On any given weekend, Kathy Murray can be found ensconced in her kitchen, perfecting her sourdough bread, freezing a week's worth of meals made from "as close to the earth as possible" ingredients and cooking up fresh fish and produce from her local farmers market near Pocantico Hills, New York. She did not learn this at home.
Like millions of her fellow baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, Murray was raised by parents who had come of age in an era where food was often bland, not always abundant, certainly not a vehicle for pleasure and frequently packaged for convenience. While they were grateful for the solid, if uninspired meals their mothers put on the table, boomers hungered for more. Murray, and many like her, took matters into their own hands and reclaimed the kitchen as a source of joy, relaxation, creativity and, increasingly, health.
Appetite whet, she began spending summers and holidays with her food-loving sister (also a boomer) who married by the time Fallon was 12. There, she learned to cook for pleasure, subscribing to every cooking magazine and honing her culinary skills. Decades later, she's amassed more than 10,000 recipes (arancini with sautéed porcini was on the menu the other night) and spends her time cooking to relax and joyfully entertaining for friends. Her now empty-nester sister, she notes, rarely cooks for herself.
Lisa Scalia, the middle of three sisters born near the end of the Baby Boom, says that while they were taught the basics, their mother just never really enjoyed cooking all that much. As adults, the sisters decided as a team to hone their skills and swap recipes, menus, techniques, equipment and ingredients, and for five years put those skills to work as volunteers at a local church.
Junior high and high school home economics classes filled in some gaps for many of the boomers. But as Todd Wiseman, born in 1964, said, "My wife refused to take it. For her, cooking was a necessity, but delivered very little pleasure." As a creative, expressive cook himself, he was delighted eventually to see his enthusiasm rubbing off and her confidence and skill growing.
As their youngest child departs for college, Wiseman says, "I suspect she will begin to experiment some, but primarily make her signatures. I, on the other hand, will make the dinner plate my canvas and plan to maintain my relevance and value by cooking for my wife."
So why weren't these boomers' mothers especially enthused about cooking? Many of them were busy working outside of home, had grown up in the hand-to-mouth Depression era, had seen their own budding creativity quashed by wartime rationing, or as former CNN producer and PR professional Leslie Linton says of her own mother, "She had to flee Austria because of Hitler and wasn't able to learn much about cooking."
The America that Linton's mother settled in was infinitely safer than war-torn Vienna, but the culinary landscape notably less evolved. As David Kamp wrote in his wildly popular "The United States of Arugula," "The state of American gastronomy would get worse before it got better. Throughout and immediately after the war years of the forties, the big food conglomerates were putting ever-more grotesque packaged products on the market, many of which were by-products of their efforts to produce tinned or freeze-dried field rations for the troops."
He continued, "In time, the packaged food companies would abandon any pretense of claiming their processed and frozen products were superior in taste, instead stressing their convenience."
This created a "manufactured sense of panic," according to Laura Shapiro, who wrote in her chronicle of 1950s food culture "Something from the Oven" that "at the heart of the industry's new definition of cooking was a ticking clock...Advertisements and stories plowed across the media reminding readers again and again how busy they were, how frantic their days, how desperately they needed products and recipes for quick meals."
Home cooks at the mercy of the clock and the omnipresent packaged food industry succumbed, and their boomer children bore the brunt of the blandness - until they took matters into their own hands.
Kamp gives tremendous credit to Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins bestselling "The Silver Palate Cookbook" for turning the tide. A quote from cooking authority Barbara Kafka on the cover of the current edition proclaims, "This is the book that changed the way America cooks," and he agrees.
The book, he wrote, was "more disciplined and earthbound than 'The Moosewood Cookbook,' yet less intimidating and grown-up than the two volumes of [Julia Child's] 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking.'" This made it ideal for boomers who were busy conquering the work world, enriching their lives with cultural pursuits and raising families and still wanted to cook well, "but not all the time."
"The Silver Palate" presented an elegant and somewhat familiar compromise: either use the recipes in the book, or purchase the authors' pre-made, but still sophisticated, ingredients and foods. That empowerment, paired with the then decade-old organic food movement helmed by Berkeley, California, chef and food activist Alice Waters, began to turn the tide of American home cooking.
"My mom hated cooking and I learned in self-defense," says Susan Kessler. "Healthiness is an important factor in cooking since fat and cholesterol have to be minimized. If you are organized it's easy to get a meal on the table with fresh ingredients and flavor."
She blogs as The Frugal Diva, frequently writing about finding deals at farmers markets and on organic food. "Organic" is a word that comes up frequently in food discussions with boomers these days, and it's reflected in their buying habits.
A 2010 survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Whole Foods Market reported that more than four out of five baby boomers say they are now more concerned with what foods they eat, read nutrition labels more closely today and have a better understanding of how their food is produced than they did 30 years ago.
The survey asked 1,349 adults born between 1946 and 1964 about their current shopping and eating habits, versus in 1980 and clearly revealed a trend toward increased interest in minimally processed fare. While the economic climate of the current decade has led to more home cooking (59 percent of all the adults surveyed were eating dinner at home more often and eating out less), the boomer bent was distinctly health-oriented.
Fifty-four percent of boomers said they buy more organic and/or natural foods today. Seventy-four percent claimed they are now more concerned about fat and cholesterol and 70 percent worry over added growth hormones or antibiotics in meat and dairy products more than they did 30 years ago.
That's right on trend with how Scalia is cooking these days. She says that the meals she prepares for herself and her husband definitely skew more towards the healthy end of the spectrum. "We are both 50-plus, so I can't deal with the guilt of preparing unhealthy meals and compromising our health."
The pair eats meat, but primarily lean poultry and fish. Her husband is not partial to vegetables, so she "creatively" works them into the dishes so he'll enjoy them too.
Murray, who eventually became self-educated enough to be dubbed the "Julia Child of the class" in her high school yearbook, calls eating locally "a passion" - a far cry from the box mixes and prepared foods of her youth. Alongside her husband of 34 years, she picks fruit and vegetables, bakes bread and revels in the bounty of seafood brought in by nearby Long Island fisherman. She finds tremendous joy and creativity in making meals for friends and has passed that along to her sons as well.
She's even managed to please a couple of tough customers: her parents. They're big fans of her baking, and Murray is doing her best to "educate" them on her savory dishes. She says, "They like the caponata I make up but without pine nuts. They do not like seafood as much as we do and will not eat lobster."
And, Murray has finally caught on to her mother's greatest kitchen skill - convincing her daughters to cook for her.
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