July 1, 2008

Let’s Try to Preserve the Art of Cooking

By Ellen DiPronio Sonnenberg

Cuisine today is different from that of the past because of health consciousness and our busy lifestyles. It's low fat, no fat, low carbs, no carbs, one-dish meals, light, easy and instant everything.

My concern is that those tasty, nutritious and cheap recipes that were created and enjoyed so long ago will be lost. Many were ethnic, brought here from the "old country" or learned from other immigrants. Some imaginatively used the products that were on hand - - miracles of adaptability.

The dishes were hearty, with tempting aromas that lasted all day from the long cooking of low-priced meats and free bones from the nearby butcher. It was not uncommon to have foods from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Ireland and other places served at our table, as well as Italian. The traditional food that was prepared resembled the originals, but had been altered through the years.

However, there was a cost -- the risk of overeating. Outweighing this is the balance that there were no processed ingredients, preservatives, nitrates, extra salt and additives that fill an entire label. People enjoyed their meals, relishing the flavors, texture and eye appeal. You would never hear: "What's in here?" or "How many calories?" or "Only a tiny portion."

A professor from California tells a story of his youth. There was little money for food, so his mother made a meal with stale bread and cabbage. He never expected to have it served at a gourmet restaurant in New York later in life.

My mother also invented an unusual meal using cut wieners, diced potatoes and seasonings. She served it with homemade bread. It was filling and oh-so good. One of my grandsons claims this combination is his favorite. I've been searching the restaurant menus to see if it is listed yet.

Another of mom's ideas was a pizza with an olive oil and sugar topping and crispy top and bottom. We delighted in all kinds of pizza before it became popular. It used to come hot from the oven and was devoured before it cooled.

It took long hours to experiment with the ingredients that were at hand for the women to produce new, flavorful servings. Some of us are encouraged by companies to enter our originals in contests. Mom would be proud to know that some of my entries have won cooking honors.

Yesterday's distinctive nourishment is sought by the people of today. Restaurants cater to their newly acquired tastes by opening Italian, Mexican, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Thai and others to satisfy their appetites. Enjoying their favorites without the energy and time to produce them is justifiable, but a bit of the specialty is lost in the mass production.

The quick and delightful offerings of family and friends are delicious. They have used partially prepared, ready-to-serve ingredients, canned and frozen food stuffs. Cutters, grinders, mixers and processors are employed for ease and speed and the results are excellent and don't lessen anyone's pleasure, including mine: sauerbraten (beef marinated in spices and apple cider vinegar) gnocchi (potato dumplings covered with sauce and Romano cheese), beet borscht (a vegetable-only soup in summer but made hot for winter with ribs and diced potatoes), gaspacho (a cold spicy vegetable soup), minestrone and lasagna, to name a few.

However, there is hope in the new generations. I observe my daughters, grandchildren and some friends preparing with passion the menus of old. They delight in their uniqueness.

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