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The Necessity of Home-Cooked Food


According to the US Census Bureau, our city has slightly fewer than 280,000 people living within its limits. This doesn’t shock me; the writing’s been on the wall for a while. But what did surprise me was another statistic I read elsewhere: Nationally, seven percent of Americans eat at McDonald’s every day. In reference to our small region, this translates to 19,600 people eating under the golden arches every single day. That is a lot of people.

CBS News claims that one in four Americans eat at fast food restaurants each day. Their Web site offers the results of a poll they conducted with more than 600 adults, which lists the 11 most common reasons people eat at fast food restaurants. The first is obvious: because it’s fast. Being a professional cook, I found the third reason a little disheartening: because they liked the flavor. The fifth reason—“I’m too busy too cook”—was also disappointing. Speed, the very activity of our daily lives, seems to plague many of us, myself included.

I found particularly discouraging the information at the Web site of the Society for Food Science and Technology. They say that while three quarters of our nation’s adults eat their evening meal at home, this number continues to decline…and just because it was eaten at home doesn’t necessarily mean that it was prepared there. They say that only 32 percent of us prepare our evening meals at home.

100 Percent Whole Wheat Bread

Makes 2 loaves

6 cups whole wheat flour, divided
2 1/4 cups water, divided
1 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup honey
3 teaspoons instant yeast, divided

Separate the ingredients in two bowls using this ratio: In one bowl combine 4 cups of flour, 1 1/4 cups water, along with all of the yogurt and salt. Stir it just until combined; cover with plastic wrap and set aside. In a second bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups flour and 1 cup water with the olive oil, honey, and 2 teaspoons of yeast. Stir it just until combined; cover with plastic wrap and set aside. Allow the bowls to rest for at least an hour, but up to 12.

Add the remaining teaspoon yeast and the contents of both bowls to an upright electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead the dough on medium speed for about 8 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for one hour.

Transfer the dough to a work surface, cut it into two pieces, gently shape it into loaves, and place the loaves into oiled loaf pans. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 45 minutes. Preheat an oven to 400F.

Bake the bread for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on. Remove the bread from their pans and allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing.

When I first graduated from culinary school, I took a job as saucier at a large hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, but I’ll never forget the sous chef. She was talented and personable enough, but her favorite food was fast food, McDonald’s to be exact. Her liking of the stuff was so great that after one particularly grueling evening she gave the cooks bags of Chicken McNuggets as “rewards.” I didn’t find them very rewarding. The arroz con pollo that the dishwashers were eating was far more interesting to me. How, I thought, could a person in charge of something like 40 cooks, and who had access to food storages the size of a small warehouse, want to eat fast food? This was 1986, and unbeknownst to me—or to most people in the world for that matter—a food movement had begun; it would eventually be called Slow Food.

Codfish and Chickpea Ragout

Serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon seas salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
4 anchovy fillets
4 small red-skinned potatoes, quartered
1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes (14 oz. can)
1 1/2 cup chickpeas (15 oz. can), rinsed
1 cup clam juice
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 pounds codfish, diced
1 bunch chives, minced

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet. Add the onion and pepper; sauté a minute or two. Add the garlic, fennel, basil, salt, hot pepper, and saffron; sauté another minute. Add the anchovy and potato; stir to mash the anchovy and coat the potato with the flavors. Stir in the tomatoes, chick peas, clam juice, water, and white wine. Bring to a boil, then lower to a slow simmer; cook for about 10 minutes. Add the fish, gently pushing it below the surface of the ragout. Simmer an additional 5 or 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the chives; let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Slow Food, like many things, began as a reaction. People were becoming upset—irate even—over the homogenization of foods and cultures in the world, and thus it came the great day in 1986 when Carlo Petrini became fed up with the ever-encroaching fast food restaurant. The notion of a McDonald’s being built near the Spanish Steps in Rome was the last straw, and he organized a protest. Armed with nothing more than frustration and bowls of steaming penne, he and his supporters started a movement that would eventually circle the globe. Three years later Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement, which renounced not only fast food but also the fast pace dictates our lives. Since then, the movement has gained followers and chapters around the globe, which includes a Buffalo chapter. And it’s still growing.

If the movement could be distilled into a single word it would be life. Slow food is about the enjoyment of life through food and culture. It’s about good, wholesome food, and advocates the return of traditional recipes, locally grown foods, and eating as a social event. The sometimes-caustic environment of a fast food restaurant (or fast food eaten in a car, or processed food eaten in front of a television) promotes none of this.

Processed foods have become so embedded into our culture that it is difficult to imagine their absence. In part this is due to today’s hectic lifestyle, but mostly, I think, it’s because media convince us that we need them and that we can’t cook from scratch for ourselves. This is far from true. Resources for the home cook have never been greater than they are today. Recipes on the internet are seemingly infinite, new cookbooks are published daily, the Food Channel blares 24 hours, and grocery stores are packed full…but fast, processed foods (and those prepared outside the home) are still consumed more than ever before.

This is what I thought about while I sat on a pile of two-by-fours in my living room while drinking coffee on a recent, chilly spring morning. You may wonder why I was sitting on a pile of wood in my living room. It was my day off and I was contemplating work I was to do on my house, and also thinking about what I would eat.

I am not immune to takeout food; I eat more pizza and Chinese takeout than I care to mention. But one of my greatest pleasures is to cook at home. Cooking at my job is often bustling, stressful, and in large quantity; cooking at home, most often for just my son and me, is relaxing. Facing the stove while sipping a glass of wine and listening to the radio is, in my view, a great way to spend part of the evening.

After draining my coffee cup I went to the kitchen for another. While there I put together a batch of bread, which I had started the prior evening. While the dough mixed I considered my meal options. Sometimes I find it odd, or at least a little paradoxical, that I enjoy cooking but harbor a certain disdain for grocery shopping. Surveying my small kitchen for ingredients is not unlike an exit exam at a culinary school: You’re handed a few meager things and told to make something grand.

My small pantry held canned chickpeas, tomatoes, anchovies, and jar of clam juice; in my freezer I found a couple pieces of frozen cod. There were also a few vegetables and a couple small potatoes. I tend to cook a lot of one-pot meals, and the thought of fish ragout came to mind, so I set the fish on a plate to thaw. Then I transferred the bread dough to a bowl, started another pot of coffee, and went about the business of reconstructing a stairway, stopping only to shape loaves of bread and then bake them while I ate lunch.

In 1999 the small farming community of Millau, France, was outraged when they learned that McDonald’s was planning to open a restaurant in their village (their outrage was aggravated by a recent hike in import duties America imposed on locally produced Roquefort cheese), so they formed a rally at the half-built restaurant. Some went so far as to dismantle the restaurant and drive through town with it on their trucks, like a float, with crowds cheering. Leading the protest was José Bové, a local sheep farmer and activist. He and fellow farmer, Francois Dufour, chronicle this and other thoughts in their book, The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food. I once listened to a radio interview with Monsieur Bové. In closing, the interviewer asked him what he was going to eat for dinner that evening. Keep in mind that he lives in southwest France, the land of foie gras and duck confit. He replied with one word: “Carrots.”

That evening when I sat down to eat I was home alone. As I sat in front of my bowl of stew, I felt thankful for the ability and inspiration to cook, and also for being able to perform minor construction jobs. As I reached for a piece of bread there was still sawdust on my hand, and I thought of the similarities of my tasks that day. In both, I am somewhat rustic. The food that I cook is not meticulously manipulated (at home or in restaurants), and if you were to walk into my house and see my construction you would probably not exclaim at its fine craftsmanship. Both are utilitarian and at the same time pleasurable to me.

The stew was delicious, and leftovers the next day were even better. It tasted of fish and was slightly redolent of garlic, fennel, and chilies; there was an underlying flavor of anchovy that you probably could not name unless you had cooked the dish. The bread, made with whole wheat flour, tasted almost nutty and had a slightly sour flavor from fermenting the night before; while not warm, it was perfectly fresh. The house smelled of the food that I had cooked and the varnish I used on the railings. The food tasted good, and as I ate I contemplated the similarities again: Both tasks fed me. The new railings, of course, were a more lasting example, but the food, which was more temporary, fed my real house—the body I currently inhabit. That could never have happened at a fast food restaurant.

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