Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My father-in-law's guilty pleasure is a game show called Baggage. In this twist on The Dating Game, contestants choose from among potential dates who gradually reveal their...baggage, with each round disclosing worse and worse revelations of the junk in their trunk. Just when you think, "Better pick Gal #2--Gal #1 is t-r-o-u-b-l-e," Gal #2 goes on to admit she's in relationships with two prisoners. Yep, the show is a cultural train wreck, and you can't take your eyes off of it.

Writer, cook, instructor, and Cordon Bleu Paris graduate Kathleen Flinn hooks readers Baggage-style in her latest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, going through the grocery carts, pantries, refrigerators, and food-related baggage of a dozen different women in the Seattle area. After performing these audits, she has each woman prepare a typical meal for her. She discovers--as every would-be dieter knows--that our relationship with food and cooking is complex and emotional. We eat what we eat, we cook or don't cook, based not only on surface factors like convenience and taste, but also on our associations with those activities. Did anyone teach us how to cook? Did anyone say anything disparaging about our cooking abilities? Do we cook or not cook to embrace or avoid certain assigned roles? What do certain foods signal to us? One woman confesses to a Gold 'n' Soft margarine addiction; she grew up with it, and to the very end of the book, butter tastes odd to her. Another digs a pack of four-year-old chicken parts from the freezer--not having any idea what to do with it, she's let it sit year after year. Still others open crisper drawers on liquefying lettuces or discover warehouse-store-sized "deals" that turned out to be not so thrifty when they couldn't be finished before they spoiled.

Flinn's investigations reveal both the alarming and the familiar, sprinkled throughout with interesting food facts. When one mom complains about her son being a picky eater, only liking the usual, highly-processed kid foods, Flinn cites another book, noting, "Many of the foods on the common kid-food list--chicken nuggets, powder-based mac and cheese, fish sticks--have been engineered to stimulate pleasure centers in the brain. Studies found that, as a a result, rats can become addicted to junk food in the same way that they do to cocaine or heroin." Put down the mini corn dog and back away, Johnny!

After the kitchen audits, which I found the most fascinating part of the book, succeeding chapters detail a series of cooking lessons Flinn offers the women, covering everything from knife skills to trusting your taste buds to making your own bread and stock. While this is familiar ground for anyone who does cook, the book is replete with great ideas, recipes and inspirations. I'm eager to try the no-knead artisan bread and to finish off the last of the salad dressing bottles so I can concoct my own. I'm also eager to challenge myself with reducing wasted food. As Flinn points out, most families could painlessly cut their food bills by just buying what they'll actually use. Now why didn't I think of that?

Each woman comes off better for her experiences, whether in big changes of eating habits or small starts like replacing a fast-food visit with a packed sandwich or foregoing the additive-laden pancake mix. I highly recommend this book, especially if you find Michael Pollan's works too daunting and just want to improve your eating and cooking habits, one tick at a time. To paraphrase Terri, a former alcoholic featured in Kitchen Counter, just as with kicking alcohol or other bad habits, if you try to change everything at once, it never works.

Make a small start this week. Hit our Bellevue Farmers Market for something fresh. Sharpen your knife, heat up your pan, add a little something leftover from the fridge, and go!

(Note: I read Kitchen Counter Cooking School in a complimentary Kindle galley from the publisher in return for a review. This was brave of them because, in writing about Flinn's earlier book The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry, I had permitted myself some snarky remarks.)

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