Good Cook II: The Sequel

In May, I put up a few musings about what makes a good cook.  The original post prompted a flurry of activity on the site (1 comment), which in turn prompted my other reader (thanks, Mom!) to draft a formal response on what she believes makes someone to be a good cook:


A few weeks ago, you answered the question, “What Makes a Good Cook?”  I consider myself to be a good cook and at least partially responsible for your interest in cooking and your enthusiasm for food and fresh ingredients.  I have been thinking about this and mulling over my response and have finally come up with several ideas on the subject.

Whether or not one is considered to be a good cook depends on one’s audience and their expectation of how food should taste (usually based on what foods they have eaten and enjoyed in the past).  I was raised in the South and my mother was considered by most people to be a good cook.  Dinner at our house usually consisted of well-done meat (usually cooked in a pressure cooker), overcooked vegetables prepared with seasoning (either fat-back bacon or leftover grease from cooking a ham), boiled potatoes, and dessert.  Spices and herbs were unknown and unused.

Once when my mother visited us, I cooked frozen peas for dinner.  She tasted one and commented, “Clara Lee, these taste just like they came from the garden.”  Whereas many would probably take that as a compliment, I started to apologize because I knew exactly what she meant-they weren’t done enough for her taste and they had no flavor because I had not used “seasoning” for preparing them.  If a person has only experienced certain tastes in food, then this becomes the basis for judgment on whether or not a food is good.  Unless one expands his/her food horizon, tries different foods, and awakens the pallet, he/she is never going to appreciate food other that what has been served at home.

I remember the first time I ever tasted homemade spaghetti sauce.  I thought that was the best thing I have ever tasted and asked for the recipe.  I was probably 10 or 12 at the time.  You see, spaghetti sauce at our house was always prepared by Chef Boy R Dee and came in a can.  I just loved the taste of the homemade sauce and was determined to learn how to prepare it.  The same thing was true for yeast bread.  I had a relative who made bread and I loved the taste so much that I was determined to learn to make it.  I credit these early experiences with inspiring me to learn to prepare tasty food.

I agree with you that the ability to follow directions and knowledge of the basic techniques of food preparation are essential.  I was probably 10 when I started reading the Joy of Cooking to find a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (the first thing I ever cooked).  But the following of a recipe will only take you so far.

I was a Home Economics Education major in college in the 1960s and had courses in all the various aspects of being a Home Economics teacher, but that only included 1 food preparation class.  That class was mostly about rigorously following a recipe.  In fact, it has only been in recent years that I got the courage to experiment with changing recipes.

I think I’m a better cook now than I was 20 years ago.  My experiences as an inner city foods teacher introduced me to different cultures and expanded my repertoire of recipes.  Visits to Penzy’s Spices have helped me to try new and different spices, which in turn has helped me be willing to try being creative with my food preparation rather than rigorously following someone else’s recipes.  Continued inspiration and a desire to learn have helped my repertoire of cooking to evolve over time.

Experience helps one know which ingredients go well together and imagine how a recipe will taste.  Personal taste also comes into play here.  If a home cook doesn’t like something, he or she is not likely to try preparing it for others.  A good cook has to be willing to take a risk and try something new.  A good cook has to enjoy cooking.  If you don’t like what you are doing, it will be drudgery and you will go through the motions of putting food on the table rather than preparing something you are proud of.


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