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Learning to Cook: How Members Did


cabrales
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I'd be interested in knowing how members learned to cook basic items. :wink:

Was knowledge gained through watching relatives in the kitchen, receiving instruction from professionals or friends, reviewing cookbooks (if so, which primary ones), and/or other avenues? As I have mentioned elsewhere, I have no cooking capabilities -- sad, but true. When I have more time later this year, I *may* initiate attempts to prepare very simple items.

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I can't really remember a time when I didn't cook. Around 7 or 8 I took an afterschool activity type course in cooking. I remember making egg drop soup among other things. But she must have taught us some basic techniques. I had my own cookbook for kids that I made a lot of stuff out of, once an entire dinner for my family. I was very proud of that.

My mom obviously taught me a lot, and once I learned to follow a recipe, I'd be able make anything she wanted me to, or she'd just tell me how to do it. She worked full time, so I helped out with dinner a lot as I got older, although initially I was just in charge of making the salad for the family dinner. I also took many other kid oriented cooking courses, I particularly remember making egg rolls at the JCC in West Orange, NJ. I have a bunch of recipes from my grandmas, but they never taught me to cook, they usually shooed everyone out of the kitchen at their houses.

I really don't remember being taught the how to boil water, really basic stuff. I can recall my dad instructing me on how to make scrambled eggs the way he liked them - still runny.

Oh and Girl Scouts, we did a variety of cooking with the Girl Scouts (my mom was a troup leader for a while). But, the only thing I can really remember cooking with the Girl Scouts was pancakes over an open fire at a campout (not from scratch, from one of those milk carton pancake batters).

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Oh, cool; this is right up my alley (but shouldn't it be in "Cooking"?)

Learning to cook has been cognitive therapy for me. When I was a kid, I learned kitchen basics, which often amounted to simple things like making eggs or pancakes; usually if I baked it was from a mix. When I was a kid in junior high, all students - boys and girls alike - were required to take home ec (or "home ecch", as MAD magazine would have called it), and we all learned kitchen things like fritters and applesauce there.

But in 1981 I had a brain injury and gradually had to re-learn things from scratch. I had gone through one year of art school but the accident landed me right back home with my parents in Connecticut.

So I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and especially once I came back to New York and lived on my own again. By learning to follow recipes, I was able to tame my frazzled brain and also learn some useful skills; I never did know how to separate an egg before I taught myself. This was also a way of getting around the dictum handed down by a number of neuropsych "professionals" (and I use that term loosely) that I wouldn't benefit from cognitive therapy (after two years post-trauma, one is considered to be "too far gone" to receive any help, at least in terms of cognitive therapy; this, of course, has as much to do with funding as it does with the reality of the individual case). I've been called "unable to learn" and "developmentally disabled" by most professionals I've seen; once I realized that if I had been a few years younger at the time of my accident these same doctors would have labeled me "retarded", I decided to cut loose and pronounce myself "cured", instead.

So cooking has been a valuable and practical way of learning sequencing: if I've forgotten a key ingredient in a recipe, it's immediately apparent. And I also learned that there was a lot of leeway in recipes for improvisation, which freed me to concentrate on the techniques of them.

And naturally I've gotten a lot of inspiration and instruction from watching cooking shows - haven't we all?.

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My admiration for your accomplishments franklanguage, and thank you for telling us.

The first thing I ever made was baking powder biscuits in home ec.  My father said, with tears in his eyes, that they were just like his mother's, and I was off and running.  I learned by trailing my grandmother and our next-door neighbor, by reading cookbooks, and watching Julia Child.  Like many of my contemporaries, I worked my way through her Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.   I used to give myself courses, in the sense that I would concentrate on fruit tarts,  pastry or bread, or meat stews for weeks or  months at a time. I would generally start with a recipe and then try my own variations in the attempt to improve the result.  I actually cook very little now, but I was very serious about it at one time.  It was a great triumph for me when my grandmother finally admitted that something I made was better than her version of the same thing.

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Learning to cook has been cognitive therapy for me. . . . But in 1981 I had a brain injury and gradually had to re-learn things from scratch. . . . By learning to follow recipes, I was able to tame my frazzled brain and also learn some useful skills . . . .

And naturally I've gotten a lot of inspiration and instruction from watching cooking shows - haven't we all?.

franklanguage -- I, and surely other members, appreciate what you just shared with us.  :raz: I'm gratified you felt comfortable enough with our community to have done so.  I'd have to say that I've never thought about the prospect of a brain injury to me (who would, before it unhappily materialized?). I'm sure you know (and I don't say this because I feel I am in a position to say anything in particular) that, from your activity on the board, I would not have imagined that you had had any difficulties to overcome.  :wink:

Perhaps, in the beginning, you tried simple recipes and success with them helped bolster confidence? When you have a chance, please consider discussing what it was like to move from recipes where the steps were sequential, to those where different things had to be done to different ingredients around the same time.  

Also, which TV shows did you find helpful, and did you record them to aid execution of dishes?

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franklanguage, you could probably tell us a thing or two about modern medicine and so-called pedagogy

cabrales, my mom and grandmother cooked really well [my mom's still living but she's gotten kinda lazy--no kids around anymore?]and it would be understating to say they made it look easy--food appeared on the table, it was always good, they never fretted or sweated or paced, muttering, omigod, what if my pie crust isn't tender.  it always was.  and instead of awakening in me a natural desire to follow along, it made me feel very inept in the kitchen.  for one thing we [i have four sisters] were never asked to help, told to help, forced to help, nada.  but i also felt this deep envy and it was what finally pushed me to want to learn.

to this day one sister doesn't boil water, the other three like to cook some and are sometimes very good cooks, but i turned out to be the food obsessive and maybe most accomplished in the kitchen--not that i am accomplished, but RELATIVELY speaking.  i just had this innate understanding that food rocks the world, it brings people together in the most basic wasy--it holds families [i'm using the term loosely] together, if you will.

so in my early twenties as soon as i  got my own place i started trying to cook.  i never wanted to use recipes and got frustrated a lot.  i cooked with friends sometimes, great fun, but these days i don't have time like i'd like to, and my freinds sure don't.

my husband is a pretty good cook, but like my mom i think he tends to be lazy.  but he taught me how to can and how to bake with yeast, and how to grow my own organic food.  my mom and grandmother canned everything [grandparents lived on a farm] and i never learned from them--i learned from my husband  when i was 27!  is that weird? again, it was the intimidation thing--i think i felt i could never do what my mom and grandmother did--again, it wasn't that they made it look easy--it was like magic.

in addition i have always been a bookworm.  my first love was higglety pigglety pop by sendak--it's about a dog named jennie who can't stop eating--she eats buttermilk pancakes so delicious she swoons--i think that might be me.  my second love was the little princess by frances hodgson burnett.  there's a scullery maid who shares the attic room next to sara's, and when the mysterious man next door discovers the two hapless little girls living next door, he  sends his servant over in the night to furnish their rooms and leave them food, so in the morning they wake to these sumptuous hot steaming breakfasts, aromatic teas, flaky buttery scones and pastries.  i think it was reading that first made me realize the POSSIBILITIES for food.  and now i find that being in the kitchen is very therapeutic.

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so in my early twenties as soon as i  got my own place i started trying to cook.  i never wanted to use recipes and got frustrated a lot.  i cooked with friends sometimes . . .

in addition i have always been a bookworm. . . . i think it was reading that first made me realize the POSSIBILITIES for food.  

stellabella -- When you have a chance, please consider discussing how you tried to cook before your husband aided you. If you did not rely on recipes, how would you go about formulating and preparing a dish? For example, did products inspire you, so that you built your dishes around them and added "reasonable" seasoning and accompaniments?   :wink:

On reading about food, I found it quite revelatory at key points in my relationship with food. My interest is particularly strong for French cuisine, and that made it easier to delve into all sorts of books in that area. I started buying out-of-print books in French on French cuisine and the history of restaurants in France. If I approach learning to cook using recipes, I'd have plenty with which to work.  :wink:  However, classical French techniques appear difficult to learn.

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Perhaps, in the beginning, you tried simple recipes and success with them helped bolster confidence? When you have a chance, please consider discussing what it was like to move from recipes where the steps were sequential, to those where different things had to be done to different ingredients around the same time.
 

Actually, in the very beginning, I cooked like a maniac. :raz: For instance, I baked crazy - and often inedible - cookies in the toaster oven, using ingredients that happened to be in the house. And I generally did - and still do - pretty simple stuff.

Also, which TV shows did you find helpful, and did you record them to aid execution of dishes?

Actually, I didn't record them; when I used to watch cooking shows, I didn't have a VCR - and didn't even take notes. But I can recall a French cooking show on channel 13 I was watching one afternoon, and the woman - I think the show was called "Brigitte Cooks" or something - was doing this sea skate dish. I ran down to the fish market, but alas, they didn't have skate that day. I think I used some kind of filet, but this was over ten years ago.

I still find it challenging to have several concurrent steps going, but fortunately I've learned to look at the whole picture. And I still forget ingredients, but somehow I usually manage to save the dish.

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I have two observations about learning to cook.

First, there is something of a conspiracy of cookbook authors and TV hosts whose goal is to make cooking look easy.  It is easy, compared to some things, but it's not something you can accomplish in a week.  It's more like learning to read or play an acoustic guitar or ride a bike--things that anyone could learn to do, but that take a little time before you feel proficient, and there's always some way to improve your technique.

Second, as in all of those other things, you have to be prepared to make mistakes and throw out whole dishes because you screwed them up.  And you have to be able to say at that point, "Okay, here's what went wrong, and here's what I'm going to do differently next time."  Anticipating problems is a large part of being a good cook, and it's something you can only learn through practice and mistakes.  If you're the kind of person who blames herself when things go wrong (and don't we all have that tendency to some extent?) learning to cook is going to require swallowing your pride along with sips from the tasting spoon.

And thanks for the inspiring story, franklanguage.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I am not quite sure that I can join in this love fest, as although my mother is an estimable cook and my father also, I first got the cooking bug from watching the presenters on Blue Peter ( a long running and still running children's programme in the UK )

The first dish I ever made was from their Annual book and it was a scone pizza.  it looked like a dog's breakfast and Robin still ate it anyway.  That seems to have set the tone for the rest of my life.

I remember trying to make my own butter at the age of 5 and lossening one of my milk teeth when I tried to open the container I was shaking.

I have to say ( wipes tear away ) that the single biggest influence on my culinary efforts and tastes has been Robin, my older brother.  He is richer and has a taste for the very best and the generosity to make sure that others share in his good fortune, so I would visit him as a poor student and be treated to food and wine way beyond my means.  He is a superb cook and now when we prepare meals for each other, we strive to outdo each other.  So for the last Sunday lunch we had together he made pan fried sweetbreads followed by Kleftiko style lamb.  This Sunday I am making my versions of Eyre Bros Mozambique Prawns followed by Porchetta.

He is also the most widely read man on food I have ever encountered.  He can tell you every local ingredient and drink from just about every country in the world.  He has spent six month researching brisket BBQ places for our bonding holiday to Texas and he already probably knows the names of every Maitre' D in New Orleans.

Having someone who has been that obsessed with food from such an early age has been at the heart of my determination to eat everything that there is to eat and cook everything that there is to cook.

As I told in another thread, when we were kids, he told all us siblings that he was God and we had to refer to him by a special name.  A name that becomes increasingly apt as time goes on

THE GREAT SALAMI

S

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I've always been learning how to cook. I am always learning how to cook. I will always be learning how to cook. Then I'll die and cabrales will eat me.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Blue Peter, Simon?  I learnt a lot of things from Valerie, Lesley, Sarah, Janet, et al.  Grew up a lot watching that show.

I was an only child living in a neighborhood with few kids my age (I had friends at school, not a complete outcast!) so I learnt to cook through spending countless idle days hanging out in the kitchen with my mother.  I watched, asked questions, and insisted on trying things.  My mother also learnt hands on (she came from a large family) rather than from books.  She could never tell me cooking times, temperatures or anything like that - she just did it from instinct.  The consequence is that I am equally bad today at giving precise instructions (as anyone might have noticed from my attempts to explain how I cooked dishes on eGullet - it's the "How long do I cook it for?"  "Until it's ready" school of catering).  

There was a distinct second step when I got seriously interested in food and restaurants in my late twenties.  I started trying to recreate restaurant dishes by guesswork.  A long and painful learning curve ensued, and I eventually realised I needed to pick up cookbooks, read recipes, and actually learn certain techniques.  And am still learning.

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I have to say ( wipes tear away ) that the single biggest influence on my culinary efforts and tastes has been Robin, my older brother.  . . . Having someone who has been that obsessed with food from such an early age has been at the heart of my determination to eat everything that there is to eat and cook everything that there is to cook.

Simon -- Was it that Robin's example inspired you to become a good cook, or that Robin was "hands on" teaching you techniques, recipes, flavor combinations, etc.?

Also, is it strange to ask whether a member has been so entralled, upon tasting a single extraordinary dish at a restaurant, that he wants to know how to cook so as to prepare that dish (at a minimum)?  :wink:  (Update: Wilfrid's observations are somewhat responsive to this) Or have people been motivated, in even learning how to cook basics, to pattern their cooking after a particular chef's cuisine (i.e., not Escoffer-type)?

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Calabres

Both

I think the access to "wonderful things" as Canarvon put it, made me appreciate what could be done and to seek out ever better execution of dishes at every level, be it a fry up in a greasy spoon or the most Haute of Haute

I also think Robin's Bengali tendency to criticise in a gentle way has made me strive to be a better cook in my own average way

S

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Simple...  Trial and error.  Many many errors...

First lesson learned: If a little seasoning is good, a whole lot would not necessarily be a whole lot better...

Plus cooking seems to run in my family, my bro was a chef in DC for 25 years.  When I was growing up I was quite a fan of cooking shows, even though I did not cook much at that time, I did help out in the kitchen.  While in college I had to learn to sustain myself.  Soon after getting married my wife got tired of me poking around with the food while preparing dinner and I rapidly became responsible for preparing meals.

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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Also, is it strange to ask whether a member has been so entralled, upon tasting a single extraordinary dish at a restaurant, that he wants to know how to cook so as to prepare that dish (at a minimum)?

May I answer this with a link?  It's something I discussed in my column in the paper last week:  essentially, I was so moved by a simple dish at an Italian restaurant that I had to make it even though I was barely cooking at the time due to a hate-hate relationship with my kitchen.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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my earliest memory would probably bring dyfs to our house nowadays.

i was four years old standing on a chair at the stove and cooking my grandfather's breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast.

so funny since i have been cooking since and was a "betty crocker future homemaker" award winner in my senior year in high school.

i earned the money to go to grad school and support myself and even in my first professional position(an audiovisual librarian at a community college) i proudly displayed my food handler's certificate on the wall because i can always make my living professionally though right now i revel in the fact that i can enjoy my avocation.

Nothing is better than frying in lard.

Nothing.  Do not quote me on this.

 

Linda Ellerbee

Take Big Bites

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Simon, is Robin married?  I know you aren't, but you claim to be a misanthrope. :raz:

Mamster, I agree that though cooking may look simple it often isn't and there's one of the catches [ I commented to you in another thread about the trickiness of hashbrowns].  Cabrales, in my experience, the "simple/basic" foods from my childhood are the ones I have the most trouble with--pie crusts, biscuits, etc--and meat, any kind of meat--I have no idea what to do with meat to this day though I can grill a nice piece of salmon.

I didn't like using recipes at first because I was stubborn and foolhardy :confused: --that's the truth and I now humbly admit it.  I felt that I should be able to cook effortlessly, like it was my due as a result of having good intentions and being descended from a long line of very capable cooks.

But now that I have been cooking in earnest for going on two decades I am becoming what some people call an intuitive cook--I often try building a dish around a certain type of food--two years ago I got on a tofu cook--last year it was quinoa [the best thing I did with it was add some of the cooked grain to a hearty yeasted bread--it was awesome].  I go through phases with foods.

I also am a gardener and therefore into seasonal cooking.  Summers I have lots of free time and do more experimenting.

In the last eight years since I have been with my husband I have gotten to know the wives of his best friends really well and they are the most accomplished creative intuitive cooks I know.  They all live in other states so we visit annually--and during the 3-4 days we spend in each pothers' homes we have food orgies--I literally shadow these women in the kitchen and at one point one of themn even got nervous--she couldn't understadn my enthusiasm--she is pretty modest.

I have learned more from these women than from any other cooks I ahve known.  Recipes and books are great, but there's nothing like observation--it's a great joy to be able to observe a good cook in action. :biggrin:

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I've always been learning how to cook. I am always learning how to cook. I will always be learning how to cook. Then I'll die and cabrales will eat me.

Hmmm...I'm not sure I want to touch that one.

It's an a balic bio thread thing.   :wow:

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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My mother and grandmother were both good cooks, and I think the thing I got from them was an understanding of how food should taste. When I was little I was always hanging out in the kitchen, and my mother would often have me taste things. My earliest cooking memory is making cranberry relish (fresh cranberries, whole oranges, and sugar) for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the pre-Cuisinart era we used a meatgrinder to crush everything, and I would make elaborate dams and levees from kitchen towels to keep the red juice on the counter and off the floor.

When I went off to college and ate the dorm food for a bit, I quickly realized that the only way to eat what I liked was to make it myself. Later, in those shared housing situations we all remember so fondly, cooking was also a way to avoid doing any dishes.

I cooked almost every meal for my family, and that was great training for being able to come home at 5:30 and have something hot on the table in an hour. Now that the boys are almost all out of the house, I have a little more time and can play around a bit.

I have always been interested in food, and I read whatever I can about it. When a new or different ingredient comes along, I like to try different things until I know how it works and when it tastes best. I

For years I would say that cooking is easy, that anybody can do it. But recently I’ve realized that it does take time, as Mamster pointed out, and a willingness to fail. You learn what goes together and how to cook different types of things (and not recipes, but how to take something, like a whole fish, and cook it so it will taste good). A lot of what goes into good food is grunt work, so you also have to willing to peel, chop, slice, sort, clean, and the other mundane prep chores that turn the most basic elements into a meal.

I still read cookbooks and a few of the magazines. If I eat something I really like at a restaurant I’ll try to recreate it at home. Many of my friends are as food-obsessed as I am (in the sense that we love to eat), so we talk about different things we’ve made and how well they came out. I don’t have cable, so don’t see much food tv, but I spend way too much time here....

Jim

olive oil + salt

Real Good Food

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I grew up in a very isolated small town where ethnic food meant spaghetti or lasagna.  My mother tried her very best, but she did most of her cooking using canned vegetables, overcooked meat and starches, and lots of dairy (nothing wrong with that last aspect!).  It wasn't until I went to college in 1981 that I had my first taste of Asian, Mexican and other foods that are now fast food staples.

I also became a basketball manager with the University of North Carolina basketball team and was given the opportunity to travel to exciting places and experience fantastic and new foods.  Greece, Japan, San Francisco, Louisiana, New York and Hawaii were all places where we traveled.  We got to eat in great restaurants.  I remember my senior year when we were playing Maryland and were staying at the Watergate Hotel.  The team was given the choice of receiving the NCAA allowable $25 of meal money or to eat in the hotel's restaurant.  Amazingly, only one other player joined the other two managers to the hotel's restaurant: Jean Louis, which was Jean Louis Palladin's place.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I had no idea what I was ordering, but I told the waiter to surprise me.  It was my first experience with foie gras and truffles.  It knocked my socks off.

That experience gave me the great desire to learn to cook, as I couldn't really afford to eat out much.  Plus, I was starting graduate school.  At that time, I happened to be rooming with a guy who was one of the biggest food snobs in the world.  He drank Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee simply because of its price.  However, he was rather flush with cash -- how he got his money is a mystery to me.  Anyhow, he said that he'd pay for the food if I'd cook it.  Thus, I began to experiment, experiment, experiment.  I cooked rabbit, simply because I had never even eaten it before.  I made my own spice blends from whole seeds.  We'd drive to the coast (2-1/2 hours away) just to get the freshest seafood.  It was a perfect match.

Finally, I realized that not only did I like to cook, but doing so also got me more dates than I had ever gotten before.  There apparently weren't a lot of 24 year old men in Chapel Hill who could cook well back in the late 80s, and my female friends grew in number.  They'd even call me!  This was how I impressed the women who became my wife 10 months later.

Since that time, I've learned to experiment when I can.  I do enjoy reading cookbooks, but rarely use recipes.  They're great for ideas and to help introduce me to new cuisines and styles, but they're just a formula.  Only with a lot of time and experimentation will you be able to get a decent grasp of cooking well.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I'd be interested in hearing particularly about how professional cuisiniers learned how to cook (e.g., Basildog, Steve Klc, Patrice)?  

Are there any other members out there who are as culinarily challenged as I (at least currently) am?  :confused:

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