My husband lowered a glass bowl from the top of the refrigerator, peeled back an edge of plastic wrap, and peered in. “Does this look dried out to you?” he asked.
I looked into the bowl he held in the palm of his hand and saw a tan spongy mass. A dry crust was forming around the edges, but in the middle it was moist and bubbling. My nose got too close to the opening in the plastic wrap and I flapped my hand in front of my face. “Hoooo, it’s fermenty,” I said. He pulled it back to his face and inspected it again; he furrowed his eyebrows as he studied it.
A friend recently called me a food Nazi. She meant it in the nicest way possible, as in, “I wish I were more of a food Nazi like Andrea.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she meant towards our kids, but unless I am totally off base, I feel like we are pretty relaxed with our kids’ food choices. We eat pie for breakfast, enjoy treats after lunch and dinner, eat lots of pizza, mac and cheese, and hamburgers, and the kids almost always have a supply of candy on hand. You know, normal stuff. So when my friend said that about me being a food Nazi, I was confused.
“No, I mean the way you make all your own foods,” she said. Ahh, yes. We do make our own pizza and mac and cheese and hamburger patties. “I wish I made our own Nutella and hummus and hamburger buns like you do,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “We don’t do that because we have some set of strict rules or anything.” And we don’t. My God, if good pre-made food was available for the buying, and we had the money to buy it, I’d totally buy all the stuff we currently make. Making our own food is time-consuming and, frankly, annoying. You’ve got to start with raw ingredients, prep them, cook them, assemble them, and then clean up afterwards. I would love to eliminate all that work and buy food already made. But the fact of the matter is this: I am a food snob.
I like good food, as does my husband. Good food is one of our favorite things. He and I go out once a year for a dinner date, just the two of us, and those dates are some of my fondest life memories. I remember the velvet of bouillabaisse on my palate, the crisp tang of Hendrick’s gin and blue-cheese stuffed olives, the melt of fresh fish on my tongue. We only dine this way once a year, usually for our anniversary, because we splurge big time when we do: as far as I’m concerned, the only way to get really good food, as good as we want it, is to pay the big bucks for it.
Unless we’re going ultra cheap (fast food) and therefore have no expectations, convenience foods at the grocery store or dinner out in a casual restaurant almost always leave us disappointed. We might spend a decent chunk of change on a family dinner – enough to buy a new shirt, say, or replace that ghastly light fixture – and it’s not as good as what we can make at home for a fraction of the cost: pies, pasta, cakes, Tom Collins; hamburger buns, Nutella, salsa, Gin Slings.
If you’re a food snob on a tight budget, consuming fine things means making them for yourself. It means buying dried beans, soaking them, cooking them, cooling them, processing them, washing the Cuisinart by hand. It means squeezing lemons, soaking cherries, simmering simple syrup. It means weighing flour, kneading dough, shaping buns, brushing butter. It means washing tons of dishes.
In other words, it means work. Lots of work. Lots of work that I don’t always want to do. I used to think I loved the kitchen, I used to think I loved preparing foods, I used to think I loved cooking. But when my friend said that about me being a food Nazi I realized it’s not the cooking I enjoy, it’s the eating; cooking is a means to an end. We cook from scratch not because of a health agenda or an environmental agenda but because home made food is good food we can afford, because we can cater to our own palates, because our taste buds are beasts who demand flavor and complexity, heartiness and wholesomeness, real food that is food, not “food” that is chemicals.
Which is why I can’t stop adoring my husband for his latest culinary exploration. When he lowers his glass bowl to inspect and prod, poke and punch, it makes me want to skip around him like a butterfly in our kitchen.
“I’m not sure if this is doing what it’s supposed to do,” my husband said. He pulled The Bread Baker’s Apprentice off the shelf and paged through to the sourdough starter.
I used to make bread for us, but then gluten went out of vogue, and bread’s calorie count is outrageous, and bread-baking is time consuming, and a million other reasons. But the thing is, bread is one of the most beautiful foods there is. It is golden, wholesome, can be savory or sweet, can be eaten as breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, a side dish or a main dish, toasted or soft, buttery, drizzled with rosemary olive oil, broiled with cheese, dipped in onion soup, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, slathered with jam, smoothed with almond butter and honey, dipped in batter and fried with cinnamon. Bread can be all of these things and more, and store-bought bread is not recognizable to our taste buds as the same crust and crumb we pull warm from our oven. Also: bread is our son’s favorite food.
So after a year without homemade bread, my husband has decided to take over the bread baking.
“Is it done? Do you need to do anything else to it?” I asked after he read the sourdough passage.
He pulled the gooey mass out of the first bowl and placed it in a new bowl. The lump was the size of a sea biscuit. He added flour, kneaded the dough, turned it in the bowl, worked it in his hands. “I need to keep feeding it,” he said.
And so he feeds our beasts.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart: this is the book I recommend if you want to bake your own bread. If you want to explore whole grain breads, Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor is also excellent.