Revisiting "America: Too Stupid To Cook"

Cock-a-leekie soup and the great prune debate, recipes, cocktails and more...

How far we’ve come ….

Earlier this month, Christine Marshall tweeted a link to a ten-year-old post I’d written titled America: Too Stupid To Cook. A friend had said those words, that were being told we were too stupid to cook, and they crystalized feelings I’d had for a long time. Newspapers were filled with “quick and easy” recipes, bookshelves filled with 30-minute meal cookbooks and books of 5-ingredient recipes. This combined with commercials from prepared food companies bombarding us with the false promise that they were going to make life better for us by precooking our food.

I hated, passionately, all messages, direct and indirect, that tried to convince everyday people that cooking was so hard they should really let someone else do it for them. Or, here’s a recipe even a three-year-old can make.

Sometimes that’s just what you want and need, of course. Ramen with an egg in it, a few slices of American cheese, garnished with cilantro. Or as Sam Sifton put in The NYTimes today:

And if it’s not so much the cooking that’s got me down but the sheer physical and mental exhaustion of life in 2021, I just boil some water for pasta with brown butter and Parmesan, then don’t brown the butter because I’m tired.

But times were different from that long ago post, and I countered, with what I called ironically, “the most difficult recipe in the world”: Salt a chicken, put it in a skillet in a 450 degree oven for one hour, let it rest for 15 minutes, serve with the fat and juices in the pan. That’s literally it. Two minutes of active working time, three if you truss the chicken. (If you haven’t seen my pal and co-author Brian Polcyn truss a chicken you must—especially as there are some amazingly ridiculous ones out there that do a terrible disservice to chickens).

The recipe is this recent post, with video link of me making it; the video also describes how to make a quick pan jus as well (all of it is in my last cookbook, From Scratch). This dinner is something I never tire of.

Thanks to Marshall’s tweet, I reread the too-stupid-to-cook post to see if it still held today, and I don’t think it does, happily. We have come so far as a country of cooks. (And so far socially. Notice my ranting tone—you have to be much more careful these days before you launch into a rant.) I’d be curious to know if people agree or not about how far we’ve come.

The pandemic certainly pushed a lot of people along in the kitchen, giving us more time to try dishes we wouldn’t have otherwise, giving people the confidence to improvise. I thought that the sourdough craze was fabulous. Sourdough can be easy or it can fail—as so many now know—and that’s part of the excitement. It reminds us that, when we make bread, our food is alive. I think the most important thing about making bread is that you have to accept that the bread is in charge. You cannot rush it, and when it’s ready you’d better be ready. Bread dough waits for no one.

But there is so much evidence of people feeling more comfortable in the kitchen. The huge success of books from Kenji Lopez-Alt and Samin Nosrat (one very scientific and methodical, one a joyful education in the kitchen) exemplify this.

Another huge factor in the upgrading of our skills and confidence in the home kitchen across the country has been social media. Beautiful pictures inspire us. And failures in the kitchen bring us together. We share them all. And every ingredient we desire is available online.

Trapped inside for so long, restaurants closed for so long, and for all the above reasons, we have become a nation of cooks.

And for those days when you’re just so, so … you just can’t—here’s what Sifton and his colleagues fall back on when they’re too tired to cook.

Pandemic America: Too Tired To Cook. I can relate. Stay healthy everyone.

What else to do with that chicken …

My wife Ann wanted cock-a-leekie soup, the Scottish soup of chicken and leeks. My favorite part of this dish is that the process of making the soup generates the broth so all you need is water, and the result is a super clean and delicious homemade broth. Do not use store-bought broth for this one. (Post and recipe here.)

All you really need is one chicken, six leeks, and six carrots. I like to add barley, which is traditional but not included in some versions, as well as a couple of bay leaves. But:

Prunes? What?

Ann texted me a recipe from The Guardian that intrigued. This one included prunes, of all things. I did some head scratching then reached out to my dear pal Daniel Stashower. Dan is the author of, among many other books, The Hour of Peril, a historical thriller about newly elected Abraham Lincoln’s travel from his home state to Washington—a story very much for our times.

But he is not a cock-a-leekie soup expert. He is, however, married to a Scottish lass, one Alison Corbett. He passed along my email to the fair Alison, who replied immediately:

Nope. We never put in prunes. And I’ve attended numerous Burns’ Suppers where cock-a-leekie has been the first course. That must be a recipe from a different part of Scotland.

Yours, 

a true and traditional Scot

Daniel followed with his own reply:

Well, now you’ve opened a real tin of prunes.  I put the question to my wife, who wrinkled her nose and said, with some asperity, “No, prunes would not be traditional.”  But in the spirit of diligence I consulted one of our Scottish cookbooks, called — of all things — Traditional Scottish Cookery.  And . . .  well . . . you’ll see the result below.

Meanwhile, Ann and I did some of our own investigating, writing to James Clements and his Scottish mum, Kirsty Wark, the eminent journalist and television presenter there, who wrote back the following:

They are indeed in the original recipes and I can remember my mum putting them in hers. But I don’t. They do give a lovely sweetness though, so maybe now I’ll put them in again.

Dan followed up with his evidence, further endangering domestic tranquility:

Prunes in chicken soup, apparently, go back at least until the 16th century, according to Theodora Fitzgibbon’s Traditional Scottish Cookery, above (available in paperback from Amazon for $920.99).

I chose to add prunes, and they were most welcome, adding that sweetness Kirsty notes. Fitzgibbon’s recipe does not call for barley but rather 3 rashers of bacon, never a bad idea.

There was also this quiche Lorraine:

Notice how the froth suspends the garnish, also how thick it is. Quiche, IMO, should not be cooked in a pie plate, but rather in a 2-inch ring mold or cake tin..

And who could resist such an artichoke, if you love artichokes:

Served room temp with a mayonnaise-y lemon-shallot vinaigrette.

What we’re drinking…

An article in The Times food pages on Applejack’s resurgence led me down the Apple brandy rabbit hole. When I lived in Cleveland, I wrote about a man, Tom Herbruck, who as a hobby began making hard cider to distill into applejack. It was so far afield of what he ought to be doing as a husband and father, when he began to make it for sale, he called it Tom’s Foolery. It’s now a thriving business; he makes Apple brandy, bourbon and rye all from fruits and grains that he either he and his wife, Lianne, grow themselves or buy from farmers around them. All this a 30 minute drive from the beloved downtown Cleveland.

I couldn’t find Tom’s Foolery in Providence, and mail-order would take too long. I was able to find some Applejack made by Laird’s, apparently the oldest distillery in America, dating to the 17th century. Continuously running, no-less, even during the Depression, when favorable White House relations allowed them to distill a “medicinal.”

We gave the Wright Flyer, created by a restaurant manager in Asheville, NC, and printed in The Times, a go, a heady mix including two bitter aperitifs, and a spash of dark rum, based on the bourbon-aperol-amaro cocktail, The Paper Plane. Recipe for the Flyer here. You can use Amaro Nonino but I really thought the version using the super medicinal Frenet Branca made the best cocktail.

And FCH video here.

We also, happily, made a Ramos Gin Fizz, in honor of Mardi Gras and New Orleans, where this heavenly concoction was invented in 1888. A gin sour (lemon, simple syrup with egg white) made floral with orange blossom water and fizzed with seltzer at the end. It’s served straight up, which makes it a fizz; over ice and without the egg white it would be a collins.

Ramos Gin Fizz recipe.

What we’re watching…

We’ve caught the first two episodes of All Creatures Great and Small, and it’s truly satisfying our hunger for quiet, gorgeous drama in the British hinterlands, as a young veterinarian begins practicing in rural England in the 1930s.

Ann recommends Blood, on Acorn TV. It’s compared to the excellent Broadchurch series.

Earlier this year Ann asked me to watch this beautiful and touching short (20 minutes) film about, well, a good neighbor. I love it. Humanity. With virtually no dialogue, it is a brilliant example of visual story telling by Benjamin Wolff:

Via the MDK newsletter and the lovely Kay Gardiner.

What we’re reading…

I’ve been delving into some Young Adult titles for a project I’m working on, including the brilliant Turtle’s All the Way Down. It’s led me back to one of my childhood favorites, S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now. I’d love to hear from anyone who has books aimed at 13/14/15 year olds that hold up to adult reading. (Just this moment, Amazon emailed to recommend The Fault In Our Stars, another great work by John Green.)

Ann buzz-sawed through an advance copy of the latest Laura Lipmann crime novel, Dream Girl (available for pre-order). And for a Valentine’s Day gift, Ann gave me a delightful volume called The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Makes Surprising Sense, by the late New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker (foreword by our great poet laureate Billy Collins and drawings by Roz Chast!), who was a collector of misspellings, “Naval gazing,” “self of steam,” “eek out a living.” If you’re a word lover, this is a delight. Not easy to find in hardcover! Thank you, wife!

And obituaries…

A true story:

My wife, Ann, is a novelist. About ten years ago, she was invited to a dinner party and was seated beside a stranger. He was happy to be seated next to one of Providence’s eminent writers and went on with story after delightful story of his own life, enchanting Ann. When he departed he said, “When I die I want you to write my obituary.”

Ann, fueled with wine and lasagna, said, “I’d be happy to!”

On the way home, the stranger told his partner, “Ann Hood said she’d write my obituary.”

To weeks later, two weeks, the hostess of the party called Ann to say that the man had died. She said, “You promised to write his obituary.” She gave Ann a list of people to call for information. Ann’s first effort was no good. They told her where he lived, where he went to school, where he worked. The facts. She could write his resume, but not the obituary he wanted. So she called everyone back a second time, and only then did they open up with stories. The first time was facts, the second time was stories. The stories are what’s important.

It was so hard for Ann, the responsibility of that obit, she never wanted to do it again, but she decided to create a character who was an expert at writing obituaries. At the time she was stuck on a novel about a woman trying to leave her marriage in the early 1960s. She thought “What if I put my obituary writer in that story.” The twinned stories came alive. The Obituary Writer was published in 2013, and it’s one of my favorites.

I’m reminded of this after a spate of fabulous obits in The NYTimes and the man writing them, Bob McFadden, byline Robert D. McFadden. Exactly 60 years ago, he joined The Times. When I was a copy boy there in the mid 80’s, he was a legendary rewrite man. Copy boys and editors alike marveled at his ledes. It was like watching Roger Federer play, but it was McFadden against a deadline. He always won. That would include a 1996 Pulitzer for spot news.

Now, at 84, he’s an equally brilliant obit writer: Betsy Wade, who broke barriers in the newsroom, Cicely Tyson, Larry King and Larry Flynt.

But there have been great obits of late by others, too. My favorite is this one of Reggie Jones, the longest-serving life guard at Jones Beach. Joe Allen, legendary restaurateur of Broadway, with his eponymous restaurant, as well as Orso, next door, and the unsigned, insider’s Bar Centrale, a favorite of actors for post-show food and drink.

And finally, the obit for Maria Guarnaschelli, a longtime editor at W.W. Norton, mother of chef Alex, and the woman who took a chance in 2004 on a cookbook devoted to meat, fat and salt, whose recipes took days, even weeks, some of which could kill you if you didn’t do them right—not exactly fashionable at the time. But without her, and her brilliant questions to my original manuscript, our book Charcuterie wouldn’t have been half as good. It may not even have sold. Thank you, Maria.