Even before the pandemic happened and all the restaurants were forced to close and life ceased to be as it was, I had cooked and baked almost everything we ate. Besides the meals themselves, I made lots of kitchen staples: loaves of flax-laden sourdough, almond walnut granola, jars of spicy salsa and sweet marmalade…delicious things upon which to base a meal that I created and maintained stock of before the pandemic, now during, and forever, as long as we have interest in eating them.
Now, this isn’t some back-door self-compliment slide-in designed to make me look like the perfect homemaker/roommate/invite to a potluck (before we all thought potlucks were Petri dishes of germs); I just genuinely enjoy cooking, so I make it a priority. I have fun making my own ketchup, never mind the flavour is better. Cooking has long been an activity that grounds me, getting me into my hands and out of my head, while offering the gratifying outcome of something good to share and eat afterwards. Even the fact that the food is eaten and disappears is comforting; nourishment was enjoyed, and now there’s the room for the process of creation to begin again.
I’ll also say that my motivation for taking the extra time and effort to make lots of things from scratch comes from my time (albeit short-lived) working in the food science industry, and seeing what goes on behind the scenes. Some people may not know what I mean by “food science industry” because it is so hidden and label-less; essentially it is the industry that deals with what happens when an agricultural product leaves the field (or water) and before it reaches the grocery store. It is the sorting, cleaning, processing, packaging, etc, that happens to food before it becomes, well, food. Even a bag of chopped lettuce needs to get processed: leaves get cut, washed in chlorine-y water, bagged, flushed with nitrogen, and then sent on its way in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Someone has to think about how to optimize every step of that process; and by optimize, I mean, to make profitable.
In the industry, the joke/truth has always been that the cheapest ingredients are: air, water, sugar, and salt. Say you were going to make a packaged cookie with a shelf life of one year: well, let’s make it fluffy (air!), expand its volume (water, sugar!) and then add lots of sugar (and a little bit of salt) which will immobilize all that water so that microbes can’t grow, because we want a 4evah cookie. All that sugar will also make it really tasty to our reptilian brain, the part of us that is programmed to love sweet things. When formulating a product, it boils down to making something decently palatable (subject to opinion) while keeping the production cost as low as possible.
Iterations after iterations of products are made behind closed doors before the ideal balance of flavour and cost are achieved. On a personal note, having to taste test hot sauce every day for two months does things to you. Even if you like hot sauce. Moreover, when you are tasting in a professional setting, personal preferences do not matter. You taste the hot sauce even if you hate hot sauce, because it’s your job – and you are trying to be a Professional so that you can keep your job and move up the corporate ladder.
This economy-driven approach has serious compromises to the health of us, our communities, and our environment – the malodorous details of which have been dealt with by far greater minds than mine, so I’m not going to belabour them here. And if economy is driving the way your food is produced, then it indubitably is playing a role in other realms of your life.
We buy convenience foods that supposedly save us money, because we are busy at our jobs, trying to make money, to then spend on convenience foods. Couple this grinding cycle with the propaganda perpetuated by teams of marketers for large multinational food brands – telling you that making things yourself means you are smug and self-righteous to do so, that you would be robbing your children of precious together-time by slaving away in the kitchen, that you would be robbing your partner of precious sexy-time by getting sweaty standing over a hot stove, that somehow you are more empowered when you spend all your hard-earned money on their products, that why don’t you give up already, and on and on. It’s relentless.
As the whirlwind of opinions and emotions has swirled and eddied during this pandemic, one cry of “I want it to go back to normal” makes me sit up straight and ask, “WAIT – were you actually happy with how it was?”
Take your time thinking it through.
Consider that it takes a woman seven tries before finally leaving an abusive relationship for good…
Well, things are complicated – at least in terms of food. These large multinational food companies are part of the reason why our food supply is so secure compared to previous generations who underwent huge political and economic turmoil. Even though the local and global economic markets look like they’re settling in for a long recession, we get to enjoy a relaxed and lush food supply, at least for now, unlike our ancestors.
And if things get really bad, you’ll have to learn how to get creative with that jar of fancy olives (expiry date 2012?!), parboiled rice, and yellow mustard that has been languishing in your fridge door since BP (Before Pandemic).
Mind control tactics of multinational corporations aside, anyone who has peered long enough into these depths and has kept their head on straight will essentially advise this: if you want to eat something and feel good-ish about it, then make it yourself.
This has been the advice I’ve received from mentors in the industry. It’s the advice I’ve arrived at myself.
Make. It. Your. Self.
This is true empowerment.
As many of us have been spending lots of time at home (perhaps busy taking care of children, not able to go to the gym, and eating our feelings), it seems like prime time to learn how to bake a cake. Sweet treats being kryptonite for the brain’s reward system, it might behoove you to know how much sugar goes into a cake. With awareness comes choice. Do you still want the cake? Sure. But now you know what’s what. A homemade cake asks of your labour and time and money, and with the full knowledge of what went into making it, you can fully savour each bite.
Now if you haven’t really cooked or baked, this isn’t some rally cry to get you to become a Betty Crocker-Superwoman-Jamie Oliver hybrid bot. Start with one thing, and see how it goes. At the very least, you might get a nice stretch reaching up to get the baking dish from the shelf, and work the buttocks as you squat to find the flour.
May I suggest that this chocolate beet cake to be a good introduction to the world of Make It Yourself: you add everything to a bowl and mix it together. That’s it. The beets keep the cake moist and add a glamorous pinkish hue to the cake. Unless you despise beets and can sniff out their wet-dirt smell from a distance (I can’t, but I’ve been told), then they simply give a slight earthy note which works really well with cocoa powder.
This recipe asks for cooked beets; my preparation strategy is that whenever I’m turning the oven on for a period of time, I wrap root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc) in foil and toss them in the side of the oven. This way I’m making the most of the oven being turned on, and I have easily created something to turn into a meal later. Exact timing depends on the oven temperature and the size of the vegetable, but I’ve always preferred an overcooked beet to an undercooked one. This plan-ahead-move comes in handy for this recipe, as you want to use room temperature beets when mixing up the batter.
Bake, and beet happy (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
Chocolate beet cake
Makes 1 loaf cake
2 cups cooked beets, puréed (at room temperature)
1/3 cup warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
Add everything to a large bowl in the order stated. Mix, slowly at first, until everything becomes cohesive. Scrape into a loaf pan that has been greased and lined with parchment paper. I love the look of a slice from a loaf pan, but you could easily bake this in a round cake pan if you’d rather.
Bake in a preheated 350 degrees F oven for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let it cool before slicing. It is lovely served with a dollop of whipped cream as an afternoon pick-me-up, and maybe some green tea to refresh the palate.