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Overcooked Food as Homey, Traditional & Authentic


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Three quick anecdotes.

Growing up, my paternal grandfather was a Gloucester fisherman, and when he'd come back from Georges Bank with a haul, sometimes we'd eat supper at their house. My grandmother would place the fresh cod in a 350F oven for at least an hour and then serve it. Everyone loved it.

When I was a younger, I dated a woman who had me over to her mom's house after a few months for Sunday dinner. Her mom bought what was, for her, an expensive center-cut beef round roast, and -- yep -- cooked it at 400F or so for nearly two hours. After the meal and alone in the car, I told my girlfriend, "Man, that was overcooked." She got very angry with me very quickly, saying, "That wasn't overcooked. It was traditional. That's the way they make it back home in the Old Country."

When I first saw fresh broccoli in a store as a child, I thought that it was unripe, because it wasn't grey.

These all make me wonder about the relationship between tradition, high cooking temps, and long cooking times. Perhaps part of the problem here is investigator bias: I've lived in Yankee New England nearly all my life, after all. But I'm wondering if there isn't something more generally applicable to the idea that overcooked food is somehow homier and more authentic than, well, not-overcooked food.

What do you think?

edited to reduce hyperbole -- ca

Edited by chrisamirault (log)

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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My mom didn't overcook our vegetables. I have personally cooked Brussels sprouts in every way possible. I love them but don't absolutely adore them until they are cooked almost to mush. I also "overcook" cauliflower, but not broccoli or any other vegetables. So no nostalgia at work here, just personal preference.

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My immediate family doesn't have a history of overcooked food, but I can think of one item my grandmother overcooked that I loved. She'd overboil her rice -- until the grain started to split -- drain it well, add a stick of butter and salt and pepper. Nana's English Buttered Rice. I guess we could call that Traditional.

Buttered rice isn't around much anymore, overcooked or otherwise. That's too bad.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

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1912-2008

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I am first generation and grand-ma and great grandma were no spring chickens when they arrived here in 1955 from Europe (via Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Austria on a long treck). Surprisingly they did not overcook veggies and meats leaned towards well done but definitely not pre-jerky style. It was us kids that had a hissy fit if we saw pink. Coming from the deprivation of WWII, they tended to stretch protein into stews, and veggies with roux based milk sauces, but the kids actually fought over the last helping of creamed green beans or peas accented with freshly chopped dill or parsley grown from seeds that travelers brought from the "Old Country". Maybe they just really knew how to cook. I think alot of "bad" food comes from people who just don't have a clue in the kitchen (witness my ex's mom who was a dietitian and couldn't put a palatable meal on the table).

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I think a few things are at work here.

1. SLOW-cooked, rather than OVER-cooked, food is certainly "homier" than seared/flash-fried etc. There are practical reasons for this. How many casseroles, braises, etc were invented to turn tougher or cheaper meats into oozing wonderfulness? How much easier is it for a multi-tasking home cook to put something into the oven than to stand over a frying pan? Whereas non-homey, restaurant-y food needs to be made quickly, and the chefs who cook it typically have access to large ranges and lots of direct heat.

2. Perhaps affluence plays a role in explaining how SLOW cooking couldevolve into OVER-cooking at home. Long/slow cooking methods developed by great-grandma to accommodate tough joints of meat could end up being applied by mom to more delicate cuts that became affordable as incomes rose and meat became more abundant.

3. "Restaurant food" culture (including a greater emphasis on quick-cooked, 'fresh-tasting' food) is a big influence on the way people today cook in their homes (we could easily have a separate thread on this). So it's not surprising that cooking that rejects this culture should be seen as traditional and homey.

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I wouldn't think it is a regional thing, based on my experience. Both of my grandmothers, born and raised in Illinois, as well as my mother-in-law, a Pacific NW native, overcooked everything as a matter of course. I assume that was how they learned to cook from their mothers and never thought that any other way was acceptable.

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I agree that a whole generation of home cooks overcooked meat in particular. Can you blame them? Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" was required reading when I was in high school and for at least a generation before that. After being forced to read about the horrific conditions in the Chicago Stockyards and Slaughter Houses, little wonder they cooked the tarnation out of everything to kill all the vermin. They were trying not to kill their families.

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I think Pebs might be on to something...my mom grew up thinking that well-done meat was the only safe meat

Yeah, my mom's the same way--if I'm baking salmon I have to keep her piece in the oven for an extra hour or two....she cringes every time i tell her we had sushi last night.

and her pork chops were like hockey pucks, her vegetables all mushy...I hated asparagus and brussels sprouts until I had them as an adult, and I still remember the first rare lamb I had --in my college years a cousin took me to a Greek restaurant in the Village--it was a revelation.

but apropos of kids loving over-cooked, my daughter used to inhale my mom's green beans cooked for at least 45 minutes--preferred them greatly over my al dente steamed or sauteed green beans--they were comfort to her!

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the one stand out thing I remember as being over cooked mushy traditiona ..comforting ..suck you thumb twirl your hair good growing up

in Providence RI ..was my neighbor's mom's warmed up in the sauce and served the next day spaghetti ..

when I am feeling blue I make a simple marinara and then cook the spaghetti...then pour the hot sauce on the hot spaghetti put a cover on it and let it sit for a pretty long while (probably in the "danger zone" temp wise as my son calls it) ...it is overcooked in the sauce and tastes pretty darn close to what I used to enjoy at my neighbors ...

I dont know if it is "good" food but it is traditional..overcooked as Hell and my family knows I am not feeling emotionally very good and need cheering up when I make it that is for sure ...

perhaps I should make some today

Edited by hummingbirdkiss (log)
why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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My grandparents tend to cook traditional Ashkenazi food, with a strong 50s influence. The unfamiliar dishes -- many of the fresh vegetables, better cuts of meat -- tend to get a poor treatment. I definitely agree with Stigand -- American affluence caught shtetl cuisine off guard.

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I think Pebs might be on to something...my mom grew up thinking that well-done meat was the only safe meat.

Ditto that. I heard the word "trichinosis" every time I ate a pork chop as a child.

I think it was my mom's voice you were hearing. She just said it again about two weeks ago when I was making pork chops...did you hear her then? I had to cook them for 35 minutes.

Edited by markemorse (log)
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I wouldn't think it is a regional thing, based on my experience.  Both of my grandmothers, born and raised in Illinois, as well as my mother-in-law, a Pacific NW native, overcooked everything as a matter of course.  I assume that was how they learned to cook from their mothers and never thought that any other way was acceptable.

I think it's hard to make sweeping conclusions based on personal experience. My mom, born & raised in Missouri & certainly of the Jungle generation, cooked everything properly - roast beef was always medium-rare, veggies bright & crisp.

My MIL, on the other hand, was a notorious overcooker of everything & certainly reinforced the New England regional stereotype.

So I personally associate overcooking with regionality more than hominess. (Not going to say anything about skill & taste cuz I really love my wife's family. :smile: )

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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2. Perhaps affluence plays a role in explaining how SLOW cooking couldevolve into OVER-cooking at home. Long/slow cooking methods developed by great-grandma to accommodate tough joints of meat could end up being applied by mom to more delicate cuts that became affordable as incomes rose and meat became more abundant.

I think there's some truth to this. My mother and grandmother used to cook pork shoulder steaks often, because they were really cheap. We called them "pork chops". She usually braised them with some type of liquid or gravy for about an hour and they were quite tasty in a falling off the bone way. As an adult, the first time I tried this method with actual pork chops, I was in for an unpleasant surprise, as the more expensive cut just didn't have the marbling to stand up to this style of cooking and ended up mealy and dry. I still love the old method for shoulder steaks, but if I'm buying rib or center cut chops, which are still much more expensive, a good brine and a quick sear are all that's needed.

Jan

Seattle, WA

"But there's tacos, Randy. You know how I feel about tacos. It's the only food shaped like a smile....A beef smile."

--Earl (Jason Lee), from "My Name is Earl", Episode: South of the Border Part Uno, Season 2

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My mother's side of the family cremates everything, fried to the point of almost like a completely desicated cardboard. Grates my throat when I swallow kind of dry and crunchy; rehydrated with a dip of fish sauce or soya sauce mixed with kalamondin juice. This is especially more pronounced with fish. It seems the crunchy texture of fish bones and heads drives them to cook fish this way. Lubricated with rice.

Shrimps, squid, scallops and lobsters are little rubber bullets by the time they are deemed ready to eat . The only thing they do not overcook are crabs. All these seafoods have one sauce for them, fish sauce and kalamondine mix. They live near a fishing community and since they get seafood that are so fresh that some are still moving, then it can't be that their trying to cook off old fish smells.

Vegetables are the same way and they are always mixed in with pork belly. Seems like all vegetables in Philippines has pork belly and overcooked?

Edited by Fugu (log)
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I think when you take the two (as I see it) key factors here

1 - Food-safety concerns (real or imagined) that say if there's a hint of moisture in the meat then there are pathogens living inside

and

2 - The need to cook off flavors out of deteriorated ingredients (which got that way due to lack of refrigerated shipping, etc.)

then you get a cultural preference for food cooked to a certain level of doneness.

Once that cultural preference is in place, it doesn't make a difference if you're a farmer or fisher with access to impeccable, fresh ingredients. You're still going to cook everything that way.

Also, when it comes to poultry especially, a lot of the meat products of old weren't nearly as tender as the ones we eat today. So cooking the heck out of them was part of the tenderizing process. Plus you had inferior dentistry so you really had to get things to be non-chewy. Of course if you overcook a lot of things they become chewier, but try explaining that to someone who thinks "old school" on this issue. I mean, try to convince my mother not to cook the Thanksgiving turkey to 190 degrees. Try it. I dare you.

Edited by Fat Guy (log)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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My ex sister-in-law who apologized for her under-cooked green beans as she had cooked them only 2 hours instead of the usual 3.

When I read some of my older cook books from the 50s and earlier, I'm amazed at instructions that say to cook asparagus for 25 minutes. My dad always wanted his vegetables cooked to mush. That may be partly because he refused to go to a dentist.

I think it's more a generational and cultural thing.

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My ex sister-in-law who apologized for her under-cooked green beans as she had cooked them only 2 hours instead of the usual 3.

When I read some of my older cook books from the 50s and earlier, I'm amazed at instructions that say to cook asparagus for 25 minutes. My dad always wanted his vegetables cooked to mush. That may be partly because he refused to go to a dentist.

I think it's more a generational  and cultural thing.

My whole family, with exception of myself, loves dead green beans cooked forever in a pressure cooker with bacon and onions. I know that this is a very "southern" way of cooking beans, but I can't stand it!

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As the son of an English Canadian mother (with a Scottish mom herself) and a French Canadian father of Irish extraction (not an oxymoron!), it was inevitable that every veg in my house would be overcooked. I still have nightmares of two in partic: Brussels sprouts and what we called turnip but was actually rutabaga. So I know all about that problem. But it brings two issues to my mind. First, how do the Italians manage to "overcook" just about every vegetable and yet make it so delicious, with the flavor concentrated rather than washed out? Second, was the backlash to all that overcooking--the restaurant practice I recall beginning in the '70s, by which vegs began to be served in a condition they called "crisp" but was in fact just a tepid crudite--any less pernicious than the way our moms did it?

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My late FIL was the ultimate "that isn't done" person...We would have beef tenderloin steaks on the grill (inch and a half or so thick), and I would cook em medium well (Touch of pink and still jucy) . Except his, after it was off the grill it was into the sliced into two thin halves and into M/W on high for three minutes...Damn,,, heresy!but only way he would eat it. If you did a T bone, he would cut it right next to the center of the bone and if it was even remotely pink--back to the heat...

Once on a picnic, there was a burger left on the grill forever, A veritable hockey puck. As I was about to throw it in the trash, he sez "dont throw that away" I think he ate it. I could not watch..

.As an aside, he also thought lobster was "Greasy", and would only eat the bottled "pink" Kraft "french dressing. Don't know if they still make that stuff any more...(this was 40 years ago)

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There are a few foods I prefer to cook to old-school softness. The tougher greens, to name one category. As a matter of fact, I have a pot of collards and mustard greens simmering with a ham hock right this very minute. Okay, the mustard greens are not all that tough-textured, but I actually like how they go to mush when done this way. And the collards? I have tried some nouvelle recipes that give them a quick saute/braise for a maximum of 20 minutes, and I just do not care for their texture that way. I prefer them much more tenderized.

Another softy I find homey is soup the way my mom learned from her Eastern European immigrant mom. I see all these recipes and recommendations for soup-making--including here on eGullet--that say that, after you have simmered the vegetables and meat for hours to make your base broth, said meat and veg should be strained out and discarded because they have no flavor left. Weeeelllll--it's true that they have given up lots of their flavor to the broth. But my mom never threw that stuff out. In fact, she cut the meat and veg into big chunks specifically so that they would wind up still intact--though meltingly soft, the meat falling from the bone. I am totally unapologetic about the comfort-food value of this stuff for me. I probably wouldn't serve it at a fancy dinner ... but you can bet, if I made a beautiful clear broth to serve at a fancy dinner, I would be for sure saving at least some of the soup meat for a cook's treat. (Boiled beef with horseradish! Yum!)

And I agree with Barry Foy--the modern restaurant practice of serving vegetables so undercooked that they're practically raw is, to my tastes at least, way too far in the other direction.

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There are a few foods I prefer to cook to old-school softness. The tougher greens, to name one category. As a matter of fact, I have a pot of collards and mustard greens simmering with a ham hock right this very minute. Okay, the mustard greens are not all that tough-textured, but I actually like how they go to mush when done this way. And the collards? I have tried some nouvelle recipes that give them a quick saute/braise for a maximum of 20 minutes, and I just do not care for their texture that way. I prefer them much more tenderized.

Another softy I find homey is soup the way my mom learned from her Eastern European immigrant mom. I see all these recipes and recommendations for soup-making--including here on eGullet--that say that, after you have simmered the vegetables and meat for hours to make your base broth, said meat and veg should be strained out and discarded because they have no flavor left. Weeeelllll--it's true that they have given up lots of their flavor to the broth. But my mom never threw that stuff out. In fact, she cut the meat and veg into big chunks specifically so that they would wind up still intact--though meltingly soft, the meat falling from the bone. I am totally unapologetic about the comfort-food value of this stuff for me. I probably wouldn't serve it at a fancy dinner ... but you can bet, if I made a beautiful clear broth to serve at a fancy dinner, I would be for sure saving at least some of the soup meat for a cook's treat. (Boiled beef with horseradish! Yum!)

mizducky, I am SO with you on greens--they need to be soft to be good....

and strain the soup or the sauce--I never do this--I want all the stuff still in there--even when I was training myself with Julia--learning French technique00I couldn't bring myself to strain a soup or a stew or a sauce.

Zoe

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My family generally maintains a "wave it over heat a little bit" approach to cooking. We like our veggies crisp and fresh and our meat as rare as humanly possible. Neither side of my family (including the grandparents) seems to have any issue with cooking the life out of food, thank God. This could be because most of them only cook when they absolutely have to, of course. As you can imagine, going from home cooking to Sodexho dining hall food was a big change for me. Sodexho policy is that vegetables can always be improved by cooking into a fine mush. Yuck.

I do know those greens beans you're talking about - we're Southern too and that's one of the standby dishes that Must Appear at any family gathering. We usually stockpile some fatback to throw in the pot. My mother likes to say the cooking technique is to simply boil all the nutrients out of the beans. I'm kind of ambivalent to them: I usually just pick out the fatback and eat that.

However, I'm all for cooking the hell out of collard greens with (of course) fatback. Throw some pepper sauce on those suckers and you've got a meal all in itself, tender delicate vitamins be damned.

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