Monday, May 11, 2009

The impact of Communism on my cooking

I feel like an outsider. At some point when the western world got the memo that we were all way too busy to cook, I must have been in France. I didn't get the memo and sometimes when my mind is particularly not busy it muses over the fact that their must be something wrong with my life. I mustn't be doing enough because the truth is, I do have time to cook. And what's more, I don't love it - the obvious conclusion most people verbalise - it's because I enjoy the flip side of cooking, the eating part. And I always get stumped by that statement 'I don't have time to cook' because in my mind, if you don't cook what do you eat?

I've always been puzzled by this, as well as the Slow Food Movement, because who needs to join a movement when we already practise what they preach? Right? Well it turns out that I have made two false assumptions, one of which I only found out recently. The first is that pre-prepared food like frozen meals are pretty normal in most households and cooking is in the 'don't have time' basket. Well, I've known that one for a long time, since meeting my husband and finding out that his sister can live exclusively on steamed frozen vegetables and fish fingers.

But the second assumption was busted just a few weeks back when I read on a blog (and I apologize that I can't remember which one) that convenience and processed food started being introduced in the 50's. I had mistakenly thought it was a recent phenomenon which was why I was puzzled by how frequently my peers admitted to not knowing how to cook and were amazed that I knew how to cook 'from scratch' a term that I found really peculiarly when I first heard it (At the time I actually hadn't know that there was any other option). Apparently their parents hadn't passed on those skills because they weren't doing it themselves. Domestic culinary life had changed much earlier than I had thought which was why it turned out my upbringing was so different to most of my friends.

My parents grew up behind the Iron Curtain under communism in the former USSR. While I don't' know much about what it was like, I always remember my grandmother's stories of people queuing up in the street for hours when certain products hit the shelves of a particular store. Just before my birth, times were especially tough with families receiving ration cards. My parents would trade their cigarette cards with friends for additional food cards to better feed their kids. Obviously with scarcity in food, little variety and being cut off from the west, processed food was something that was never part of my parent's upbringing. By the time we moved to the West shortly before the Iron Curtain fell, cooking in my family was the way a person fed themselves.

Growing up, processed or pre-prepared food never entered our household and dinner times were always sacred. I remember once on a shopping trip suggesting a jar of pasta sauce instead of making our own that week, but my mom turned it down because she didn't like the taste. It would seem that if you were accustomed from childhood to home cooking the stuff in a jar just couldn't compare taste wise. When I was young I was enamoured with the convenience factor and always looked at the pasta sauce jars wistfully as we passed them by on our weekly shopping trip. I cooked for the family one evening a week (and it was usually pasta) but my family simply would not accept a compromise in taste over my convenience. Obviously years and years of this have rubbed off on me too, because now when I do the bulk of the cooking, I choose to shun the jars and even occasionally go to the lengths of making my own pasta. So these days apart from all the other good reasons like avoiding preservatives, that is why I cook. I do it, because as far as I am concerned, no matter how busy life is cooking is a daily part of living, like taking a shower or sleeping.

Because food is something I am passionate about I often wonder what my generations kids are going to be like in the kitchen. Is cooking something that will one day be left exclusively to others or will programs like the Slow Food Movement resurrect the forgotten art? Is it possible that the economic woes will drive people back to the kitchen simply for financial reasons?

What's your attitude to cooking? Has your upbringing affected your time spent in the kitchen? Do you wish you had more time to prepare your own food? Or are you perfectly happy to leave it to others?


  1. I had a combo of influences when it came to food growing up. Some things were cooked from 'scratch' while there were a few pasta sauce jars in our house as well. I've really made cooking a priority at the moment and I think I've got the balance pretty right. It does take time, but this is my life and I want to eat real food, and as you say cooking is a part of living. Wise words :)

  2. Everyone in my family loves to cook...except me. I don't hate it, but I'd rather read a book or go out for a walk. :)

    My family mixes "from scratch" with convenience cooking. They'll "doctor" a jar of pasta sauce or a frozen dinner, if they've caught a sale on either, but mostly they make meals from their freezer, which is filled with veggies from their garden.

  3. great thought provoking post i love to cook from scatch and my family always cooked your right upbringing sets you up well for life, hope I can do the same for my daughter lol

  4. My family are also 1st generation immigrants. And like your family, my parents only cook from scratch. Being the eldest in my family, my mom always reminded me that I need to know how to cook in order to 'catch a husband.'

    Needless to say, I learned to cook, but I hate cooking, and I especially hate cooking for a man. So for the last few years, my husband has been doing the cooking.

    -- asithi

  5. I love everything about cooking, except really messing clean ups. I love reading recipes (I rarely follow them, just let them influence me in the kitchen), I love grocery shopping, I love the aromass, the pictures, and most of the time, the end result. Food is a vital part of our life force. I worry about the younger generations as well Spring Girl.

    BTW, my husband is of Russian descent too. :-)

  6. Berni - Thanks!

    Cammy - I agree, would much prefer to read a book and usually try this approach with my husband. Thankfully it sometimes works! Thanks for the tip too, I hadn't thought of freezing excess produce :-)

    Chow and Chatter - Thank you. I guess the best way is to lead by example.

    Asithi - Wow, cooking to catch a husband! Hadn't thought of that. I think you got a good deal though - a husband who cooks.

    Patty - That's a great way to cook; just being inspired by recipes. I shall have to try to practise that one. I usually try to follow by the letter which makes it far less fun. Nothing like creative cooking!



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