23 Sept 2012

Book review part 2: Kitchen Counter Cooking School

This was originally one long post but I’ve cut it into two. Read part 1 here.

Growing my own makes me value food. These are my sugarloaf cabbages, about a week ago.

A couple of days after reading the Food Sage’s post about hunger and poverty in Australia, I read Kathleen Flinn’s ‘Kitchen Counter Cooking School’. Another American book, at first it made me smug to read about a group of American women who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) cook and instead filled their pantries and bellies with processed, boxed and bottled food: frozen ready-meals, packet cakes, tinned soups.

Scared of raw chicken and vegetables (truly: no one knew how to cut or cook them) and convinced by family members and advertisers that cooking was too hard and time-consuming, they relied on takeaways or things they could reheat in the oven. Pangs of guilt meant they’d stock up on fresh produce only to be defeated and let it rot in their fridge crispers.

As I said, at first this made me shake my head and think ‘oh, I’m not like that’. And on many counts I’m not. But Flinn’s book had some serious messages, touching on all sorts of threads that have been floating, tugging through my mind lately about cooking, eating, food:
  • how we have lots of cooking shows on TV, but none of them really teach us how to cook
  • how ‘normal’ and prevalent processed food is becoming
  • on the flipside, how this ‘eating clean’ thing I keep reading about is attracting bells and whistles, but take the California earnestness out of it and it’s just about eating ‘wholefoods’ (another trendy label). ‘Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise’ has always been one of my favourite rules of thumb.
One point that hit home to me was rather than developing a rotating handful of recipes you can cook without an actual recipe and know will produce a satisfying meal, we have been seduced (again, by advertisers, celebrity chefs and cooking shows) into believing we need to cook something different and exotic each time we enter the kitchen. After my recent bad run in the kitchen I questioned this need for constant reinvention and realised the value of doing what you know and doing it well.

In the end, Flinn’s group of women (she gave them basic but wonderful lessons in cooking and eating) changed (mostly) the way they way they bought food, cooked and ate it. Because they now had the knowledge and skills to purchase thoughtfully, healthily and economically, and to cook in a way that valued the ingredients and delivered a great meal. Most of the women did away with the packaged food and went ‘wholefoods’.

It was inspiring. I’ll admit that more than once, I put down the book and did a fridge and pantry inventory, wondering if bread counts as processed if you can recognise every ingredient and where Vegemite fits into all this.

‘Tomatoland’ and ‘Kitchen Counter Cooking School’ are two very different books but both made me think about how I want to eat and cook and treat my food.

Let me know if you’ve read these books, and your thoughts, or if you can recommend other good books.


  1. I try to eat fresh produce as often as I can but there is usually something a little processed that sneaks in here and there - sugar, flour, food or condiments from cans or bottles or jars, etc. But overall, though I can do better, I think I do okay. The book does sound inspiring. I've sometimes thought about how cool it would be to mentor someone like that, to take them shopping and teach them how to cook. :D

    1. Me too - i would love to do something like that. i learnt a lot just reading it, but to do it in real life where you would touch, taste, smell everything would be wonderful.
      and our pantries sound similar!


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