I woke up this morning and…cooked.
I’m a terrible cook. Good cooks think it’s impossible for anyone to be a terrible cook, because “all you have to do is follow directions.” It’s invisible to them how much of any recipe is assumed knowledge. And aptitude! For instance, this morning I prepared the red beans part of a red beans and rice sauce for the slow cooker, and it started off having me cook chopped onions for eight minutes in 1/4 cup of “vegetable oil.” I used olive oil, because it’s what I had. Olives are vegetables, right? One hour later, a vague memory glinted through my brain-pan like a ray of the setting sun after an overcast day…didn’t I read someplace once that you shouldn’t sauté in olive oil? A cook would know. I have no idea.
And then there’s “…to taste.” (That’s the aptitude part. I’m a good photographic printmaker mainly because I’m very good at perceiving small visual differences and I have settled and well-established ideas as to what a print should look like. Good cooks can perceive small differences in taste and have settled and well-established ideas about what tastes good and what doesn’t.) Many recipes tell you to add ingredients or spices “to taste.” Well, I’m bad at tasting (and I was bad at it even before COVID-19). I have no idea what “to taste” means. Or rather, it means little to me. Vague instructions like “add 1/2 to 1 tsp. sage (optional)” are useless, and maddening, as well. (I flipped a coin and added it.)
I’m trying a couple of other things to help myself with cooking. One is to clean up right away. Historically, when I cook, the kitchen is a mess for hours and maybe days afterward, which is a bummer. Cleaning up right away is meant to break that association. Another observation is that cooking makes me tense. So I’ve been trying to relax and take it easy when I cook. Don’t stress out; try to enjoy it; don’t get mad; don’t yell at the dog; no swearing; don’t allow the feelings of tension in my innards to rise. Breathe. Let’s just say I’m working on it.
Why are we fat?
A really interesting new article in the Times (remember I’m American—”the Times” means the New York Times) yesterday talks about a scientific meeting at the Royal Society (now that would be Great Britain) called “Causes of obesity: theories, conjectures, and evidence.” Turns out that researchers have no idea why everybody’s getting fat, but they know one thing that isn’t to blame: us.
“The three-day meeting was infused with an implicit understanding of what obesity is not: a personal failing. No presenter argued that humans collectively lost willpower around the 1980s, when obesity rates took off, first in high-income countries, then in much of the rest of the world. Not a single scientist said our genes changed in that short time. Laziness, gluttony and sloth were not referred to as obesity’s helpers. In stark contrast to a prevailing societal view of obesity, which assumes people have full control over their body size, they didn’t blame individuals for their condition, the same way we don’t blame people suffering from the effects of undernutrition, like stunting and wasting.”
Starting in 1980, people started to get fatter. Not only are people in every single state in the U.S.A. fatter now, but the people in the slimmest State, Colorado, are on average fatter than the people in the fattest State in the Union, Mississippi, were in 1970. The article claims that the standard trope, “eat less, exercise more” is as useless as “take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” Are we obese because we don’t eat less? In these 40 years since 1980, our pets have gotten fatter. Are we obese because we don’t exercise more? Marathoner runners now are heavier on average than they were in 1970. The trend is global, and pervasive. Not a single country in the world has been able to reverse it. Not a single demographic or ethnic group has escaped. As popular as the idea of “personal responsibility” is—we are very much in love with the idea that we’re in control—that ain’t it.
Personally, my experience aligns with the scientists who argued that “the problem is less about what we’re eating and more about what we’re not.” In more than nine years of experimenting with my diet, what I’ve learned is that the body needs plants. Plants are overwhelmingly what humans ate for two hundred thousand years; it’s the diet we evolved to fit. Plants are compounds that contain hundreds if not thousands of phytochemicals in complicated combinations. Many of them are simply things our bodies are adapted to use, and that we need. When I’m able to eat a sound diet of the seven healthiest foods, I don’t have to regulate how much I eat, and I both lose weight and am less hungry. But what do I know?
I still struggle, because I’m a sugar and alcohol addict. And lax, if I’m honest.
And, well, a terrible cook.
Sad UPDATE, the next day: The red beans and rice was very tasty—I had one large helping once it was done. But…unfortunately I somehow neglected to turn the slow cooker off. I don’t know how I did that. But it ended up being cooked for an additional eight hours, to a total of 15. It did not survive this mistreatment, and I threw it all away this morning. 🙁
But at least I know how to make it now. And now I finally know how a dishwasher works, thanks to Aakin! (I know, “RTFM.”)
Featured Comments from:
Brian O’Connor (partial comment): “Most processed ‘foods’ including sucrose (sugar) are not actual food. So a critical thing to figure out is ‘what is food?’”
Mike Ferron: “Maybe I am wrong but the answer seems simple to me. In 1970 there were far fewer fast food restaurants available to most of us and we mostly ate at home. Not all the foods we ate at home were healthy but still we consumed more quality foods than we do now. Obesity is now an accepted standard here in the USA. Just watching the folks at work, especially the young ones raid the snack machine full of sugary junk washing that junk down with monster drinks and coffee drinks with whip cream or eating 1000 calories worth of fried food from the place across the parking lot reveals the truth. I encourage all to spend time studying healthy nutrition.”
chris_scl: “There is sincerely no problem at all in using olive oil for sautéing. So, yeah, just relax and enjoy your cooking!”
Chris H: “An entertaining and thought provoking read! I’m a good cook. Possibly the greatest, in my humble opinion. One big stressor at play for cooking (and many other endeavors) is not allowing enough time for the job, and being rushed at the outset. I’m not sure what kind of superhuman can actually prep and cook a meal in the time frames quoted in a typical recipe, but I suspect those are all complete lies. Yeah, if you’re on your game and have a few repetitions of a dish in your past then you can get there or close. Otherwise it’s like looking at the distance times of a professional runner—not good for the ego. Taking the relaxed approach, as you say, and as part of that leaving plenty of time for the job, helps a bunch in my book.”
Jay: “I’ve recently moved back to the USA after almost 30 years in Europe, mostly in Spain. Portion sizes here are approximately double and there is much higher consumption of fast food and packaged foods. There are basically no obese children in Spain and adults are generally thin or moderately overweight. You may draw your own conclusions….”
Benjamin Marks: “I have often thought that cookbooks are a good example of the limits of language for certain practical purposes. You can read the instruction, ‘Brown the onions in a saucepan over a medium flame until carmelized.’ But almost every noun and adjective in that sentence requires the cook to already know the punchline to the joke. To follow those instructions, you need to already have an intuitive feel for (or practical experience with) the following: What type of onion, how finely chopped, how fresh? Browned in oil? What type? Or in butter? How thick is the bottom of your saucepan and what’s it made of? What fuel makes your fire (propane does not burn as hot as natural gas, and not all stovetops are created equal)? Then how do you know the distinction between ‘carmelized’ and ‘burnt’? I feel for ya Mike! But don’t take it too hard. The cookbooks are stacked against ya.”
Kye Wood: “I’m stealing your genius. Anything optional from now on will get the coin flip arbiters decision.”
Christopher Perez (partial comment): “Living in Europe, I can tell an American with 80 to 90 percent accuracy simply by body shape. Americans carry weight differently than, say, other overweight nations, like England. Most Americans I see here could be considered overweight.”
Graham: “Mike—olive oil is perfect. In our house we virtually never use anything else, unless there is a specific (flavor) reason. Ditto for the entire country of Spain. And most of Italy.
“Cooking together has been the foundation of most of my friendships in adult life, not by design but by default, and for my wife and me it is a way of life.
“I find that by far the most important thing for good results is to use the best ingredients. This is hugely important, to the extent that I buy based on what looks good rather than what I had in mind. You won’t find this at chain stores or even most grocers; it really means getting to know the vendors at your local farmers markets on a first-name basis and enjoying the shopping process itself. I’ve only ever found one grocer that can rival the markets, blessedly close to us here in San Francisco—and I can go there just to enjoy being there, even if I don’t need anything.
“Other things that make a big difference for me are 1.) cooking with music, and 2.) cleaning up while cooking, always and immediately, every little thing (I don’t even like leaving things out to dry).
“Some of the chefs I’ve learned the most from focus on technique—Pepin, for example, says you really have to learn to use a knife so that you can cook with speed—if you get slowed down it all falls apart. Thomas Keller recommmends practicing pinching salt so that you know how much is in each pinch, again so that you don’t get slowed down measuring things. He’s also honest in saying that he can’t tell you how much oil to put in the pan—’you just have to know that,’ he would say.
“Lastly, I’d offer that I find it quite hard to cook only for myself. The social aspect is part of the cooking for me, and vice-versa. So many happy memories.”
Stan B.: “I remember looking at photographs of ‘circus freaks’ in the seventies, wondering how it was possible for human beings to ever get that large. Now you see people who easily surpass their size on any given day, on any given block in any given city or town.”
Dogman: “During my first photography job at a weekly newspaper, I virtually lived on red beans and rice. A little sausage tossed in right after payday. Seasoned with a liberal amount of Tabasco or other hot sauce, it was always tasty and satisfying. There was also lots of cheap beer available in those days to keep it company. Ah, memories! How did I survive?