A generation is described as “the average time interval between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring,” in most cases 25 to 30 years. In that time, wars are fought, presidents elected and defeated, moon landings are made, and, it seems, food changes are so dramatic that it’s difficult to remember where we were and what we were cooking when I first started in the industry.
The idea that we even cook generationally anymore has been co-opted to mean “comfort, home-cooked food.” Within each of the past four generations, so much work has been done in the world of food that the parameters of food are endless. From our modest 20th century attempts at mimicking what was great about French cooking to the 21st century sprint toward the next best thing, we seem to have forgotten more than we learned.
Fear not, though, as I see a glimmer of hope in some of the recent “trends” that look very much like a return to the past techniques and sensibilities that are the hallmarks of generational cooking. Add to those attributes to the lessons learned today, and the prospect of great food remains intact.
Dismiss the concept of “fast food”; it’s fast but not much more. Drop the idea of the “fourth meal”; in a world where some people don’t even get a first meal, that idea is almost reprehensible. Molecular gastronomy does have a place in the process, a kind of return to the basics in a chemistry set sort of way. Sometimes described as a playground for bored chefs, it is an important aspect in our teaching of the next generation of chefs. If they can use the improvements we have made in the scientific side of food, then we will have a more safe and stable food source and a craftsperson who better understands the tools of the trade.
So when I ask Sullivan students about their food roots, in order to better understand their outside development, what should I be looking and listening for? Good technique learned in a personal way, from experience in a home kitchen or under the tutelage of an older chef. I had both growing up, and what one did not know the other filled in.
When I first started, the sauces were in a steam well, the roux was made in gallon batches and orange roughy was a staple on the menu. I learned most of that from my first few chefs. From my mother and grandmother, I learned not to waste anything; food and time were equally important.
My grandmother cooked full time on a wood stove, my mother cooked for a family of seven. Each woman expected full buy-in from the people they cooked for and sometimes with, meaning clean your plate and help in the kitchen.
The generation of students I teach now, and even when I started at Sullivan in 2006, do not have those same experiences. Meals were more a stop in the day than a communion. Time was “wasted” just being in the kitchen rather than picking something up on the way home. Part of the problem stems from the societal rules changing away from the two-parent, nuclear family using home as a sanctuary not as a reception area, and respecting the cooking career as a trade not a stop on the superstar trail.
But the potential still remains to continue the thread of generational cooking. We do not have to go back to the way things were, we have to rediscover and restore the best of what was there and move forward from it, make it this generation’s gift to the whole. The beginnings are here already; the flowering of butcher shops and chefs who can break down whole beasts teach technique and the full usage of a very valuable product. The bakery movement which started up over a decade ago has survived and thrived to the point that it has grown the pastry and cake movement into several national television shows (a sure sign that you are accepted by a new generation). Of course, the home garden has been a constant for decades but how about the urban garden movement and the chicken in every yard craze which is now more normal than crazy?
All of these recent trends feed off a generational past that fed off one of its own. It is, I believe, a normal progression that I feared was being lost in all the food noise. As our parents age and pass away, and we become parents ourselves, we pass on ideas, lessons, even old recipes for food and success. As chefs, we are allowed and duty-bound to renew and restore the past generation to a new one in order to keep things alive but current. If you teach anywhere, any subject, you will understand the need to continue that building process. But we can never forget where the bricks come from or why we build from the ground up. It makes our future food, and indeed our future, much stronger if it’s mixed with a little of our past.
My mom sent me one of my childhood favorites last year that I want to pass along to my sons. I remember it as being warm and filling, but also very simple. When I made it, it was far less than I remembered it to be. Part of the problem is emotional; nothing is as good as Mom made it. But I also realized that it needed some renovation. So I include a new version of an old Foster favorite:
• First, cook and cool 1 package of a good hearty egg noodles. You can make fresh egg noodles quite easily with just egg yolks, flour and olive oil, but a good package one will suffice. Place the cooked cooled noodles in a buttered casserole dish.
• Take leftover roast pork, pulled pork or roast ham, and shred it up. I prefer to roast a shoulder slowly until it falls apart. Pork loin and tenderloin will do in a pinch, but they may end up being dry. If combined with some fattier ham or butt you will have a better mix. The amount of pork should be about half the volume of your noodles. This is a “stretch dish” to provide a family with a good meal that will not overwhelm the budget with excess protein. Add the pork into the noodles and distribute evenly.
• The sauce for this dish was originally a can of condensed tomato soup, something that is no longer mentioned in advertisements but is still very much a presence in the supermarket aisle. I prefer to make my own with good canned whole tomatoes, garlic and onions that are sweated until translucent, and some time on the stove. To the simmering sauce you can add a touch of Dijon mustard, black pepper and salt, a little fresh sage and some half-and-half to finish it. You will want to use at least a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes to give yourself enough sauce to generously coat the noodles and pork. The half-and-half is optional, used only if you want less acidity with your sauce.
• Combine the sauce with the pork and noodles so that you have some excess sauce coating the mix. Cover the top of the dish with some grated asiago cheese and cover. Bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately 45 minutes, removing the cover for the last 10 minutes to brown the cheese.
Enjoy and feel free to add your ideas to the recipe next time. I don’t think Mom will mind…
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.