Industrial Harvest

What happened to the flour, Part 8: grandma’s cooking by sarah kavage

There is something about being a grandmother – once you have fed a couple of generations, you are generally considered to be the font of knowledge in culinary matters.  This email from L made me think of my own grandma, also named Sarah. She was a generous, compassionate person who worked as a supervising nurse at the local hospital back before it was common for women to have jobs outside the home.  She could also play cards, tend a garden, sew a little girl a pink princess dress and COOK, all with an inordinate amount of style.  What I remember best is the homemade pasta – beef ravioli, and on Thanksgiving, egg noodles served with “just a little” butter.  Her spirit has been with me throughout this project.

Whatever the dish, there is something special about a grandma’s cooking that is tough to replicate, as L attests to here.  Not being grandmas, we can only speculate about what that is.  Maybe it’s decades of practice, thrown into sharper relief by a culture obsessed with instant results.  I also suspect there’s some secret magic at work, unknown to us ordinary citizens.

From: L
To: sarah
Sent: Wed, January 5, 2011 5:30:40 PM
Subject: flour project
Hi Sarah,
This has been a long time coming, but better late than never, I hope! Here’s my description and photos of what I baked with the flour.

A summer memory: I baked my baba’s famous pie. She’s always made apple or cherry pies, but since harvest season was upon us, I made an apple and a pear pie with fruit I bought at the farmers market. I shared the apple pie with my community garden at our weekly workday. The pear I served at a barbecue I hosted with my old neighbors gathered in the backyard. (Yes, we heated the pie on the grill!)

pies a la baba

pies a la baba

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

the finished pie (and at least one finished beer)

My baba’s baked goods have been a family tradition since before I was even born. That side of the family lives about 600 miles from where I grew up, so it was a special thing to have her nowhere-else-to-be-found pastries once or twice a year. She’s 88 now and still baking the same sweets I remember from my childhood. I think her baking is even more special to me now, and I haven’t found a pie that tastes better than the kind she bakes from scratch.

I knew I wanted to share my baba’s pie recipe as soon as I read about the Industrial Harvest project. My crust turned out inferior to hers, probably because she’s been baking for decades and bakes by intuition –  she just adds a little of whatever ingredient is needed if the texture isn’t right – but I’ll keep attempting to maintain the baking tradition. Coincidentally, the day I got my flour was also her birthday.

On Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 2:26 PM, sarah wrote:
that’s a really beautiful story. I have so many fond memories of my Grandma in the kitchen (and the garden) too, and am still trying to live up to her culinary legacy.  I would love to share this on the project blog. Is that OK?
Happy new year!

From: L
To: sarah
Date: Fri, January 7, 2011 10:59:52 AM
Subject: Re: flour project
Thank you! That would be great to have the story posted on the blog. Yes, my baba was also an avid gardener in her more energetic days (that’s another trait I inherited from her). There really is something to a grandma’s baking – I think one actually has to be a grandma in order to achieve that level of skill with combining ingredients. There’s a real comfort in those foods.

Happy new year to you, too. I’m so glad that I was a part of this project!


Eat-In by sarah kavage
February 22, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: Food Geography & Culture | Tags: , , , ,

Posted by Sarah

Inspired by this book (in which the author ate no meals out for 2 years – in NYC!), the Huffington Post has declared this week (Feb 22-28) The Week of Eating In.  

I love to cook.  I don’t consider myself any sort of gourmand or foodie, just a utiliarian cook with a healthy appetite.  I love eating food, and over the years I’ve gotten pickier about what I eat, what’s in it, and how it tastes.  At the same time, years of practice have made me a better cook – not to brag, but I feel like I can usually make a better meal than I can eat in a restaurant.  But to stop eating out, even for a week, seems practically impossible. 

My husband and I have been trying to save money these days, so we’ve actively cut down from eating out 3 times a week or more to 1 or 2.  That seems like a lot, so in my own defense I must add that my husband has a huge appetite and we both work at home.  I make most everything from scratch and have also started to learn to make even more of the few prepared food items that I would otherwise buy (largely bread products, thanks to artistic motivations).  So all in all, I’m preparing food 2-3 times a day – that’s a lot of time at the stove.  I’ve started to suspect that all this time in the kitchen is at the root of my nagging back pain, and am beginning to relate to farm wives and parents with large families all too well (although I’ve got it pretty good – my husband has to keep up with the dishes!). 

Eating out, for us, now happens mostly on occasions where we’re 1) too tired or lazy to cook/clean up, 2) away from home and hungry, 3) unprepared (if the folks at the Huffington Post had asked me, I’d have told them to wait to start Eat-In Week till I had time to make a run to the store).  Most of the time, lack of preparation is what does us in – and is also, at times, at the root of #1 and #2.  An empty fridge means a shopping trip before you can even start to cook, and if you’re tired and you already burned one pot of beans and you have to walk right by the Thai place on the way to the grocery store, what do you think you’d do?  Hypothetically, of course. 

Our primary motivation for eating out, therefore, is function and convenience – which puts us right in synch with the American consumer.  Eating out used to be a luxury, something reserved for birthdays and family visits.  Eating out as convenience has boomed over the last 30-40 years – to the extent that according to this 2006 survey (check out the other results, too – they’re quite interesting), two-thirds of respondents eat out at least once a week.  Half of those (one third the total) eat out about once a week and the other half (again, one third the total) eat out twice a week or more.  

The explosion in restaurant dining may also bear some responsibility for the obesity/diabetes epidemic.  Although fast food restaurants are easy to demonize, all restaurant chefs know the secret of making things delicious:  add salt, sugar and fat.  We’ve all seen the statistics on Chinese food and movie popcorn, but there’s some evidence that in fact there may be little nutritional difference between other restaurant food and fast food.  Another recent (and easier to read) analysis by Consumer Reports found that eating out (at any restaurant, not just fast food) was one of the six health behaviors most likely to predict unhealthy body weights.

To me, the potential health impacts and restoring a more direct relationship to our food are really minor factors in why we should all try to cook more.  What’s important is that cooking is one of those undervalued activities lumped under “housework.”  Although it’s certainly work, any granny can tell you that cooking is also a way to express creativity and caring.  Take pride in this work!  Bad things happen to a culture when people stop valuing their own handiwork and start relying on “specialists” to produce it.  So even though I don’t know if I’ll jump on the Week of Eating In bandwagon (as noted previously, my act is not quite together this week) I applaud the effort, and I’m with it in spirit. 
OK, time to go make dinner…