Recently I needed to make something out of nothing for dinner. Something out of nothing is not my specialty. I long to be the confident cook who looks to the fresh ingredients on the counter for inspiration. But for now I am the antithesis. I look at recipes, make a plan and then shop for ingredients. But on this recent evening shopping was out of the question. So I took a leap and looked in the cupboard for ideas.
Besides the bags of dried fish and nori on reserve for those days when H needs a taste of the homeland, all I found was half a box of pasta and some canned herring filets in oil and black pepper.
The two seemed complimentary but they needed some kind of glue to hold them together. They needed a sauce. I much prefer to lazily thumb cookbooks and plan menus, but I was running late and dinner is my duty so I headed for the Internet to look up a quick white pasta sauce. In the A-B-C’s of white sauces, the first two are Alfredo and Béchamel. Scanning the search results, I came across an intriguing historical note. Béchamel sauce was once the first lesson taught to home economics students. Could it be because it’s so simple? Melt butter. Whisk in flour. Whisk in hot milk and season with salt and pepper.
So how is it that I’m closing in on 34 and I’ve never made a béchamel sauce? Come to think of it, in my long years of schooling, home economics was never offered. I went to Emma Willard, a beacon for women’s education, and I have a diploma from Stanford University. But I’ve never made a béchamel sauce.
I’m a classic example of my generation. For the most part our grandmothers were excellent cooks. Our mothers learned well enough how to navigate the kitchen. They took home economics and watched their mothers’ fluidity in the kitchen. But be it generational rebellion or attention to a career as women entered the work force en mass, they didn’t chose to spend much time in the kitchen. My mom, like so many of her contemporaries, worked hard to free herself and her daughter from the domestic cell.
Now we, their mid-thirties daughters, are better educated than most of the women who came before us in our families. We are a generation who have many professional options open to us. We are doctors, lawyers, bankers, business owners, or at least could be if we chose to. But we are relatively helpless at feeding ourselves well. Sure we can boil pasta, open canned sauces and order take out with the best of them. We might even manage some good grilled meats and vegetables and big salads. But to truly cook from scratch, to stock a refrigerator with whole foods, use them up before they spoil by creating healthful meals day in and day out without repetition and without waste, is a challenge that I and many of my peers, are ill equipped to face.
I spend half of my time in Japan where the same trend of women moving away from the domestic sphere is under way, but delayed by a generation or so. My mother-in-law, at 73, is on the young side of a generation that truly knows how to cook. Her deftness in the kitchen epitomizes frugality and elegance. She makes marvelous home cooked meals of generally 5 to 7 small courses. She buys almost exclusively whole foods and raw ingredients. Her dishes are gorgeous to look at and delicious to eat. And she wastes hardly a scrap of food. Watching her cook, and perhaps more to the point, eating meals at her table, has inspired me to launch myself on a track of emulation. When I am in Japan, I am able to cook with her and learn from her.
But the other half of the year, spent in Maine, I am on my own. I turn to cookbooks, magazines and food blogs for inspiration and education. Like so many of my generation, words about and pictures of food have taken the place of youthful hours in the kitchen with mom. I envy young women of the past who learned to cook before they knew they were learning to cook. But my mother worked hard so that her daughter would have choices and for that I am grateful. So in the spirit of a woman of my times, with infinite choices before me, I am choosing to head into the kitchen.