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Public-Access Gourmet

Learning to cook through borrowed books and daytime TV

by Amy Halloran on May 2, 2013


“When you’re tying up the carrot, be careful that the cheese doesn’t slip out,” my son Felix said from his highchair. He was about 4 or 5, and we were just done with a Saturday afternoon of cooking shows on PBS.

The last one was about stuffing a beef tenderloin with provolone cheese. I had no meat to offer him—and probably would not have given it if I did—but he wanted to test the technique he saw and came up with the carrot as a substitute. We had a giant one in the fridge, and he scored it with a knife, put in pieces of cheddar, and got some string to tie it all together. The whole time he narrated his movements, just like the man on TV. Oh how I wish I had a video of his lesson.

The kid is sure following in my footsteps. I’ve learned a lot of what I do in the kitchen from cooking shows, mostly on public television.

When I was really little, my mom taught me how to bake. I was curious about math, and she taught me on measuring cups. Throughout my youth, I was happy to stick to baking, picking up new recipes in women’s magazines—frozen yogurt in ice cube trays—and from cookbooks I got at the library. Edith’s Sugar Cookies remain a Christmas staple, though I’d be hard pressed to identify which borrowed baking book gave us this gem.

Once I got to college, I realized that I needed to learn to cook to calm my sugar highs. I started vegetarian, cooking for a roommate who was studying for the bar and paid for ingredients. Using thick, dull paperbacks, I tried my hand at no-meat chilis and wheat berry chowder.

The most memorable of these lackluster meals was a round of sweet potato pancakes. More of them landed on the walls than in our stomachs as we belted out our frustrations with the food and our circumstances to Neil Young’s thundering want for the “Cinnamon Girl.” We both wanted out of Plattsburgh, and the lame cakes set the stage for a real mess. Mashed yam or squash pancakes still make me nuts. Why fry a perfectly good mashed orange vegetable and pretend it is more? It never gets far enough away from where it started.

I crept back into eating meat, and learned a little about cooking while working in restaurants, but most of my experience was waitressing, aside from a few jobs manning the fry station. When I moved to Seattle in 1990, I met my true instructor: the tube. Saturday afternoons were crammed with cooking classes on the public station, most of them low-key compared to today’s shows. I loved the quiet pauses between directions; the camera would fix on a simmering pot and you could listen to the stew bubble all by yourself without being told by an overcaffeinated food personality to “Listen to that stew bubbling!”

I loved the relatively manic cooking shows, too. The Frugal Gourmet was a local show with national status, and Jeffrey Smith’s high-pitched voice and evangelical zeal for cooking really caught me. I cooked what I saw, playing with ground pork to make chorizo patties, turning turkey parts into cheap soups. I hated when I got a job that required I work Saturdays. Missing my shows was like sawing off a finger.

But I survived, and I got some facility with foods that were not just a combo of sugar, butter and flour. I kept diving into cookbooks, too: Bert Greene’s two books, Greens and Grains, really taught me a lot. The second book had a few recipes for savory pies and cakes made with semolina. This was the kind of food I loved the most: dinner that seemed like dessert.

I used to feel guilty that I learned to cook from reading and watching. Wasn’t this something I was supposed to learn from my proverbial grandma? Both my grandmothers died when I was young, and one of them really did not like to cook. The other taught me to make and roll pie dough. Had my mother’s mother lived, I would have had stellar instruction. A first-generation American, Eva Zaleska Sweeney knew how to cook from scratch. She also knew the value of prepared foods because she worked full-time outside the home for my mother and uncle’s childhoods.

But my deprivation is not the oddity that this common myth wants me to believe. Cooking skills have been trickling into our kitchens from outside sources for a long, long while. Sometime in the early 1800s, cookbooks started to address an audience of people living in cities, increasingly removed from the processes of growing and handling food. Fannie Farmer’s revolutionary Boston Cooking-School Cookbook standardized measurements when it was published in 1896.

Besides, could my son have made the leap from meat to carrot if he were watching me, or a relative, lashing a tenderloin with string? Maybe not. All hail the television and every single type and style of food instruction in the world.