Monday, March 19, 2012

The New Virtue Challenge

Let's start this off by saying one thing: I'm not the best cook.

Sure, if given a decent recipe, detailed ingredients list and half a day, I can generally muddle through it and make something vaguely presentable, or even tasty; but I'm far from comfortable in the kitchen. This has always been something that's bothered me a bit. Furthermore, as I've grown older, and -largely thanks to my wife- cultivated a better appreciation for good food; it's something that bothers me more and more. But, whenever I consider the idea of actually improving my culinary skills, I sort of hit a brick wall.

How? Where do I start? A cooking class? Just continue to muddle through recipes on my own? I'm not sure. I do know that, in general, when it comes to learning something new, I'm the sort of person who does better when I've got some sort of structure. Which, brings me to my first self-imposed challenge on this blog: The New Virtue Challenge.

"The 'New Virtue Challenge?'" You ask, "What is that supposed to mean?"

Well, let me explain. Or, rather, let Anthony Bourdain explain. Recently, I've been reading his latest book, Medium Raw. In the sixth chapter, "Virtue," Anthony addresses the fact that... well... let me just quote what he has to say, as only Mr. Bourdain can:

...But, I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one's own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.

Back in the dark ages, young women and girls were automatically segregated off to home-economics classes, where they were indoctrinated with the belief that cooking was one of the essential skill sets for responsible citizenry—or, more to the point, useful housewifery. When they began asking the obvious question—"Why me and not him?"—it signaled the beginning of the end of any institutionalized teaching of cooking skills. Women rejected the idea that they should be designated, simply by virtue of their gender, to perform what would be called, in a professional situation, service jobs, and rightly refused to submit. "Home ed" became the most glaring illustration of everything wrong with the gender politics of the time. Quickly identified as an instrument of subjugation, it become an instant anachronism. Knowing how to cook, or visibly enjoying it, became an embarrassment for an enlightened young woman, a reminder of prior servitude.

Males were hardly leaping to pick up the slack, as cooking had been so wrong-headedly portrayed as "for girls"—or, equally as bad, "for queers."

What this meant, though, is that by the end of the '60s, nobody was cooking. And soon, as Gordon Ramsay has pointed out rather less delicately a while back, no one even remembered how.

Maybe we missed an important moment in history there. When we finally closed down Home Ec, maybe we missed an opportunity. Instead of shutting down compulsory cooking classes for young women, maybe we would have been far better off simply demanding that the men learn how to cook, too.

It's not too late.

Just as horsemanship, archery, and a facility with language were once considered essential "manly" arts, to be learned by any aspiring gentleman, so, perhaps, should be cooking.


Let us then codify the essentials of this new virtue:

(Final emphasis mine... to explain the challenge's name, obviously.)

What follows this introductory text is Mr. Bourdain's colorful description of what he thinks the basic cooking skills are. Or, rather, should be. I'm not going to quote all of them fully, because it's really the meat and potatoes* of the chapter and I've already transcribed enough of the book here; but here's the boiled down* list, as I read it:

• Chop and onion/basic knife skills.
• Make an omelet.
• Roast a chicken.
• Grill and rest a steak.
• Cook vegetables.
• Mix a standard vinaigrette.
• Shop for produce and know what is in season.
• Clean and filet a fish.
• Steam a lobster, crab, mussels or clams.
• Roast meat, without a thermometer.
• Roast and mash potatoes.
• Steam rice, and make rice pilaf.
• The fundamentals of braising, starting with beef bourguignon.
• Make stock with bones, plus a few simple soups.
• Know a few simple dishes that form the cornerstone of your own cooking repertoire.

And, this... this is my first challenge to myself. Of the items on this list, there is only one thing that I feel like I can say I'm able to do with any degree of confidence (Hint: It's not chop an onion!). So, I'm going to teach myself how to do them all.

I'm going to tackle each item on the list in turn (though maybe not entirely in order), and like Sarah and I did with our Round the World travels on Strange and Benevolent, I'll record the entire process here. Why do it here? Why do it online? Well, because if blogs weren't made to detail and record random, self-inflicted challenges, then I'm not sure what they were created for. Plus, with any luck, it will keep me focused and honest about the whole thing.

It probably goes without saying that I'm doing this without the permission of Mr. Bourdain. Hopefully, if he knew about it, he would approve, in so much as I'm taking his suggestions to heart. At worst, he'd mock it. And mock it well. I have a good deal of respect for Bourdain, and appreciate his heady mixture of travel and food enthusiasm. (And, increasingly, I appreciate his views on being a father and growing old with a degree of grace. Though I'm sure he'd mock me for saying that too.) Still, to make up for the fact that this whole thing is riding on his coattails, I've put a little Amazon link to the right there, so people can buy his book and assuage my guilt.

OK. I'll leave things at that for now. In the coming weeks, as I hopefully begin to tackle these challenges, I'll begin to unpack them more. What qualifies as "basic knife skills?" How many soups is "a few?" How will I even know when I've mastered shopping for produce? Is there a timeline for this whole thing? How is someone who is notoriously skeptical of seafood supposed to tackle a couple items on that list? I don't know. I'm working these all out as I go.

Needless to say, there will definitely be an element of research to most of these. And, an element of
exploration. Sounds like the perfect place to start this blog to me.

*"Meat and potatoes"? "Boiled down"? I promised the food puns were unintentional.

1 comment:

  1. Clean and filet a fish!? Yikes ... that's one I've not had the confidence to do. Make sure you have a really good filet knife! So excited to read about your progress and learn along the way!