On Being an Amateur*

*The Surprising Appeal of Doing Things Half-Assed…

IMG_6704I ‘ve been pawing through the Betty Crocker Cooky (sic) Book from the 1960s and I want to be clear that this is an irony-free post today. I’m not treading the worn path of “Hahaha, weren’t people were so wacky and tasteless back in the day…”

photoI do happen to think the accompanying photos are repulsive, recognizing that I nevertheless grew up on quite a few of these delicious “Cooky” recipes. The indiscriminate use of food coloring is alarming and some of the ingredients – even by my own shabby standards – are startling. Looking for that special ‘je ne said quoi’ for your Valrhona’s chocolate brownies? Just dump a box of Lucky Charms on top of the batter.

But I’m delving into snark territory and here’s what I want to say: what strikes me in reading these old-fashioned cook books is how little fuss house wives made about getting things to to look ‘just so’ and how much joy they found in just getting on with feeding and entertaining people. My “Cooky” book has a whole chapter on how to wrap and mail cookies to others as gifts. And there’s another section with how to quadruple and quintuple recipes for huge crowds. I can’t imagine such things in a contemporary cookbook where most recipes serve four and the focus is on excellence, not volume.

I love the spirit of ingenuity and practicality throughout these cookbooks. You don’t have to buy vintage bundt pans and colored chef’s twine from a catalog. Just grab an old Maxwell House can you’ve got lying around to pack up those cookies you’re making for the whole neighborhood. (Because you’re not wasting your time actually grinding coffee beans, are you?) Here’s Betty’s helpful tip on gift boxes:

 Cover coffee cans with ‘gay Christmas wrap.’ Or use adhesive wrap on rolled oats and corn meal boxes. Alternatively, easy-to-use aerosol cans of spray paint are available in a wide variety of colors  – and the paint dries in seconds. You could spray the can red or green. Choose a gift card that will harmonize with your friend’s kitchen. Beautiful four-color holiday photographs cut from women’s magazines make unusual coverings too.

I love this. It’s all so, so…. so amateur. So liberating from all those expectations we set for ourselves. I’ve written elsewhere about my love affair with the King Arthur Flour Bakeshop. Guilty as charged. But I bet at least half the people shopping there are aspirational cooks. They buy all the loot – I do! – thinking it will change some basic reality. But all the customized Pannetone cake liners and stenciled mini loaf pans in the world aren’t going to make me the kind of  fearless and – this is the key point – generous baker my mom and her sisters were.

My mother was not only the consummate cookie maker but the owner, foreman, and line worker of a moderately-sized cookie factory. I remember coming home from school and she’d be in the kitchen, watching Mike Douglas on a little black and white TV on the counter while she rolled and shaped and baked with the relentlessness of an incredibly  efficient… and totally amateur baker. Each year, Mom would prepare hundreds of boxes of cookies for the children at the New England Home for Little Wanderers and I’m quite sure those cheerless kids didn’t give a damn how she wrapped them. A lot of her cookies were misshapen. I always thought it was a personal quirk but looking at this “Cooky” book, I realize it’s just that our standards have changed. Now, people expect perfect little ‘shelter magazine’ confections.

photo copy 3I think people did cut a lot of corners. Even controlling for evolving tastes and whatnot, some of this stuff is just foul.

But nowadays, people are so fussy and anxious about their entertaining. It’s fine if you’re a bona fide foodie, I guess. But if you’re just a regular sap who wants to give a dinner party, forget it. Everything takes such care and precision: I’m supposed to know if I’m using the right Olive oil (is it Spanish this year, or Greek?). And now I have to learn how to “temper” chocolate if I want to serve up my pots de creme with pride. And I totally missed the boat on the barrel-aged cocktails – I don’t even know what that means but I get the sense people expect better booze than I’m offering. God forbid you don’t brine your Thanksgiving turkey. Well this year – due to family illness and laziness– we didn’t get around to it. And you know what? The turkey tasted great, according to the tasters. Would it have been better soaking in my briny concoction of star anise and the works? I’ll let you ponder that while I scarf down my Hershey’s candy bars.

We had some unexpected visitors not too long ago, and since we had nothing to serve them, I sent my husband out on an emergency cheese and crackers mission. I didn’t specify what I wanted but seeing as we live near one of the country’s best cheese shops specializing in unique small production artisan cheeses  yada yada, I didn’t think I needed to. He came home with Ritz crackers.

Ritz crackers weren’t on the Whole Foods-approved, rosemary infused, hand-ground, Tibetan sea-salted etc. list of acceptable crackers. I tried to make a joke but then just decided to ‘roll with it,’ as the kids say and, interestingly, people gobbled up the Ritz crackers in no time. And why the hell shouldn’t they when in addition to being cheap and effortless, they are simply delicious.

I think we’ve lost something with all these fancy airs. I know Martha Stewart resurrected homemaking skills and made them respectable, supposedly, but I think we’ve just seen a steady arms race of expectations. If you can’t, actually, make your gingerbread house as perfectly as Martha’s, well then you’re just a total chump but meanwhile you can buy her magazine and enjoy reading about how to make one. I find this crazy – despite being exactly the kind of slavish devotee that keeps Martha, Inc. afloat in this tough economy.

I once read somewhere that the size of a person’s house is absolutely no predictor of how often someone has “company” over. Rich people with superior tastes aren’t enjoying life any better. Let’s break out the sour cream and onion dip and start the party.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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3 Responses to On Being an Amateur*

  1. Aimee says:

    You would LOVE the book, “The Gallery of Regrettable Food.” (http://www.lileks.com/institute/gallery/) It makes me laugh so hard, I can’t stop crying. Also, I recognize a lot of the regrettable food from my childhood. Jello desserts simply should not have so many ingredients they look like flies-in-amber from the Cambrian Period.

  2. OMG, thank you for that reminder! I do love it. I haven’t looked at the website in years and I think it’s time for a trip down memory lane again. I remember there were links to old Sears and other catalogues and creepy motel interiors and stuff, and there was a men’s clothing line called the “Dorcus collection” that had me and my sister screaming and nearly wetting our pants. You are very funny: flies in amber from Cambrian epoch. Many thanks.

  3. What a refresher to read this from someone who always wanted to make a ‘nice, cute(?) meal’ and everywhere I looked, within simple instructions there was always little bombs of annoying words that I had no idea what they meant, and when I searched them up required a lot more work than I cared to give. Personally, a bucket load of chocolate is as good as new to me.

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