Memories: Cooking from Scratch

by Sandra Lee Smith

For the younger generation who might not recognize the expression, “cooking from scratch” meant putting together meals without resorting to boxed mixes, frozen dinners or other “convenience” foods.

If you grew up on a farm, most likely everything your mother cooked was “from scratch” where mom might go out to the garden to pick the vegetables or herbs she would prepare for dinner - while the chicken that went into the oven might have come from the hen house where mom would go out and kill--then pluck--one for dinner (no doubt one that stopped laying eggs).

While my mother cooked mostly from scratch--our meat did come from a grocery store (we were city folk). I think the advent of convenience foods was almost imperceptible. First, I remember, were the cake mixes--wow! All you had to do was add a few ingredients. I was about 8 or 9 at the time. Around the same time (1948) along came Reddi-Wip™, whipped cream in an aerosol can. We just loved that.

My brother was working after school for a food distributor and would bring home the cans of biscuits with expired dates (which would sometimes explode when you tried to open them). But they were novel so we baked them or made “homemade” doughnuts.

He also brought home a cookie mix--all you had to do was add water. I had the good fortune to have a mother who turned me loose in the kitchen so these things provided tools for experimenting.

I don’t remember my grandmother, however, ever resorting to a box cake mix or making anything that wasn’t made from scratch. Grandma even made filo dough (for strudels) and 14-layered Dobos tortes from scratch - and noodles! She made noodles that would dry on the backs of the kitchen chairs.

My grandparents butchered a hog once a year and it was a “family affair” that involved all the adults in the family. Making applesauce from apples that grew in Grandma’s backyard was also a family affair. (Now, years later--I make my own applesauce, too, from apples that grow on a tree in my back yard. But while Grandpa made wine with his grapes, ours are converted into juice and jelly.

All you have to do is read some cookbooks published in the 1940s (or earlier) and then compare them with cookbooks published after the 1950s when mixes or convenience foods of a wide variety began to appear in supermarkets.

There was a time when not everything started with a can of condensed soup! Just to what degree has “scratch cooking” disappeared from our culinary landscape?

Homemade pancakes or waffles - or frozen ones?

Homemade brownies - or from a mix?

Homegrown herbs - or from a supermarket spice rack?

Homemade bread - or store-bought?

Your own concoction or ground beef and noodles-- or Hamburger Helper™?

Your own homemade macaroni & cheese - or something out of a box?

Freshly squeezed orange juice or something from a can or carton?

The upside of all the prepackaged convenience foods is that it has eased the work of who ever cooks dinner--after, no doubt, working in an office all day. But the downside is - so many people haven’t a clue how to cook from scratch-or how easy it is to make a sauce, add cheese to it and voila! - fresh cheese sauce to mix with cooked macaroni.

This was brought home to me one day when my younger sister called and said “I want to make taco meat for dinner, but I don’t have any taco seasoning mix”.

“Do you have chili powder?” I asked, “flour? Cumin? Dried oregano? Garlic powder? Salt? Cayenne pepper? You can make your own..”

She says she hasn’t bought seasoning mix in the store since. The question isn’t whether or not you need to cook from scratch - but rather, if you can. That, if you are out of the seasoned bread crumbs that come in a can - you would know how to make your own out of some bread and a few herbs in the blender.

I do a lot of canning (tomatoes, tomato juice, grape juice and apple sauce, my own jellies, jams, chutneys and pickles, and sour kraut) - because so much of the fruit and vegetables are available to us. Recently, my Oregon penpal brought us 30 lbs of unshelled walnuts. I couldn’t rest until all of the nuts were shelled and in plastic freezer bags.

I made almost everything “from scratch” when my four sons were growing up because it was more economical and we were poorer than church mice almost always. We raised chickens for a time, and what a thrill to go into the hen house and collect some fresh eggs to cook or bake with!

I still make homemade cookies - because we like them much more. I don’t like the taste of instant potatoes and it only takes a few minutes to peel a few to make my own mashed potatoes. But I do keep a pantry well stocked with a wide variety of canned foods and packaged mixes--in the event of an earthquake, you have to be prepared to eat out of cans for a few days. Most of the women I know (myself included) are quasi-scratch cooks--some things from scratch, some perhaps starting with a mix.

Finally, Earl Wilson, who wrote, “You can say this for ready-mixes--the next generation isn’t going to have any trouble making pies exactly like mother used to make.”

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