Getting America Back in the Kitchen

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Photo by Sean Fraga

To try tomato confit, click here for the recipe.

Every fall I get a chance to leave my desk and spend time teaching an afternoon workshop on how to can, freeze, and make confit out of tomatoes. In my mind, these were my granny skills, and as much as I adored my Italian Nonna and privately treasured my competence, I couldn't imagine Yalies lining up for this class.

But they did. Around 40 students and community members turned out to work in front of our wood-burning oven. We ran out of paring knives. We ran out of tomatoes. There were too many hands, so we sent a crew to harvest basil and taught a sub-group to make pesto.

And this is how it went throughout the fall. The apple galette-making workshop? Overrun! Nalgene plastic water bottles, still in vogue then, substituted as rolling pins. 14 pies at a time bubbled in the hearth oven; we re-fired the oven repeatedly. When we ran a lacto-fermentation workshop that winter, 46 students turned out to learn how to put veggies through controlled rot.

We need Oprah. She got the nation reading with her book clubs. Last summer she put Faulkner on the "must read" list for her fans. In comparison to Faulkner, frittata is a snap.

Cooking is important to the health of the nation, as Michael Pollan pointed out in a recent New York Times Magazine article. And though the desire to learn is there among young people, I worry about limited access to the sort of teaching we offer here. The real question for me is: how are we going to teach everyone to cook?

The time is ripe: there's nothing like a recession to shepherd us back into our kitchens. But there are two challenges: we need to create communities where cooking is the norm, and we need to give people the skills for everyday home cooking. How do we do this?

When it comes down to it, cooking at home is a behavior change, and like all behavior changes, from watching what you eat, to quitting smoking, to swapping your car for a bike, you need a like-minded group to join you. I count on my friend Nancy: when I suggested the neighborhood bar for burgers, Nancy put her foot down. Her fridge was full, and we were cooking. 40 minutes later we were drinking beers and eating frittata and salad on her front stoop.

So those of us who already know how to cook need to do it more--but how can we teach others? Is it naïve to think we could make 7th grade home economics, or 4-H clubs--the places where I learned to cook--hip? Some middle schools have made cooking a class meal a requirement of graduation. It's a start.

Over our basic, satisfying, made-from-scratch dinner, Nancy and I decided we need the big guns for this to work.

We need Oprah. She got the nation reading with her book clubs. Last summer she put Faulkner on the "must read" list for her fans. In comparison to Faulkner, frittata is a snap. Couldn't you imagine Oprah Cooking Clubs across the nation? No-nonsense, everyday, from-scratch cooking.

If you're willing, Oprah, we're ready. We've got the curriculum waiting.

Recipe: Tomato Confit

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Melina Shannon-DiPietro is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which oversees sustainable dining at Yale, manages an organic farm on campus, and runs programs that support academic inquiry related to food and agriculture. More

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is an organic farmer turned executive director. In 2003 she traded in her stirrup hoe for a laptop and joined Yale to help found the Sustainable Food Project. For the past seven years, she has worked with colleagues, faculty, and students to create meaningful opportunities for college students in food, agriculture, and sustainability. Her biggest compliment came last year, when a student called her Yale's Dean of Food.
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