In my childhood, dinner began with peeling the potatoes. We had three cookbooks, if you count my mother’s dog-eared paperback called “The I Hate to Cook Cookbook.” The other two were Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker. Meals were simple: meat, the potatoes (always boiled), and a vegetable (usually canned). There were rules about eating the vegetables first.
At holidays we really cooked good food. The Joy of Cooking got its workout. There were also Christmas cookies like Lebkuchen, passed on from my mother’s German grandmother. This was inspiring, full of flavor and history.
When I was 10 my mother hung up her apron and spoon and announced that she was quitting the kitchen, and it was our turn. She doesn’t remember it like this, but I have a strong physical sensation of the event. (In her version, we pushed her out of the kitchen and took over). Luckily, I had an older sister up first, so I was reprieved for a few years, during which I strategized.
No more potatoes, for a start. My father disapproved of the rice on his plate, but I was just beginning. I studied the Joy, reading sections on food cuts, vegetable types, and preparation techniques. I planned menus like Chicken Cacciatore with pasta and Lemon Pudding Cake. I waged war on canned peas. I made bread, starting with my mother’s favorite recipe from the Joy, then on to the whole wheat version. I rejected margarine.
In retrospect, it was a kind of quest for Food Truth. At this time the seduction of “new” food, like cake mixes and Shake ‘n Bake, was high. I personally didn’t get it – could people not actually taste that something dry out of a box, mixed with water and one egg, ends up still tasting like the box? I missed the whole transition to processed food, and fell out of fashion.
Instead I made bread every Thursday in my college apartment, slathering it while hot with real butter. I added more Food Rules – no canned vegetables of any kind, except tomatoes. (That was before I got a canner and started to put them up myself.) Nothing I couldn’t spell or understand. No MSG. Everything from scratch, from the combination of Indian spices in a curry to the Christmas pudding.
As a mother my implementation of my Food Rules was stiffly challenged. I was fanatically anti-formula, freezing gallons of little bags of breast milk for baby cereal. While Katy was Food Rule compatible, Abby was rebellious. She refused the baby cereal, and continued to do so until she could pick up and eat her own food. I abandoned the Food Rule against processed box cereal, and gave her Cheerios. At the age of 6, she developed a love of hot dogs. Hot Dogs! I couldn’t even manage the nausea of cooking them – her father taught her how to use the microwave and cook them herself. I still shudder.
I felt that I was losing ground. In a strategic counterattack, I tried the use of Interest to spark up my real food. It worked with travel, why not food? I explored all kinds of cultural cuisine. Katy in particular is still brutal about my Mole Period, during which I triggered my own asthma by the searing of dry chilies. She claims that mole covered everything for months, but that’s not my version.
Suddenly there was a pivot point when the girls were in college. Katy asked for a compilation of family home recipes to make nutritious soups. Abby told me she read a book on genetically modified food. She became adamant about genetically modified food and the practices of the industry. She started sending me reading references and recommended a documentary. Independently, Katy’s good food love and extraordinary chemistry background began focusing on high nutrient value and great taste. The conversion of events seemed like we’d had a united front all along; suddenly my Food Rules looked like a trend.
The truth is I’ve just been a purist, and until I started learning from Abby, Food Rules was primarily about having a good product. Now I see that my Food Rules need to be as much about health and sustainability, and go way beyond my own kitchen.