  They can use the toaster.  Julia will melt cheese over her nachos in the microwave.  (Yes, there’s parental supervision, but it’s supervision – not drive-thru.)  My kids learn to do things for themselves.  Isn’t that kind of productive and beneficial for me, my family and the world?  I think it is.

Next argument is about how cheaply you can buy a sirloin at Outback (her example) – with two sides – and hey, someone else cooked it all for you!  She goes on to say that at most grocery stores, “the same items would cost slightly more, but you have to take into account that it’s all uncooked and unseasoned.  Outback will have it ready to go at the curbside pickup, and when you get home it’s hot and ready to eat.”

Well, first of all, restaurants buy at wholesale, not retail, so it’s not like the chef stopped by Whole Foods to purchase individual portions of sirloin along with enough russets and brocoli florets to fill his anticipated number of plates that night.  And, do you know where the beef he’s using came from?  What were the cows fed?  How were they treated while they lived?  Does that matter, or is it all ONLY about cheapness?  And are we supposed to be eating out every night?  Won’t that get kind of boring after a while?  Kind of…black and white?

Moving on…

“More options for the kids:  Most of us can cook maybe five things well.  When ordering from restaurants, your kids get an opportunity to try a plethora of new foods, from Chinese and Greek to Italian and Japanese.  It’s an easier option over trying to cook something new and exotic at home after spending tons of time and money searching out those specialty ingredients only to learn that the kids just hate it.”

Here’s a problem I have:  Since when do my children dictate what I cook?  I don’t recall my mother worrying about what my sister and I liked or didn’t like.  She cooked dinner and we ate it.  Or we didn’t and we were a little hungry.  We lived.  And we learned – very early on – that we were not suns around which our little parent planets rotated. 

Just as my husband and I weren’t given menus when we sat down at the dinner table in our parents’ homes, I don’t give my kids a range of choices at dinner time either.  The choice is – eat it or don’t.  But that’s what I made.  Occasionally, if I make something really horrible, fine, the kids don’t have to finish it.  But they have to try it.  And we’ve always got cereal or sandwich stuff on hand.  (I don’t have to drive to the store, walk the aisles, stand in the checkout aisle, lug bags for those things.)  The thing is, my kids have been exposed, since a young age, to – okay, I’ll say it – a plethora of foods.  And you know what?  It’s not all that hard to try out different cuisines.  You don’t have to have EVERY ingredient in the world.  You just have to pick something (a day or more BEFORE you intend to eat it) you want to make, round up any ingredients you don’t have (and if you shop around and check out smaller ethnic markets you can find more ingredients at lower prices than you can at the chain grocery stores) and give it a try!  And involve your spouse if you have one, or your kids (or everyone, depending on the size of your kitchen). 

Cooking does not have to be a chore!  And it’s fun!  And it’s way more satisfying (not to mention productive and beneficial) to prepare your own food and then feel that glow of satisfaction because you did it yourself!  Kids understand that.  I think we sometimes lose it when we grow up.

And yeah, we eat out sometimes.  We’ve taken the kids out to restaurants since they were babies.  Not to offer them a plethora of choices, but because we do like to eat out and because we – perhaps subconsciously – wanted them to learn how to behave in a restaurant.   There is nothing more annoying to everyone – diners and wait staff alike – than children who don’t know how to behave in a restaurant and parents who don’t seem to care.  I’ve seen kids allowed to run – RUN! – through the dining room, or open all the packets of sugar and dump them all over the table, and dump most of their rice and chicken tenders all over the floor.  And some parents don’t seem to care about the mess, either.  Do their children do this at home?  Are they allowed to get away with it?  Do the parents think restaurants are including a babysitting service with the appetizer and the BOGO dinner special? 

I think that was a tangent.  I’ll come back now.

Oh, and one last thing – about how most of us can only cook five things well?  Really?  Well then maybe it would be more productive and beneficial to learn how to cook a sixth thing well. 

The last paragraph suggests that cutting coupons and watching for sales and “shopping here, there and everywhere” (you know, more driving, walking, standing, driving, lugging and cooking), while probably a money-saver, is still a drain on your time.  Better to spend a few minutes looking for restaurant or fast food specials/coupons and bring home something cheap and already-prepared instead.

And – worst of all – beside this little article was a picture of McDonald’s french fries and a link to a printable coupon for a free medium-sized order of fries with the purchase of a soft drink.

Good god.  Save money!  Eat fake food!  It’s cheaper than the real kind!

Again, we occasionally eat at restaurants.  We occasionally eat fast food (though we do that less and less and less and less).  But that’s the exception.  It’s not the rule.  I don’t think it’s the way we’re supposed to live.  Or eat. 

And since when does cheapness equal a better quality of life? 

And then a day or so ago I read this NY Times piece by Marc Bittman.  Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?  Go read that one now.  Thank you to Jenn, The Leftover Queen, who linked to the article and thus dangled it in front of me and my growly self.  And thank you to Mr. Bittman, who put everything much more concisely then I could.  Especially about our attitude toward cooking.  It’s not a chore.  We need to change our thinking here.

I think I’m done, for now.  I’ve got a lot of thoughts percolating in my mind right now.  Thoughts about food, about where our food comes from, about what’s in our food…lots of thoughts.

I’ll leave you with this one last thought for today.

I think cooking should be taught in school.  I know some places have cooking programs, but they don’t all.  I think that’s a shame, and a disservice to our kids.  We provide free breakfasts or free lunches to kids who need it.  Why not provide a basic cooking education?  I don’t know how, considering all the budget cuts everywhere, and the skewed notion of what we should be tested on out there in the real world, but I do know this:  we all eat.  Shouldn’t we all know how to cook?

I had a home ec class in junior high, but it was a blend of cooking and sewing and I don’t remember what else.  It was one quarter, or maybe one semester of the school year.  It didn’t matter to me – I learned to cook at home.  But not everyone has that opportunity.  People eat, they should know how to prepare food (and I said prepare, not order).  Home economics conjures up 1950’s images of starched collars and pearls and perky housewives who greet their husbands with the paper, a pipe and a martini.  I’m not thinking we need to go in that direction.  But I think kids should learn the basics of cooking.  I think kids should learn how to balance a checkbook.  How to budget their money.  How to do things for themselves rather than rely on chefs and waitresses and the like to do it for them.

I cook and eat every day.  I can’t remember the last time I was faced with a word problem.

12 thoughts on “The Real and the Make Believe

  1. I think that this kind of thinking is so detrimental to our children in so many ways- the ones who never learned to wash their own clothes, sew on a button, shop smartly and yes, make themselves something to eat.I have loved reading the yummy mummy cooks gourmet where she did a volunteer cooking class at her kids’ school.the more a child or an adult knows how to do for themselves, the stronger and more confidant person they are in “real life”.add to that the idea that we have no idea where our food comes from etc. is shameful.i have loved every minute of time i have spent in the kitchen with kids, mine or someone else’s.not everyone needs to be a gourmet cook, but knowing the basics is important if for no other reason that then you can eat healthy and with a variety . i cook every night and every ethnic group there is and i wouldn’t have it any other way. thank you for bringing up this topic as i think it’s vital that people think about this stuff. if your kids are eating crap, how are they supposed to develop into healthy, functional human beings?

  2. LOVE. IT. You are spot on. That article was laughable. I kept waiting for the punchline… like it was supposed to be satire. Oh, and my favorite part of those “made for TV” things is the black and white intro! How on earth is she supposed to peel that egg without it shattering in her hand, cutting an artery, and causing her to bleed out all over the kitchen? How???

  3. hell yeah. i love it when someone else does the rant that i want to do, only better! the only thing is, i can’t believe you told us we had time to read the appalling article, but then gave us permission to bookmark mark bittman! reverse, please 🙂

  4. Some of my best memories are in the kitchen with my mother preparing dinner. She was a stay at home mom who cooked, cleaned, sewed and knitted. I wish she was still with us so I could thank her for my love of cooking, baking, sewing and knitting (notice I didn’t mention the cleaning, hate to clean).

    With what my mother taught me when I was 15 I made my mom and dad duck l’orange (sp?) and all the fixings with it. I had learned to follow recipes. We did go out on rare occasions, birthdays or such and usually it was chinese or to the sveden house (a buffet). My parents are both from England and while we had traditional English meals alot, she also did polish, italian and french quisine. There was never a

    I would really like to know where she can call, place and order for her and her family, have it delivered and it be less expensive then cooking a meal. Oh and if your a busy working woman, heard of a slow cooker? I work full-time a 11 am to 7 pm shift or a 1 pm to 9:30 pm shift usually. The slow cooker has become a wonderful tool for me. What I have started doing is preping my ingredients the night before. Then I assemble them just before I leave for work and turn it on low and come home to a cooked meal, sometimes its all in the pot, sometimes its boil some pasta or cook some rice to have with it. I have no kids to worry about having dinner that late in the evening and a hubby that works until 11pm every day. His gets packed up for him to take for the next night for dinner at work.

    Ok I’m rambling. I will stop now.

  5. Jayne,
    Love your post! you hit the nail on the head!
    I remember cooking class in junior high. I also had sewing.
    It doesn’t hurt anyone to be exposed to these classes.
    We learned nutrition as well.
    I know your children are probably the healthiest on the block! julia and her fish yes has more nutrition than a happy meal!
    I learned to try things and eat what was on my plate.
    Very rarely did we go to McDonald’s.
    We behaved in resturants. We learned at home every Sunday that eating in the dinning room was special and we had to behave and use good manners.
    I bet that author never cooked.
    Keep up the good work and keep up the garden!!

  6. You know, I would have probably reacted the same way. Growling, probably some eye rolling, and definitely gagging at the thought… heh.

    I’m all for time-saving-money-saving ways to eat – but I don’t have that mentality like this Sirois person. Even “big chefs” like Sandra Lee [Whom I am not a personal fan of, but she does have good pointers to those that only have “five recipes in their repertoire”…] teaches a healthy guideline that cooking at home doesn’t need to be time wasting or stressful.
    And it’s true!

    I enjoy cooking at home, and like you, some nights we do go out and eat. Usually it’s a Friday. On Saturday’s, if we are with our Foodie friends, we’ll go out to NYC and splurge on some crazy chef’s dinner [and eat in on Friday!]. Always ready to try out some interesting new thing!

    I back you 100%! My mother gardened and cooked home meals. She taught me to prepare dinner’s at the young age, since I showed interest and my older sibling did not. Although she never canned or did preservation – having told her I wanted to start she’s chuckled and calls me silly. She’s retired now and has a great garden, so I don’t understand why she doesn’t take those steps especially now since she’s been diagnosed with diabetes… I will make that sweet and spicy tomato chutney and mail it to her… I’ll convert her, if it’s the last thing I do! hee hee!

    And I’ll never order the sirlion steak at the “Outback”. Ever.

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