Wednesday, September 28, 2011


“When guys retire, their wives are handing them aprons,”

Men have learned that one of the best ways to impress and win a girl is to cook for her. It used to be that women understood this, but they decided that "liberation" translated into "not eating," so they didn't have to make any food any longer.

Now, as I've written before, most great chefs around the world are men, so its not exactly unprecedented to have men in the kitchen. And the popularity of shows like Good Eats and many others on the Food network has put a lot of aprons on people. But this revival of cooking is something everyone needs to know for hard times.

Cooking rather than heating up prepared food or eating out saves a lot of money. While, as commenter Eric pointed out in episode 2 of this series, sometimes its cheaper to replace than repair in today's market, its always cheaper to cook than buy.

Cooking "from scratch" is an old and valuable skill to learn and be conversant with. Instead of buying loaves of bread, you can learn to bake your own. Instead of buying a can of soup, you can learn to make your own.

The primary challenge to cooking from scratch is that there's a bit of a steep curve to getting to be a tolerable cook. It takes time, experimentation, and failure to get to a level of competence that people (including yourself) will put up with. In the past, people were taught by their parents and grandparents, so they grew up with careful instruction. Home Economics classes taught girls to cook and sew and so on.

However, today's grannies and white-haired folks are often the hippies of yesteryear, and they never really learned how to cook like their parents did. That was old, square, it was establishment slavery, man. They were free, and besides you could always buy food.

The origins of this loss is the post-war generation in the 40s and 50s. Advances in food preservation saw real practical development in the war, and afterward all these pre-made mixes, canned foods and frozen goods flooded the market.

Wives suddenly didn't have to take all day to clean their house and cook meals and were less inclined to do so after the freedom they felt from working in factories while the men were off fighting. They wanted their daughters to enjoy that as well, especially after the incredible hardship and sacrifice of the war years. So mom took a pill to stay energetic, popped a TV dinner in the oven, unwrapped dessert from the store and dinner was done in a quarter the time it used to be.

Sure it tasted like crap but kids who grew up on this stuff never knew the difference. Someone who grew up eating McDonald's never learns how good a barbecued home made burger is.

So now a whole series of generations has to learn to cook, and that's a pretty steep curve, as I said.

You not only have to learn the basic language of cooking - how long things take to prepare, what order they should be done in, how to know when something is ready, and so on - but I doubt many of my readers have a pantry stocked with basic supplies. That means flour, beans, sugar, baking powder, eggs, basic spices, a good set of knives, on and on. Cooking from scratch means you have to have the basic parts to do so.

And what's more is that while your kitchen might have a snazzy Fajita Cooker and a brand-new Ice Tea maker, it probably doesn't have a sifter, a good set of measuring cups, and the rest of the basic supplies you need to make good, home made food.

In other words: lacking the years of building up supplies, hand-me-downs, and house warming/bridal shower/birthday gifts, its going to be a bit spendy to just get going. Because we've relied on the kindness of strangers so long, its going to cost us to be ready when we can't.

That means the cost savings of cooking from scratch are going to be eaten up by all this stocking up. However, do not despair. For about fifty bucks you can buy an awful lot of basic supplies and you can find most of what you need in terms of cooking tools from second hand stores such as Goodwill - just remember to wash thoroughly. The stuff you're looking for is the older, more durable materials. Avoid plastic in most goods, and look for things grandma used to have in her kitchen.

Some materials are going to be spendy no matter what you do. You can't get a good Kitchenaid stand up mixer for cheap, but once you buy one you'll probably never have to buy one again as long as you live. Or your kids. Maybe their kids. Really good tools last a long, long time. Check to see if your mom or grandma has anything they aren't using or don't need. Most good cooks have extras because they love buying the stuff and people will tend to get them supplies as gifts too.

Another problem is that you'll need time. Cooking a Dinty Microwave Stew takes 2 minutes or so. Cooking stew from scratch takes hours. The difference is in cost and flavor, and you won't believe that difference. Its like eating a meal at Denny's vs La Grande Marceillaise. Fresh ingredients cooked well is like paradise for your mouth and significantly more healthy for your body.

Don't be too dismayed by the cooking times you see in recipes, however. Sure, that soup will take 6 hours to cook, but you can be off watching television or playing catch with the kids during most of that time. Cooking time often works in your favor. As you learn to cook well, you'll find out what to do in what order so it all gets done about the same time.

You'll also need to learn recipes, but here you have a huge advantage over mom or grandma. They had to learn from experiment, from cards traded between friends, and from books they bought. You have the world's biggest database and library of free recipes including videos on how to prepare each step. There are thousands of terrific sites around the internet with recipes by the dumptruckload, and any given recipe you want will probably have 19 varieties on the same site.

That said, don't despise the cookbook. Look for old cookbooks in used book stores, thrift shops, and from friends and family. What you're looking for are the kind that tell you how to make gravy, not the kind that tell you to add Brand Name© Canned Gravy to the recipe. Avoid those like the plague: their purpose is to sell that brand's products, not produce good food.

When you have all the supplies you need and some level of competence you'll find you can produce meals for a half to quarter what it costs to buy the equivalent made up for you. You can make a whole pot of soup for the cost of one can of prepared soup, for example. You can cook up a family worth of chili for what it costs to buy a bowl at the store.

However, you'll find out that what you make tastes... different than what you're used to paying for. That Campbell's Condensed Soup tastes different than your version. And that's a good thing, it tastes better, but for some people that difference is odd. For a child raised on prepared foods and fast food, cooking from scratch won't be quite right.

For one thing, its not as sweet: fast food joints especially adds sugar to their food. For another, the food lacks preservatives, flavor enhancers, coloring, and other things that palates have become comfortable and familiar with. That burger you cooked on the grill looks different than a McPatty. That chicken Kiev you made isn't a perfect, neat little bun. And that can throw people, particularly young people.

It will take a while for you to get used to the stronger seasoning, more complex and subtle flavors, and distinct texture of food prepared right. That's worth learning. Some people - most perhaps - take to it instantly. Some long for their Totino's Pizza. But once you get used to the good stuff... its really hard to go back.

And in the process, you'll save hundreds of dollars a year, if not month. And there's another benefit. You learn to appreciate the labor and effort it takes to produce something. You'll get closer to the actual source of what you eat, and perhaps learn to appreciate it and the virtue of labor a bit more. And you'll learn to slow down a bit and savor what you have.

Oh yeah, and you'll be healthier.

This is part of the Economic Depression Survival Kit.


Eric said...

Great post. I especially agree with your comments about quality tools. My daughter and I like to bake bread together sometimes, and we use a 115 year old wooden rolling pin that belonged to my great-great grandmother. Likewise, my wife cooks a lot of meals on an ancient cast iron skillet that belonged to her great-grandmother. We have probably owned 4 or 5 cheapo Wal-Mart ice cream scoopers over the years, and they always bend/break/fall-apart... a few years ago my grandfather gave us one he found at a garage sale that has to be at least 50 years old, and it dishes out a perfect scoop of ice cream every single time and could probably survive a direct hit by a Tomohawk missile. There is just something special about meals prepared using utensils that have been passed down over generations an still work.

Regarding making your own bread, that is an art unto itself. I am a mediocre cook but am on the verge of becoming an excellent baker (which works well because my wife is the opposite). I've mellowed a bit in my 'from scratch' attitude, but when I started a few years ago I refused to even use packaged yeast... instead I spent months getting my own sourdough culture going to use for raising the bread. It's really good stuff, but fairly wasteful (you dump a LOT of unused sourdough starter/flour) and very time consuming. When my last batch of starter got attacked by mold, I just started using yeast packets and have continued from there. I don't know if there is anything that can make a house smell more like a home than fresh baked bread, and there simply isn't a better meal on the planet than a slice of just-out-of-the-oven bread with butter, honey, and a cold glass of milk.

One thing I would mention in regards to 'from scratch' cooking is that it can be an economical and fun first step to go MOST of the way without going ALL the way. Throwing a storebought can of cream-of-mushroom soup over a recipe might technically be cheating, but it's cheap and can add flavor to a ton of dishes. Likewise, storebought chicken broth or beef broth is pretty cheap and often makes a delicous substitute for plain water in many recipes.

Anyway, reallly enjoying your Depression Survival posts, and this is probably my favorite of them all so far.

Philip said...

My first job was a short-order cook in a steel mill. Quick learning curve on how to plan, set up, be fast and above all, consistent.

Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying your depression posts and hope for more of them. You'd fit right in around my kitchen table!
The Plague Fairy

Teri said...

There is a piece of software called ShopNCook Menu that is just amazing. It has a database of thousands of ingredients with nutrition info from the USDA, you can add your own ingredients as well.

It comes with hundreds of recipes with thousands you can download from the website. You can enter your own recipes. You can cut and paste recipes you find on the internet, and the software will parse it and recognize what are ingredients and what are instructions and format the recipe for you.

One reason I love it is because I'm always tinkering with my recipes, and if I make a change I like, I can go in and change the recipe with a few clicks. It gives nutritional info at the bottom of each recipe.

The second reason, is that I have found or developed recipes that I can make from scratch in 30 to 45 minutes, that taste tons better than hauling out the frozen salisbury steak dinner (which would take the same amount of time). But since I'm ready to go with the recipe and the ingredients, it's easy to overcome the tempation to eat something more expensive and much less tasty.

The third reason, the real frugal part, that offsets the $50 cost of the software, is that you can build your recipes into a menu and then add the menu to a shopping list. Then you go through the list and take off whatever you have on hand, and presto, you have a shopping list that will account for every last ingredient you need for the week, no last minute trips to the store for 8 ounces of buttermilk. It shows you what recipe you need it for, so if something is not available you can make a good decision about what to substitute.

I am at the point that I rarely buy anything that is not on my list. That saves a lot of money.

I also know, every day, what I have planned to make, so I can just come home and look at the menu and get to work instead of standing around wondering what to make that night. That alone is such a stress-reliever.

I am not affiliated with this company in any way, I am just a devoted and enthusiastic user. It's here: and you want the Menu version.