CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 36. . . .May 16, 2014
Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know About Food and Cooking.
Sarah Elton. Illustrated by Jeff Kulak.
Toronto, ON: Owlkids Books, 2014.
96 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Joanne Peters.
It's easy to open a can of soup. Making macaroni and cheese from a box is a cinch. And you'll have dinner on the table in no time if you buy a frozen lasagna and heat it in the microwave.
But if you make that soup from scratch -- or the mac and cheese, or the lasagna -- it's more work. So why should you make food from scratch? There are plenty of reasons to cook for yourself.
To start, cooking can be fun. Turning raw ingredients into a delicious meal is an art. It's like painting a picture of writing a story or composing a song. Once you get the hang of it, cooking becomes easier and easier -- and the food you make will become tastier and tastier.
Food can be fascinating, too. There are all sorts of incredible things that happen to food when we prepare it. We can use the chemical reactions to transition ingredients from one state to another, such as turning cream into ice cream. . . . When you cook, you are figuring out how to look after yourself and the people you care about. Knowing how to cook makes you independent. It's part of growing up.
And cooking is bigger than simply making dinner. Preparing food is a kind of language. And that means that when you make a meal for people, you are communicating with them. You're telling them a story about who you are and what you like to eat.
In the end, when you cook something tasty, it not only makes people happy but also makes you feel good. It feels terrific to hear someone say: "This is delicious!" (From the “Introduction”, p. 5.)
Recently on CBC Radio 1, I heard an author being interviewed and discussing his most recent book. The book's focus was North American cooking and eating culture. During the course of the interview, he stated his fear that, in the next generation, cooking would become an artisanal craft, "like quilting". I was a bit disturbed by this comment because I am a dedicated home cook, (as well as a quilter) and can't believe that might happen. It's true that the prevalence of "instant", "fast", and "convenience" foods has simultaneously made food more available than ever, while decreasing the need to prepare it. In the 21st century, time has become a precious commodity, and planning and cooking meals from scratch certainly demands time. Speciality television channels, such as Food Network, all types of cooking magazines, and celebrity chefs have made cooking into a new form of entertainment, ranging from culinary sport to something akin to "food porn". Yet barely a week goes by without a report of dangerously-tainted food products or the potential health hazards of some food ingredient. How can the abilities to cook and savour good food be saved from becoming a rare and esoteric skill?
Well, I think that Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking is a "rescue ingredient", a life-saver (and I don't mean the snack candy with a hole in it, either). It's not a typical kids' cookbook, like my cherished and care-worn copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls. Yes, Starting from Scratch does provide some recipes, but, for the most part, it is an exploration of food and cooking: the science (both chemical and physical) of foods and of cooking, the cultural and social contexts in which taste preferences and cuisines have evolved, and, of course, the "nuts and bolts" of preparing and cooking (recipes, kitchen equipment, culinary terminology, and how to put it all together to produce a meal).
Even as babies, we exhibit some pretty strong preferences as to what we will or won't eat. Any parent who has tried to force a spoon of pureed carrots into the stubbornly pursed lips of an infant knows that some tastes (or textures) are a definite "yuck". Chapter One of Elton's book explores the delights of favourite tastes, the unpleasantness of aftertastes, the biology of tasting (yes, we really do have "taste buds", both on our tongue and the soft palate), acquired tastes (like that fondness for goat cheese which is inexplicable to those who hate the stuff), flavorings that are both natural and artificially-produced, and that je ne sais quoi of taste known as terroir: a food's unique flavour, resulting from its having been grown or in a particular geographical region.
An exploration of taste and flavour quite naturally leads to a chapter on "food culture, or cuisine" (p. 21). Four factors have influenced national and regional cuisines: crops (and animals), climate, caravans (foods which were shipped along trade routes, introducing people to flavours and ingredients not native to their locality), and creativity (someone's being daring enough to try something different with ingredients that are local or new). For example, chicken is eaten all over the world, but there's certainly a world of flavour difference between American southern-style fried chicken, Moroccan chicken tagine (a chicken stew, cooked in a covered earthen pot, and which is wonderfully flavoured with a blend of spices, to which fruit, olives, or nuts often are added) and Greek chicken souvlaki (chunks of chicken breast, usually marinated in lemon, olive oil, and herbs, skewered and then broiled). Same bird, but quite different taste! While it is certainly true that "we are what we eat" (p. 21), in the 21st century, food travels the world widely. Refrigeration and rapid transportation have made it possible to eat foods "out of season" in any region, as well as to introduce people to foods previously foreign to them. Is this good? Locavores don't think so, and they promote sustainability as well as concepts such as the 100 mile diet (eating only what can be produced within 100 miles of one's home).
The science of cooking is the focus of the book's third chapter, and in it, we are reminded that cooking involves a variety of chemical processes: thermal application (of heat or cold), the addition of taste elements (salt, sweetness, fats, acids) and biological elements (sour cream, sauerkraut, and cheese all depend upon bacterial fermentation, and, without the fungus known as yeast, breads don't rise), and physical processes, such as pressure (kneading bread dough). Before refrigerators and freezers, people had to find ways of preserving their food: curing (packing meat in salt to draw out the water), drying (think of sun-dried tomatoes or raisins), smoking (slow-burning fire and wood smoke kill bacteria, dry meat, and impart incredible flavour), and canning (heating food to a high temperature and then sealing it in a vacuum container) have all been used to keep food past its immediate freshness. Chapter Three concludes with a reminder of the important role that water plays in the production of food and in cooking. Whether as farmers or consumers, "everything we eat comes back to water!" (p. 43) So, let's use it wisely and be mindful of our "water print."
Experienced cooks can just "whip things up", but most beginners need a recipe, a set of instructions to help you make a dish in a certain way. Chapter Four focuses on the elements of a recipe. A good recipe will provide a list of amounts of needed ingredients, how to put them together, how many people will be fed, as well as how long it will take to produce the dish (very important, if time is limited.) Elton stresses the importance of reading the entire recipe before starting (a procedural point on which I and my husband differ), doing what the recipe tells you to do (sometimes, you cannot improvise, and if you do, you won't be happy with the results), the value of annotation (additions, changes to timing, and similar observations need to be recorded for future reference), and most importantly, doing the math (it's all about ratios). Careful measurement is a must for beginners, and changing the ratios of some ingredients will result in markedly different products (especially when baking). At the same time, Elton points out that cooking is both art and science, and the art of creative cooking is the substitution of one thing for another; to that end, she provides some very helpful guidelines on how to make those changes.
By Chapter Five, budding chefs will want to don their white jackets and checkered pants, but before they do, Elton provides a quick orientation to kitchen equipment. While there are chefs who claim that "all you need to make a nice meal is one pot and a knife" (p. 57), that sort of minimalism doesn't work for most of us. Prep tools, cooking utensils, and items to assist with clean-up and storing the leftovers are well-identified with clear graphics and brief descriptions of their purpose. There's a list of pantry basics (along with some zingy condiments), and tips on how to grocery shop, keeping both one's budget and health in mind. Something I have never before seen in a food/cooking publication is a section on "Ethics in the Kitchen", and how cultural and religious traditions, as well as political and ethical beliefs, determine what a person will or won't eat: some Catholics don't eat meat on Fridays (or important holy days), some individuals choose to become vegetarians or vegans, and others choose to buy foods which are organic, fair-trade, or which are produced by animals which have been raised or slaughtered only under certain conditions. Elton's presentation of these ethical perspectives is simple, clear, and objective; often, vegetarianism or a commitment to choosing organic food is derided by others who don't hold the same viewpoint.
The book's sixth chapter brings the junior cook to his or her goal: "how to make that meal" (p. 69). Even students getting A's in school nutrition/cooking classes will learn new terminology from "Getting Prepped!", appliances for providing heat are clearly overviewed, and the cooking "adventure" of one single onion shows how different types of heat application change the onion's taste, and thus, its potential use in three different products: pizza, vegetable soup, and shish kebab. Food safety is hugely important to cooks of any age, and a two-page spread provides the basics, along with the reasons why these rules should be followed. Interesting to any diner are the two pages providing visuals of four different types of table settings (Western, Japanese, Ethiopian, and Indian), along with brief cultural notes on why the plate is set the way it is. During and after cooking, clean-up is necessary; it's not as much fun as the cooking or eating, but it has to be done, and, if the cook is lucky, perhaps the dinner guests will help clean up the mess and pack up the left-overs. And if the meal is less than successful, Elton offers supportive advice on what to do with "those inevitable mistakes." (p. 87)
Before trying something fancy, novice cooks might consult the book's Appendix A which provides four simple and good to eat recipes for pasta sauce, soup, granola, and oatmeal cookies. Appendix B offers some valuable suggestions on ways to avoid those inevitable mistakes: use the "what goes with what?" flavour pairing table to put together meals with Italian, Asian, Indian, or Mexican flavour notes. The "Measurements and Conversions" listings in Appendix C are provided in both Imperial and Metric, helpful to those wanting to make their grandma's wonderful classic Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, a recipe in which measurements are in teaspoons, cups, and ounces, rather than millilitres and grams. Finally, Sarah Elton provides a short list of cookbooks for first-time cooks and a cautionary note about recipes found on the Internet: "just remember that a lot of mistakes can also find their way onto the Internet, so check the comments section on a recipe you want to try before proceeding -- often errors will be mentioned." (p. 95) Sarah, my husband and I couldn't agree more! He diligently reads the comments!
Although this is Sarah Elton's first book for children, she draws on her previous experience as a food writer and journalist to produce a work that is entertaining, informative, and absolute fun to read. The final paragraph of the book says it all:
Cooking is important. It's a skill you can take with you anywhere. As you get older, it will become even more important to know how to cook. And no matter what you cook, remember that whenever you mix together raw ingredients to make food, you are feeding your stomach, your heart, and your soul. And hey, it's fun, too. (p. 89)
There are so many possible ways for teachers to use this book: science teachers will find it a great source of inspiration for using food and cooking to teach the basics of chemistry; social studies teachers will find interesting notes about the historical connections between food, society and culture; and, of course, teachers of nutrition and cooking classes will find new ways to present the "facts" about food and cooking. Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking deserves a place in every middle school (and yes, high school) library's nonfiction collection and on every middle school nutrition/cooking teacher's personal bookshelf. It's easy to read, the colour graphics offer visual punch, and the coloured text headings highlight and organize the information clearly in the book's 96 pages (including the three Appendices and Index). And, because the book focuses on the science (and math) of food and cooking, I think that male readers will really enjoy the book. Let's face it, even celebrity chefs (male or female), have to "start from scratch".
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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