Monday, April 26, 2010

How do you do it? On good cooking and finding time.

This is not a post to make others feel guilty about what you're not doing, though it may have that unintended effect on some. I apologise in advance to any who take it that way. But while we have a quick look at the life of the Jonai, here's a brief bit of background:

I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our 'junk cupboard' (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the 'real food' pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn't get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.

Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart's still doesn't like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he's from Alabama).

The point is, I certainly wasn't raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.

So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we're often asked?

I've written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I've written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including 'chores' such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I've also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year's report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here's how we do it:

  1. We don't do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it's a priority, and cooking when you're tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that's how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)

  2. We share the shopping, and make do with what's in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we're really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for 'emergencies'. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!

  3. Although I'm the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we're very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer's harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart's stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there's time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I'm overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.

  4. But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it's still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.

  5. What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our 'down time', though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))

  6. How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I'm a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren't keen to do lessons, and we don't push. We'd rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we're not knocking the value of those other things – they're just not priorities for us.

So how can everyone 'find time' to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you've dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn't feel that great, but you'll probably do it again if you don't know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It's a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.

An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as 'fun' and 'relaxing', leading to 'delicious'. It's also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it's 'good parenting' to cook with your kids. :-) Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what's in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. 'scuse me while I go knead the bread...

12 comments:

Melissa said...

Lovely post. I feel a sense of recognition in what you write. While I was doing a PhD myself and with three small children + being a keen baker and so forth, I was regularly asked "how do you manage it". AS far as I could see it was about focusing on what was important and not stressing about what isn't (ie bread that doesn't rise!!) It isn't rocket science but it is about having the will. And excellent back up. I have a fabulous partner who with whom I can genuinely share household duties (and in fact, he often takes more). But when it is a priority to eat well, to have fun and to spend time with family, these things can be managed, in addition to all the academic and work work. And perhaps I didn't read every piece of research I could have...but in the end, I don't think you ever can.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... "self indulgent"... definitively Tammi!! Haha sorry had to say it!!!

-Jess

bellsknits.com said...

this is pretty much my approach. Cooking for us, for both of us, is a necessary life skill. Apart from all the stuff about wanting to do what's best for us, it's just plain awful to think of coming home every day to shitty food. I would die of boredom and misery if I sat down to garbage, poorly cooked food or just tasteless stuff.

I long ago gave up the notion of striving for gourmet. I strive for good, nutritious and, as much as possible, interesting and varied. That's just how life has to be for me. For us. I never understand the 'I'm too lazy to cook' mentality.

penny aka jeroxie said...

There is always time to cook. After years of instant noodles and boxed microwave meals at uni, I decided it was time to learn how to cook a few years ago.
Not many in my family cooked and there was always the maid but she cooked bad food. And after grandma passed, no one really cooked! I am glad that I watched her in the kitchen. I think I did pick up some skills sub consciously. Taste taste taste and fond memories of aromas!
Good on you and cooking is the best relaxation tool for me as well. And I am willing to be a student for the rest of my life.

Another Outspoken Female said...

Along with competence, I think being organised has a lot to do with getting food on the table every night. Where a lot of people fall at the first hurdle is having food in the house. Being in a good shopping routine (which you two obviously are), having fresh produce aching to be picked in the garden, keeping a good stash of basics in the pantry (the rice, the canned beans...) all mean it's more likely that you'll cook than succumb to other options.

Also on the competence line is confidence. It's knowing that you can cut corners, not have to slavishly follow a recipe, mix and match with the ingredients you have, to be an improvisational cook.

Stuart said...

Great post. Makes me pine for more of your subtle flavor inputs that keeps our dining at home so exciting. Just a note on the sourcing we also have the twice weekly dairy delivery of milk, cheese and butter. Also need to highlight the down size of sourcing food locally (and general minimal car usage) where our car tier walls degraded and collapsed due to a lack of use making for an expensive replacement for a vehicle that is so rarely used.

Zoe said...

Tammi, I was just coming over here to leave a comment about doing this juggling requires a "can-do camper" attitude, when I see you've just left a similar one on @drnaomi's post about veggies.

We eat takeaway about once or twice a month (not counting the hot chips after school with Dad on Friday afternoons)! You need to be organised if you going to cook from scratch all the time, and I think that organisation could be very hard if you were doing it because you thought you should, rather than for the love of it.

EG tonight's soup (bubbling now) is made from a pumpkin grown by a neighbour; stock from the freezer, taken down a couple of days ago in case, some jarred paste from the fridge (normally would use home-made) and a can of organic pumpkin milk. I'm a fan of a big pantry :)

That said, kids might not eat it and have vegemite on toast or an egg instead. Given what they eat over the rest of the course of the day, doesn't matter. won't be stressing about it.

Unfortunately our kids need to eat earlier and earlier as it gets colder, and want dinner at about 5:30 at the moment. Mostly we manage because I work 2 days a week (when Owy cooks or I've made something ahead), but I do have lots of community stuff happening too.

That flash in the background of the last photo is Stuart, right? Get a lot done when you don't sit down ;)

Zoe said...

"organic pumpkin milk" being a little known product with a taste identical to coconut milk.

cristy said...

I love this post. I can totally understand people that don't really cook - I'm sure it is daunting when you don't have the skills, habits and confidence. However, I also feel sad for them. It is such a pleasure and such a source of good health for our family.

I would second AOF's comment about being organised. For me to cook something from scratch every night (which I like to do and generally do do) I have found it far easier to meal plan. I do it on a Saturday morning just before we hit the Farmers Markets and the Food Co-op. The resulting shopping list ensures that I have exactly what I need on hand for the week, which makes cooking so much easier - no planning or coordination needed during the week.

We have also been on a project to really organise our pantry for some time and finally finished it last week. All our basic dry goods, spices, etc. now have their own labeled jar, with an allocated spot in the pantry. This makes it very easy to know when something is running low and to take it along to the co-op for a refill before it runs out.

It also makes it super easy to find ingredients quickly when your 3-year-old needs to eat IMMEDIATELY...

Ms Baklover said...

Yay, I love this post! My kids are still small but this is exactly the kind of attitude towards food, cooking, etc, I am trying to promote in our house. I love the connection you have made between practice, skills, competence, and pleasure. Never thought of it like that before. :)

Pat Churchill said...

That is pretty much my approach and nearly all our meals over the years have been cooked from scratch. I agree with Another Outspoken Female, the art of shopping should never be underestimated - it's that mental stocktake we do when we use the second-to-last can of tomatoes, etc. that means we can always cope. When our kids were still at home, we all sat down together for dinner nearly every night - we ate when the last person got home. It might only have been for 15 minutes but it was worth the effort. Another rule - I seldom cook without a glass of wine on the bench. These days adult sons are both good cooks. Husband has a minute repertoire (apart from weekend brunch) but always says thankyou after every meal, bless him. Interesting is his comment that he enjoys my cooking even more since we shifted to Australia. I put that down to the great markets - we live only 100 metres from Sth Melbo Market and meals are generally driven by the seasonal produce I buy. Unfortunately the only garden I have these days is a balcony herb garden but that's worth it. Well done, Tammi (and Stuart!)

FoodieFi said...

All of this makes an enormous amount of sense, and it's great to read someone who's taken the time to write a considered post about it.

It's what makes me so grumpy about those $10 meals Coles keeps pushing - not only are they dubious nutritionally, and rarely genuinely under the $10, but they also do nothing to teach people about basic pantry management.

I can't imagine it turning up on school curriculums any time soon, but it should be there - how to manage a pantry so that more often than not you can cook efficiently and well.