The kitchen is one of those places where sometimes a lot goes on, other times very little happens. Today we seem to say we are too busy to even cook our own food. Settling for processed, microwaveable or drive-thru restaurant foods which are often extremely bad for us. Many people however are not satisfied with this quick paced food way of life. They will find ways to feed their family the best that they can within their means. I chose this topic and person because I knew how much a value the family placed on fresh food. I wanted to show that it isn’t impossible to make and eat fresh food. My family has not always chosen to cook fresh food, often choosing the quicker option. I was interested in getting the point of view of a family who has made it work.
For this interview I chose to focus on a family of five using hearty ingredients and avoiding processed instant gratification. They stock up on the staples and get fresh ingredients when they know they will need them. They bake delicious deserts as well, satisfying their sweet desires while still being healthy. Cooking fresh can be fast, and it will definitely be more healthy than the alternatives. Baking can even be made healthy with several ingredient substitutions.
I spoke with Laura Hunnicutt a mother of three, who lives near my home in northern Pennsylvania. When I walked into their house I was immediate hit with the smell of fresh pumpkin bread. I was quickly greeted by Laura’s daughter and two sons: Rachel, Matthew, and David. They offered a slice of the pumpkin bread which was delicious! After enjoying the quick snack we got into the questions. I found out that she grew up in a “small town” part of a larger city in northern New Jersey and that she first learned to cook with her mother. As she said, “everyone cooked at home in the ‘70s!”
Since then is there someone that you feel really created an interest in cooking and baking?
Smiling she said “My family members’ and my own enjoyment of home baked cookies is where it began. Homemade dough for pizza was a staple in our home and Home Economics class encouraged homemade bread. We still make pizza dough by hand each week; you can cheat these days with a dough mixer or bread machine.”
Looking back she found that while she prefers baking to cooking, her paternal grandmother whom she visited in Delaware enhanced her interest in both. “I thought my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese was delicious so I set out to watch her make it one visit. Except it wasn’t just mixing a few ingredients; it was about 52 steps of stir this, add a pinch of that, raise the heat, lower the heat, add a little more liquid. She was using several types of cheese, one I had never heard of previously. All of it told me she had taken a recipe and made it her own. Her style was to fuss a lot, which was intriguing, but I’ve found you can take any recipe and follow it to the letter or adjust a little or a lot to your liking.”
While on the subject of her grandmother she also told me a short story about her grandfather. “My grandparents in Delaware had a farm where they grew all kinds of things: strawberries, watermelon, soy beans, and lima beans. As a result, their way of eating was often here’s a bowl of lima beans, and a spoon, dig in! Same with watermelon, cut it in half, grab a spoon and start eating!” Which made me chuckle, eating half a watermelon with a spoon. I guess I could come up with other fun ways to enjoy watermelon.
Laura’s story reminded me about my great uncle who often would grab a large Tupperware bowl from the cabinet and fill that bowl with oatmeal for breakfast!
I was still curious if anything else had helped create an interest in cooking, and she said “having certain recipes show up repeatedly during holidays or birthdays peaked my interest in being able to copy the food or meal myself. Asking my cousin, grandmother, or friend how they made something or if they would share the recipe was most often greeted with a smile and they would answer my questions or write out the recipe. It was like sharing part of their life with you.” Mentioning that only once did she get a sarcastic remark of “It’s in such-and-such cookbook.”
Modified and Processed Foods
After getting to know a bit about Laura’s cooking history I got her take on the impact of food quality today since it seems more of our food today has been modified in some way, and I was curious to see if that affected their families shopping habits.
After a moments reflection she responded saying, “With so many more allergies showing up these days and with paying attention to all the problems additives cause, we’ve changed our shopping over the years and adjusted where necessary. We know two families that can’t or won’t touch anything with corn in it. (If you read ingredient lists you’d be surprised how many processed foods have corn syrup in them.) The powers that be have played with our corn so it is almost impossible to find corn that has not been hybridized. Heirloom seeds are unavailable through regular sources.”
I further asked if their family has had issues with allergies themselves? Laura smiled saying, “We have been blessed to not have these allergies/issues, but we have made choices to change things over the years. I don’t cook with margarine.“ You still cook with butter, I asked. “Yes, we still use butter. We use 2% milk and I add non-fat dry milk to stretch it. We choose not to use irradiated milk that keeps on the shelf. I use high-fat meats sparingly, such as sausage, bacon and regular hot dogs. I make my own baked French fries, pizza dough, tomato sauce and baked goods. I stock up on 100% juice, fruit canned in juice, pasta, rice, potatoes, chicken, beef, and fish when on sale.”
She went further into detail about how they try to keep processed foods to a minimum saying “All you have to do is read the ingredients label. If you get 3 food ingredients and then a list of chemical additives that would keep a chemical engineer guessing, don’t eat it! Even fruits and vegetables are now picked long before they’re ripe and finished having all the vitamins and minerals introduced into them by natural processes.”
Healthy Food Choices
At this point I could really tell how much passion Laura has for fresh food, and for cooking good hearty meals that will keep her family healthy.
I then asked: Do you think that food choices have had an affect on your overall family health? To which she responded confidently, “Thankfully, our family tends to be healthy. I would hope that my food choices over the years have helped with that. We allow occasional lapses of not-so-good for you food, but don’t make a habit of them. We try to stick with food as it was created, not processed over and over or with a huge list of additives thrown in.”
I was curious to see, given how healthy their family seems, if she thought there was anything she could change to possibly help further?
Thoughtfully she responded, “We are actually finding that fresh fruit in the morning gets us more interested in a break-the-fast meal shortly after. I’d like to have my family less interested in soda (we never drink diet soda). We even have a note on the refrigerator to ‘drink water.’ I think it would make a difference if we all drank water as every other drink. Many people are dehydrated and don’t even know it. Changes for us were made gradually as the years went by. As you make a healthier change and institute it your family becomes used to the ‘new way’ and you can go on to the next change.”
When she talked about making changes gradually, it inspired me to look at what food related changes I could start implementing, so that when it comes time for me to pass my own habits on, the habits I have are healthy ones. We talked a lot about processed foods and I wondered if free-ranged meats or other organic foods were an option for them.
“For us, the option of free-ranged meats was cost prohibitive. We have tried some organic fruits and vegetables, but again the cost has been a factor. I wash all our fruits and vegetables off before use, a habit started many years ago. I would think any food process that keeps additives and chemicals to a minimum or meats that are not filled with growth hormones and all the other additives these days would be a better choice for most families. It is a shame that food less handled or ‘doctored’ costs extensively more!”
I have found that eating better does cost more because the farmers aren’t trying to maximize profit by cramming so many animals into facilities. Thereby creating healthier animals. Because of this I wondered if their family felt limited by their food options?
“If we stick with natural and basic foods, I don’t have trouble finding what I’m looking for. We don’t eat very unusual items, and we occasionally eat ethnic items, such as Mexican or Kosher which are readily available at grocery stores. In the northeast it isn’t much at big bulk barrel supply stores for items such as flour or oatmeal. I have made trips to Amish country in Pennsylvania for certain items. I would say I am more limited by the high food prices that are plaguing everyone these days.”
Good Food and Cooking With the Family
I was curious to know what, in her opinion, she considered to be ‘good’ or ‘satisfying’ food.
“Good food tantalizes the taste buds, so to speak, but you may invoke thoughts of comfort food. Foods that remind you of pleasant times, make you feel satisfied and full and give a feeling of well being. For our family, homemade food tastes better and is enjoyed more than a run to a “fast food establishment” which these days aren’t that fast or cheap when you add in travel time and gas costs. And when you have a hankering for a sweet treat, you can’t beat home baked desserts.”
What is something you have tried to teach your children related to cooking good food?
“My children have been taught for years that cooking is not as hard as some believe. They’ve all tried cooking and baking basic foods, such as scrambled eggs, pancakes or a batch of cookies. Some have gone beyond that. I try to encourage using natural ingredients. Don’t use a huge amount of butter or oil in everything, add a little flax seed or wheat germ for flavor as well as health.”
Laura even gave me some tips for baking. Use real vanilla, use butter, 1 egg can be replaced with 1 tablespoon of flaxseed or soy flour and 1 tablespoon of water. Substitute applesauce for half of any amount of oil. She even encouraged me to just give things a try, follow basic recipes and try experimenting when you’re more comfortable. Ask friends and family for recipes and don’t be afraid to have a friend over and cook them dinner!
Now we’ve talked a lot about food and where it comes from and how accessible ingredients are. Now I was interested to know what some of their favorite dishes were and what she loves to make.
“Pizza with homemade dough is still a tradition at our house. Breakfast foods such as pancakes and waffles from scratch and egg bake are quick any time of day. I’ve even made our own blueberry syrup and strawberry syrup. Some of our friends still tap maple trees and cook down their own maple syrup. Once in a while we have London broil or pork chops, mashed potatoes and applesauce with green beans and carrots. Holidays include all the mainstays of turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, cut vegetables, potatoes, and pies just to name a few.”
She spoke further about baking, “I love to bake, my youngest says ‘get it while you can!’ We always do chocolate chip oatmeal bars for breakfast or snack. Banana, apple, and pumpkin bread are staples. They are enjoyed by all and sometimes I actually get help in the kitchen because everyone enjoys them so much. For holidays and big events everyone gets put to work so hanging in the kitchen together can be part of the enjoyment.”
One of the things I love most about having people over or hanging out at someone else’s house is that you get a chance to make things or try things that you shouldn’t eat all the time or would eat to much of otherwise. As soon as Laura mentioned chocolate chip oatmeal bars I immediately wanted some and got the recipe so I could try them myself! It just goes to show that you don’t always have to buy stuff pre-made, you can make many of those same things yourself for less and often way healthier.
I noticed that one thing that was mentioned several times was not only cooking for family but also company and events. I asked Laura how she handles cooking for larger crowds?
“When planning a larger holiday meal or party I would say what has to be right is the amount of food. I like to serve plenty of choices, with a generous amount of each. I don’t mind being able to send some home with family or guests. Even having leftovers for the next few days for all the effort it takes. A big event takes 3 days as we bake ahead of time and do plenty of preparation for the food dishes to be ready. With all the allergy and special diet needs these days, I try to include foods that are appropriate for those and encourage guests to bring what they enjoy that I may not have.”
Many people have turned toward instant gratification food, it is clear that your family has tried to stay away from that. Do you think there are ways to get away this type of food?
“I think one of the fallacies that enhanced the fast food culture is that cooking takes so long. By the time you drive to the fast food place or drive to the store to pick up the meat for dinner and then you add the cost of gasoline…” She paused for a second shaking her head. “You could stop going to the store every day, shop twice a week, stock up on the basics for your favorite meals, and use the driving time for prepping and cooking a meal. Come on, Rachael Ray has had many 30-minute meals shown on Food Network!”
Tips, Tricks, and Recipes
Being an experienced home cook I asked Laura if she had any advice for beginners?
“I think many people have the ability to become cooks or bakers. Our culture has fostered the belief that hopping over to McDonald’s is the way to go, but there was a feature film done on a young man that made himself ill living on that food!” Laura quickly got excited, exclaiming “Try! Try! Try! Don’t be afraid to open up a cookbook or call up a friend for a recipe. Start with simple meals like eggs or a meatloaf or bake up a loaf of fruit bread. I would say just practice, don’t be afraid of mistakes and don’t walk away from what you’re cooking, pay attention to what you’re doing. We all get distracted. Simple meals do not take that long and don’t require extensive equipment. Even ask someone to give you a lesson or two.
I found that personally I learned best about cooking from watching other people. In college I learned how to make an omelet by watching the cooks every Sunday after church while waiting for mine to finish cooking.
We talked a lot about getting recipes from friends and I asked if they had any passed down ones they were still using?
“We are still using some recipes that I learned from my mom and grandmother, even some from my mother-in-law! Some recipes I created myself and we’re still using and sharing them. I hope our children take the recipes and make them for their friends and continue to make them as they head out on their own to continue tradition and try new recipes for their own families some day.”
Managing a family takes time and with a family of five I’m sure that time is elevated. How do you manage your time between the family, and figuring out dinner?
“Tried and true recipes are often chosen these days for the time factor and ease of preparation. We sample something new once in a while as you need the ingredients on hand and have to concentrate more on preparation when you forge ahead on something new. Everything we do takes time, but as you get more familiar with recipes you can even double up on cooking something one night (say, pasta) and have it ready for the next nights meal. Some people believe in prepping several nights meals all at once and freezing them to be ready to go on busy evenings. That’s what happens when I go all out on a bigger gathering and don’t have to cook for 2 or 3 days afterwards. Or you can freeze leftovers and be prepared later on or for unexpected guests!”
With our time together coming to a close I wanted to end with some tips she’s learned along the way to help her in the kitchen.
Laura responded happily saying “Family or company adds fun to the preparation and cooking of enjoyable meals. Time management goes back to being ready to cook. Anyone desiring to begin cooking or baking needs to have basic supplies on hand. This includes pots, pans or other cookware, mixing utensils, and bake ware. You need to stock up on basic ingredients as called for in recipes. Check out the list in cookbooks or ask a cook. Once you have begun cooking, you will gradually learn substitutions, like granulated sugar and molasses used in place of brown sugar.”
One thing she mentioned reminds me a bit of my family, so often there are dishes piled up in the sink which makes it difficult to get water for a recipe or to rinse off fruits or vegetables, even wash your hands after dealing with raw meat or poultry.
“My kids will tell you I am notorious for cleaning up as I go. Put items away as you’re done with them. Don’t leave the entire cleanup for after the meal or you’ll give up cooking simply by disliking the mess. Or better yet, get the others to help, you know, ‘I cooked… you clean!’”
So the moral of the story is everyone can be a cook. Don’t be afraid of little things or messing up. You can’t learn from mistakes you never make! Eating healthy doesn’t have to cost a ton. You can make things work with the less healthy foods by supplementing them with healthier foods and drinking more water. I learned a lot about cooking and baking talking with Laura and it has given me some ideas for making changes and plans for my future when I go out on my own and being to cook for myself. It even makes me interested in cooking for my family more often just to promote a healthier lifestyle.
By: Andrew Christensen