Food Times

A reflection on food by the best-selling author of the Fix It and Forget It cookbook series.

I think a lot about food, ironically. It’s become a big part of my day job. Not that I planned it to be this way.

I have always loved to eat. But I had blissfully little interest in how food arrived on our table when I was a kid. I knew the minimum about the mechanics.

A bit of background

I grew up with plentiful food, and in the company of great cooks—my mother and dad, and two round grandmothers. Nothing seemed unusual about that; I assumed that’s the way the world worked.

We had a garden, as did my grandparents who lived beside us. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of garden days, when Grandma and Grandpa, my mother, my brother, and I shelled beans or silked corn. Dad had picked the vegetables early in the morning before going off to work. Had any of us done the work alone, it would have been pure drudgery. But we set up in the shade on the porch, where we entertained each other with stories and contests and word games as we emptied the bushel baskets.

We ended each summer with a packed freezer and filled canning shelves. Nearly every weekend of the year, we shared food with friends or extended family. My dad made us hot breakfasts and packed our lunches. My mother made from-scratch suppers, often cooking extra to run over to her parents next door as they aged. She worked nearly full-time as we kids got older, but I don’t recall any drop-off in our home-cooked meals.

Mysteriously, I don’t remember cooking. At all. I dusted. I ironed. I did dishes. But I perfected a disappearing act with my beloved books when it was time to fix food. I was either so clumsy, or such an effective drag on the process, that my mother gave up and involved my younger brother instead. I remember when he asked for a stool for Christmas, expressly to watch things cook on the stovetop, and then to stir as he got older. I preferred to read.

I loved food. But I was never drawn to making it. I remember that my mother pressed me to at least copy some of my favorite recipes during the summer that Merle and I got married. I did it, but with resistance. Her best friend gave us a set of cookbooks for a wedding gift. I suspect that she had let slip her worries about what Merle and I would eat when we were on our own.

Merle did know how to cook. And I mean everything. One of seven boys, he and each of his brothers took their turns doing serious kitchen duty before they were old enough to work in the barn and drive tractors. But in that traditional setting, boys felt a considerable stigma about working in the kitchen. So although Merle knew how to make potato rolls and pies from scratch, lump-free gravy, and silken mashed potatoes, he volunteered to clean as we divided up our household chores when we got married. I said I’d cook. Glibly. Naively. I have no idea what I was thinking, except that cooking sounded better than cleaning. I can still bring back the terror of making my first grocery list.

I soon discovered that the cookbooks we had been given didn’t offer basic enough instructions. When I couldn’t figure out how to get chicken broth from a chicken, I called my sister-in-law. I was too proud to check with Merle and too sheepish to ask my mother. (This was life before search engines and boxed chicken stock.)

And so began my romance with good cookbooks, especially those in which cooking knowhow and basic skills were spelled out in detail and not assumed. If I followed the instructions exactly, things worked out. Merle had spent part of a summer on an Italian ship, where he learned to like food beyond well-done roast beef and noodles with brown butter. So he was ready for some experimenting, fortunately for me. I began trying things, and they mostly turned out well. Merle caught on quickly that I needed just a little encouragement to keep going.

I found that cooking was a perfect foil for the endless reading and writing I was doing in grad school. I loved the imagination it took to read a recipe and determine whether we’d like it, the tactile experience of working with raw elements, the mild suspense about whether a dish would turn out as I hoped.

Because I hadn’t learned to cook as I grew up (I must defend my mother here; it wasn’t her fault), I was approaching cooking almost as a craft and certainly as a world to discover and explore. I wasn’t locked into a set of recipes that I could make without thinking. I freely tried anything I wanted, limited only by my barebones cooking skills and our grad-school food budget. I began to love cooking.

Then there was the night I was making chicken corn soup in the gang kitchen which we shared with other students in the residence hall. Merle and I had both grown up eating the soup, and we were homesick for a break from all the experimenting. What I hadn’t counted on was an audience. Soon I had others, who were making their dinners at the same time, crowding around, watching what I was making. They had never seen the combination that I was putting together. In that moment, I realized that I had grown up in a particular food tradition. I knew about being different nearly my whole life. Ask any Mennonite who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But I hadn’t anticipated that food would also define me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the ‘70s.

Putting a toe into the publishing world

Among the first books Merle and I published a decade later were cookbooks. At our theater and educational center in Lancaster County, we were constantly asked for a collection of local recipes. Visitors were looking for a way to take home a part of their experience among the Amish and Mennonites of our area. By this time I liked to cook, I had fallen in love with cookbooks, and I had learned firsthand that people were captured by regional and ethnic cooking. So we started with what we knew, and the books sold. The recipes were flavorful, appealingly simple to prepare, and were rooted in a place and among a people. That was enough to sell cookbooks then.

Technology and full lives bring on a food evolution

But as our North American world and day-to-day lives have changed, so has our relationship with food. Technology, with its screens and keyboards, has put us in a kind of antiseptic environment of clicks and beeps. Increasingly, adults’ jobs demand long hours and endless energy. Kids’ lives before school, after school, and on weekends, are filled with sports and jobs and music lessons.

Along the way, we’ve given up some ordinary practices—sitting down to eat a daily meal together without being in a time squeeze, dropping in spontaneously for visits at each other’s homes, spending gardening and canning days working together.

In the middle of these tectonic societal shifts, food has risen as a kind of misshapen touchstone, reminding us of our humanity and our connections to each other. “Misshapen” because I’m not sure if food is capable of bearing all that weight without becoming distorted itself. And yet it draws us, because it is so much fun to eat, and—almost as important—it is an essential part of our social glue. (Start a list, sometime, of all the social occasions which include food that are mentioned in the Bible, if you think this is new.)

Recent developments in the world of food

The Food Network began in 1993. Food magazines were proliferating. Food blogging got going in 1997. Chefs were turning into celebrities (although Julia Child and Graham Kerr debuted on TV in 1963 and 1968 respectively).

At the same moment as food packagers were increasing their offerings of already-prepared frozen and jarred foods because many of us were cooking less, we were starting to watch half-hour cooking shows, which were part instruction, part entertainment.

Chefs wrote not only cookbooks, but bestselling memoirs, too. Full-color coffee-table cookbooks, clearly not meant for the kitchen, were selling for big bucks.

Gourmet clubs emerged. Food, with all its sensual wonder, was becoming as much pleasure as necessity.

At the same time, as life has picked up tempo, many parents have barely a moment to think about what to fix for the evening meal, let alone make a grocery list, shop for the food, and then prepare it. They need quick recipes, requiring few kitchen skills. They have little time and almost no confidence to make a meal from scratch. (In many cases, no one was available to teach them when they were growing up.)

Meanwhile, persons with more resources and in a different stage of life (often retired) are looking for memorable experiences that are fun and enriching. They sign up for cooking classes and make pilgrimages to Napa Valley and Tuscany. They never miss a restaurant opening and are as opinionated in their judgment about the food served as sports fans are about their teams and players.

Food has become political. Some of us refuse to buy certain items because of how it was produced. We won’t eat genetically-modified grains or animals that were not humanely cared for. What we eat, or don’t eat, is entwined with our ethics.

We may feel that we’re at the mercy of corporations in much of our lives, but we can insist on eating organic food and locally grown produce. We can help to determine our own health by choosing to be vegetarian or vegan or a variation of either one.

We enlarge our hospitality by accommodating our guests’ food preferences and needs. We now always follow our invitation—“Can you come for dinner?”—with a second question—“What food restrictions do you or your family members have?”

Food passions and interests have deep ramifications economically. Think of all the comparatively new jobs that food provides—restaurant carryout and delivery services, celebrity-endorsed cookware, high-end home kitchens (both indoor and outdoor), complete with grills. (I find the latter two especially ironic as we cook less and less!)

So why the food craze now?

Food has always been more than food, but it seems to be especially true now.

Preparing food, and eating it, is tactile. It is experiential. It insists that technology, with its utter immediacy, yet barren distances from the presence of others, will not ultimately determine the quality of our lives and relationships.

Food can help to pace us. I believe we intuitively sense this. We can come off a pressured week by making a recipe that slowly takes shape and flavor as we chop and stir, sauté and fold. We can invite others to bring dishes they’ve made and join us in eating while we all unwind and renew ourselves together.

Food preparation allows for self-expression. It requires discipline, mindfulness. It calls for developing intuition as much as following specific instructions.

Working with food has the possibility of being a transcendent experience. It is at once ephemeral and life-giving. It is a practice that needs to be repeated again and again. To find continual beauty and satisfaction in that repetition causes a cook to reach far deeper than watching a dazzling single performance by a celebrity chef.

Cookbook publishing today

We’ve discovered a variety of audiences for cookbooks these days. Among them are:

• Those who must put food on the table every day, with little time to plan or to make recipes from scratch. But economics and/or nutritional concerns urge these people to find recipes that are relatively simple to make, with easy-to-find ingredients. Many are committed to eating together as a family or household. They understand that food feeds body and spirit.

• Those who want a cooking challenge. They’re looking for somewhat demanding recipes that require considerable cooking skills. They have time, knowhow, and resources for more expensive and exotic ingredients. They enjoy the process; they want to share the savory outcome with other aficionados.

• Those looking for some entertainment. They follow the cooking stars and want to make what they make.

The competition in the cookbook marketplace is fierce. Standing out authentically requires imagination and strategy.

In the end. . .

Food has a sort of sacred quality as it gives nourishment, comfort, and delight, and then is gone in a moment.

As the world of food grows more and more proprietary, I want to help create an atmosphere of hospitality and generosity around food. I want to make sure we have not lost the wonder of sharing recipes and tips, rather than possessing them. My deepest intent is not to impress with the food I make and the cookbooks I author, but to invite people in and to bring them together around a table.

© by Phyllis Pellman Good

About the Author

Phyllis Pellman Good

Phyllis Pellman Good, Senior Editor at Good Books, received her BA and MA in English from New York University. Her cookbooks have sold more than 11 million copies. She hosts the web cooking show “Cooking with Phyllis.”