Sunday, January 6, 2013

Touring with Grandma in the Kitchen

Two tall stacks of pancakes coming right up from
Food Cycles' official breakfast chef, Hannah Cooper.
It's getting late in the day and the two cycle-tourists are due at their hosts' place soon, but hand-painted words on a roadside sign never fail to make them hit the brakes:
"Farm Stand". Suddenly, the stomachs growl, the brakes squeal, and the eyes hone in on the charming wooden crates containing unknown delights.

Since pedaling south from the artichoke-strawberry-brussels-sprout-zone of Monterey bay, we've seen picturesque vineyards, citrus by the truckload, leafless persimmon trees still bearing bright orange fruit, and rows upon rows of salad greens, bok choy and cabbage.
There wasn't actually much at this farm stand, not even a person running it, but we weren't the only customers. A chic blonde woman clutching her car keys was determinedly rotating the butternut and spaghetti squashes.
"Which kind do you think is better?" she asked us when we walked up. We asked her what she wanted to do with the squash.
"I don't know," she said. "My grandma used to make really good squash and I just want to eat some."
We explained the difference between butternut - creamy and pumpkiny - and spaghetti - pretty much like spaghetti. Then I noticed the pile of deep green buttercup squash on the other side of the nearly-empty farm stand. With its meatier flesh and richer flavor, the buttercup is a personal favorite of mine, so I suggested it to our squash-challenged friend.
"Oh, I saw those, but I didn't think they looked very good because the skin is all... weird."
"Trust us," we told her. We picked out a medium-sized one ($2) and deposited a handful of change in the slot where it said "Pay here - and don't steal, God is watching and so are we." Passing up the bird-pecked persimmons ($3/basket), we smooshed down whatever was at the top of Hannah's right pannier and packed in the squash.

Squash lady was now juggling a butternut and a spaghetti while rotating the buttercups thoughtfully.
"How do tell which one is good?" she asked.
A winter squash is one vegetable where it's hard to go wrong, but I humored her and pointed out a couple of obvious dings that would need to be cut out.
"Then what do I do with it?" was the next question.
You had to admire her determination to put into her mouth that perfect bite of Grandma's squash, even if she had no idea how it came to taste that way. We told her how to cut it, scoop out the seeds, sprinkle it with cinnamon and butter, and roast it with a little water in the pan. I hoped to the God(dess?) of Farm Stands that it was how Grandma would have done it.
The woman went home with all three varieties of squash, and I wondered what their fate would be. Would she have time to deal with them when she got home? Would she cook all of them and throw out the ones she didn't like? Would she come to be a regular squash eater, or be discouraged if her efforts ended up too stringy, too hard, too mushy or too dry - not like Grandma's?

For someone who's never cooked before, overcoming the crushing anxiety of opening a vegetable with a knife is hard enough. Then there's the whole question of how to cook it. The volume of information out there for new cooks probably makes the situation even worse. Although mediocrity is inevitable, even more the most experienced chef, everyone wants perfection the first time they try something new.

Is fear of failure what has kept my generation from ever learning how to cook? Fifty years ago, it would have been unheard of for a woman not to know at least three different ways to prepare squash. Times have changed since then, and I'm glad (my mom never pushed domesticity on any of her kids; becoming the family cook was all my idea). The world being what it is, most people don't seem to have time to cook, and folks my age don't see a reason to unless they are truly dedicated to the taste and experience of creating exciting food from raw ingredients.

Before Hannah and I left on this bike trip, I always found time to at least make something basic when I got home, or to make a big batch of something and freeze half of it. Now that we're full-time cyclists without a pantry or a freezer to pick from at the end of the day, I'm finally able to understand the impetus behind "Let's just pick up a burrito/burger/pizza." While my inner Grandma/chef is screaming something about how I could make one so much better at home if I just had half an hour in the kitchen, the cyclist, the one who doesn't want to go to the grocery store, deal with camp cooking or finding their way around someone else's kitchen, and is stark-raving-hungry, tells her kindly to shut up.

Most nights, though, the cook wins out, and the starving cyclists have to wait. We're saving money, yes, but we're also keeping the sharp edge on our ability to whip up something from nothing, to bring out flavors and appreciate the process of field to plate. Tonight, we roasted that buttercup squash just as we instructed our friend at the farm stand to do. Our hosts, who work full time, provided a Von's rotisserie chicken. Not Grandma's choice, but the cyclists happily ate every last bit.


  1. Hannah makes some killer pancakes! Thanks for sharing everything. Have a great trip!


  2. Thank you! As long as the pancakes don't sneak out of the food pannier and stab us in the night, we will!