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Something About Cooking
Cooking is sometimes a pleasure, sometimes a duty, sometimes a burden and sometimes a martyrdom, all according to the point of view. The extremes are rarities, and sometimes duty and burden are synonymous. In ordinary understanding we have American cooking and Foreign cooking, and to one accustomed to plain American cooking, all variants, and all additions of spices, herbs, or unusual condiments is classed under the head of Foreign. In the average American family cooking is a duty usually considered as one of the necessary evils of existence, and food is prepared as it is usually eaten - hastily - something to fill the stomach.
The excuse most frequently heard in San Francisco for the restaurant habit, and for living in cooped-up apartments, is that the wife wants to get away from the burden of the kitchen and drudgery of housework. And like many other effects this eventually becomes a cause, for both husband and wife become accustomed to better cooking than they could get at home and there is a continuance of the custom, for both get a distaste for plainly cooked food, and the wife does not know how to cook any other way.
Yet when all is considered the difference between plain American cooking and what is termed Foreign cooking, is but the proper use of condiments and seasoning, combined with proper variety of the food supply from the markets. Herein lies the secret of a good table-proper combination of ingredients and proper variation and selection of the provisions together with proper preparation and cooking of the food.
We have met with many well educated and well raised men and women whose gastronomic knowledge was so limited as to be appalling. All they knew of meats was confined to ordinary poultry, i. e., chickens and turkeys, and to beef, veal, pork, and mutton. Of these there were but three modes of cooking - frying, stewing and baking, sometimes boiling. Their chops were always fried as they knew nothing of the delicate flavor imparted by broiling. In fact their knowledge was confined to the least healthful and least nutritious modes of preparation and cooking. Not only is this true of the average American family, but their lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of cooking and food values brings about a waste largely responsible for what is called the "high cost of living." It is a trite, but nevertheless true saying that a French family could live well on what an American family wastes. Waste in preparation is but the mildest form of waste. Waste consequent upon lack of knowledge of food values is the waste that is doubly expensive for it not only wastes food but it also wastes the system whose energy is exhausted in trying to assimilate improper alimentation.
It is a well recognized medical fact that much of the illness of Americans arises from two causes, improper food and improper eating methods. In Europe this fact was recognized and generally known so long ago that the study of food values and preparation for proper assimilation is one of the essential parts of every woman's education, and to such a degree has this become raised to a science that schools and even colleges in cooking are to be found in many parts of England, France and Germany. Francatelli, the great chef who was at the head of Queen Victoria's kitchen, boasts proudly of his diploma from the Parisian College of Cooking.
The United States is now beginning to wake up to the fact that the preparation of food is something more than a necessary evil, and from the old cooking classes of our common schools has developed the classes in Domestic Science, that which was formerly considered drudgery now being elevated to an art and dignified as a science. In Europe this stage was reached many generations ago, and there it is now an art which has elevated the primitive process of feeding to the elegant art of dining. In San Francisco probably more than in any other city in the United States, not even excepting New Orleans, this art has flourished for many years with the result that the average San Franciscan is disappointed at the food served in other cities of his country, and always longs for his favorite restaurant even as the children of Israel longed for the flesh pots of Egypt.
One needs to spend a day in the Italian quarter of San Francisco to come to a full realization of the difference between the requirements of even the poorest Italian family and the average American family of the better class. We need but say that we have been studying this question for nearly twenty years yet even now we meet with surprises in the way of new delicacies and modes of using herbs and spices in food preparation.
If we were to attempt even to enumerate the various herbs, spices, flavorings, delicacies, and pastes to be found in a well regulated Italian shop it would take many pages of this book, yet every one of these articles has its own individual and peculiar use, and the knowledge of these articles and how to use them is what makes the difference between American and Foreign cooking. Each herb has a peculiar quality as a stomachic and it must be as delicately measured as if it were a medicine. The use of garlic, so much decried as plebeian, is the secret of some of the finest dishes prepared by the highest chefs. It must not be forgotten that in the use of all flavors and condiments there may be an intemperance, there lying the root of much of the bad cooking.
Garlic, for instance, is a flavor and not a food, yet many of the lower class foreigners eat it on bread, making a meal of dark bread, garlic and red wine. It is offensive to sensitive nostrils and vitiates the taste when thus used, but when properly added to certain foods it gives an intangible flavor which never fails to elicit praise. What is true of garlic is also true of the many herbs that are used. It is easy to pass from a rare flavor that makes a most savory dish to a taste of medicine that spoils a dinner. With the well-known prodigal and wasteful habits of America the American who learns the use of herbs usually makes the initial mistake of putting in the flavoring herbs with too lavish a hand, and it is only after years of experience that a knowledge of proper combinations is obtained.
Visitors have often expressed wonder at the variety of foods and delicate flavors in San Francisco restaurants, and possibly this brief explanation may give some comprehension of why San Franciscans always want to get back to where they "can get something to eat."