Intro to Adventures in Cooking

It’s weird how one event can turn into an idea for a blog post, and then, as you start to really think it through, balloons out into a series.

This all started with a rotisserie chicken.

As I started figuring out what I wanted to say about what Mister Tea and I were doing with that chicken, I realized I should probably start at the beginning.

Depending on who you are, how and where you were raised, and what life experience you’ve had since – this may not be new information.

However, one of the things I’ve learned from things people have said while watching me deal with food or when discussing cooking with me, it is that a lot of what I take for granted as normal and basic knowledge….  isn’t, actually normal and basic.

I spent most of my high school years living with my grandparents – both of whom had lived through the Depression at an age old enough to have memories of it.  In my grandmother’s case, she had tales from both the before and the after.

She knew both what it was like to take food and other necessities for life for granted, and what it was like to have to make every asset stretch until it achieved translucence.

I learned a lot in her kitchen.  (Not all of these lessons had to do with cooking, but it is strange how much the approach to something so regular-everyday can also apply to other facets of life.)

"Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love. -Craig Claiburne" Quote on a blue background in white text.

Lesson 1:  Gramma Wisdom

One of her strongest suggestions, which came up from time to time over the years I lived with them, and was restressed before I left for college – was to have a stock of herbs and spices.

“When you have a little extra, invest in spices.  They last for a long time, and can turn even the most basic of foods into something you actually want to eat.”

She was right.

I thank her for that lesson.  Mister Tea does, too.  It is one of the components that lead to his occasional commentary on how spoiled he is.

Having an array of herbs and spices on hand means that even if you have to use the same foundational ingredients over and over and over again, you can vary what they taste like.  (The herbalist in me notes that you can also choose some supplemental health benefits.)

When we adopted our Domino, it was this piece of my grandmother’s advice that kept us going through a month or two that started as chicken and rice and ended up just being rice – without any food angst.

A spice plant, with a couple of piles and a couple of glass bowls of other spices around it.

The “have a well stocked spice cabinet” goes beyond the ones you know well and are easily comfortable with, too.  Approaching new tastes and figuring out how to integrate them may seem intimidating, but you won’t regret the end results.  The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more sorts of work you can do.

Lesson 2:  Grampa Wisdom

Speaking of tools in the toolbox, we come to the primary lesson my grandfather taught me in regards to cooking.

The things you cook in and on and what you prep things with are important.  Quality in your cookware and knives helps significantly.  Learning how to care for your tools is equally important.  A good cutting board can last for what seems like forever, if properly cared for. We have one that’s been around for almost as long as Mister Tea and I have been together, and it was a well-loved and used board when we acquired it.

However, properly cared for is the key.  Cast iron cookware, bamboo or wooden boards and spoons – these will all serve you well and for a long time – but there is a time cost for maintenance.  As a spoonie, it has sometimes been quite hard.

The lesson as my grandfather put it forth, was more encompassing than just dealing with food in the kitchen.

The basic premise was, if you can acquire good tools that will last you, replacement stops being an issue.  He applied this to all areas of work, and also to a few other notable things – like shoes.

I know it can be far from possible to just purchase decent tools new, depending on where you fall in the financial maelstrom – as most of us don’t hang out in that legendary calm in the center.

However, there are ways other than purchasing things new.  I more than understand that looking at the price tags on shiny new equipment in a cooking supply store, or even in a Target or a Walmart or the equivalent…. can provoke a – jumping back in shock or slowly backing away – kind of response.

An onion on its side on a cutting board, with a few slices cut off and fanned slightly, the knife laid across the cutting board nearby.

My first cast iron pan was mailed to me as part of an  “assistance with proper adulting” kit my grandparents sent me after I had access to a kitchen.  (When I was living in the dorms, the kitchens were out of order, so I had to make do with the many things you can make in a coffee pot.)  The second and third were thrift store finds.  My best cutting board was a garage sale find.  My first decent kitchen knives came in that same adulting kit, the first full set of good ones was a barter-trade with a roomate for rent.  Our electric skillet and slow-cooker were gifts – though I have seen both (in tested working order) at thrift stores.

Craigslist, garage sales, church sales…  even wandering around in an area with a middle to high income bracket and investigating the things set out as garbage…  It is amazing what people will throw away.

Sadly, acquiring good tools is time and energy intensive, if you are consistently low on funds.  But if you can shake loose the time and energy, it is worth it.

Lesson 3: Figured out along the way

Last part of my basic advice for approaching your kitchen and cooking is to use the highest quality ingredients you can afford.

Not in the truffle oil and living baby octopus kind of way – in the caliber of the basic foods you use everyday.

Try to eschew highly processed ingredients, or a list of chemicals so long you aren’t sure if any actual plant or animal was involved in the making of what is inside the package.  Go organic when and if you can.  Choose humane and ethical treatment for animals, choose sustainable agriculture, choose supporting local farmers.

When you can.  To whatever extent you can.

Before my MCAS kicked into high gear, we were in a far less stable financial circumstance.  I’ve worked with the dented sale cans of fruits and veggies – I’ve haunted the “you will have to use this tonight or it will make you sick” meat section.  We’ve had time periods of figuring out how to make decent meals out of what the food pantry had this month – so I know there isn’t always an option to make the better choices.

After the MCAS we didn’t really have a choice.  Since I’m still sort of attached to the whole being alive bit.  Which requires eating.  Our circumstances had improved enough by then that I could mostly work around my irritating dietary restrictions – as long as we didn’t try to handle much other than the absolute basics of life.

I don’t bring this concept up because it is necessary for me and thus I feel is should be necessary for everyone.  I bring it up because of the change in Mister Tea’s health due to my dietary restrictions.

Necessary for me, but beneficial for him, as well.

And since the act of eating food isn’t something any of us can really get away from, I think it should have the most positive impact on your life that is possible.

"Food is essential to life; therefore make it good. S. Truett Cathy" words black on white, with some vegetables to the side of it.

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