I never took home economics classes in high school. Even if I had wanted to – and I didn’t – my mother would have talked me out of it.
“Anyone who can read,” she used to say, “can learn to cook or sew.” It was not lost on me that learning how to read – not to mention how to think – was more important than learning how to be a domestic goddess.
I don’t regret this decision. It’s true that I’m not much of a seamstress, and it’s probable that a sewing class would improve my skill. There are tricks people can show you that aren’t found on patterns.
Cooking, though, can be learned from good cookbooks, as long as you’re willing to take risks, try new things, and accept that not everything you make is going to be tasty.
The other night we had oyster stew for dinner. That sounds intimidating, but actually it’s an easy thing to make. All it takes is some oysters, milk, cream, spinach and onion. (So, OK, I threw mushrooms and potatoes in there too, because why not include other things that make a good cream soup in with the oysters.)
The only hard part about oyster stew is getting the damn oysters out of the shell. I wouldn’t have bought them on purpose, but we get a delivery from a sustainable fish group every other week and, as with community supported agriculture food boxes, we don’t get a say in what we get. And their oysters come in the shell.
Since I love oysters, I was motivated to figure out how to open them, though I’m still far from mastering this skill. It takes me too long. No way I’d make it as an oyster shucker at an oyster bar. But the oyster stew was delicious.
Here’s the thing: Once you figure out how to do one or two things in the kitchen that seem incredibly complicated, you get up the nerve to try something new. And that’s how I learned to cook.
What put me over the top and made me willing to try almost anything in the kitchen was baking cakes.
Understand, the only cakes my mother ever made came in a box from Betty Crocker. I have no childhood memory of cakes from scratch. If they were so hard to make that people bought special boxes, I figured they must be very hard indeed. Intimidating.
But during the fall of my last year in college I was essentially living alone. I had a housemate who came home to sleep every once in awhile, but mostly he just stored stuff at the house and stayed with girlfriends or stayed up all night playing bridge in cafes. I was cooking for one.
So I got out my copy of the Joy of Cooking – a book I bought for myself in hardback – and turned to cakes. I figured if I could learn to bake cakes, I could do anything.
And I was right. My cakes were never beautiful – not works of art like the ones Madeleine Robins makes – but they were tasty. And the process of figuring things out got me over the hump.
I progressed to soufflés. To quiches. To stir fries and curries and noodle dishes from a variety of cultures. To – most recently – oyster stew.
I can bake all varieties of bread, from quick breads to yeasted loaves. (This week’s cornbread, made with yogurt instead of buttermilk, was especially tasty.)
My mother did teach me a few things, though she hated cooking herself. I learned to make and dress a salad at an early age, because my mother was good at that and taught us how. To this day, I am appalled when someone’s idea of salad dressing is a bunch of store-bought bottles on the table.
She taught me how to cook dried beans from scratch, too. But most of what I know how to do has come from trial and error over the years.
Living in group houses also helped. In most of them, we each cooked one meal a week. Often when it was my turn there was a refrigerator full of odds and ends and a lot of leftovers. We were students and mostly broke, so those things needed to be turned into meals. I got very good at that.
These days we do a lot of our shopping at the farmer’s market. I love wandering around, looking at the vegetables and coming up with tasty ways of putting them together.
I have no regrets about skipping home ec. But over the years, I have found myself wishing I’d taken shop. It would be handy to know how to handle carpentry and metal working tools.
Those skills, like sewing, are easier to learn when someone – preferably someone patient – shows you how to do things. Reading will only get you so far.
Of course, back in the day girls couldn’t take shop. I’m pretty sure home ec and shop were both intended to make sure girls and boys knew what they were, and were not, supposed to do.
Which is, of course, the real reason my mother objected to home ec.