Katherine Deumling is a native of Portland, Oregon, who grew up in Germany and has lived in Italy and Mexico; her culinary leanings have been shaped by these places and cultures. She runs the small cooking school Cook With What You Have and is passionate about helping people cook more often and have more fun in the kitchen. Katherine is a board member of Slow Food USA and the former chair of Slow Food Portland.
A dear friend and neighbor picked up a bumper sticker at a spice store the other day and gave it to me: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I clipped it to the standing file folder on the counter in my kitchen “office.”
Last week, I taught a cooking class at a retirement center. My 16 students (15 of them women) ranged in age from 70 to 90. I had been advised to teach and demo dishes that were simple, quick, and easy to prepare in the residents’ small kitchens. But I didn’t really know what to expect.
I’m a bit of an evangelist about cooking dry beans these days, and so I decided to demo a white bean and tuna salad, with beans I had cooked at home and brought with me. Before the class, I mused to a friend that I wasn’t sure I was going to get these folks to start soaking and cooking their own beans. So at the beginning of the class, I asked how many already soak and cook beans. Five hands went up.
I’m not sure why this surprised me. Many of these folks grew up during the Depression, an era that lacked much in the way of disposable income, industrial agriculture, and convenient processed food. Of course these folks would know how to cook dry beans, and of course they would’ve brought their bean-cooking ways right into their retirement-home kitchens.
My students were a wonderfully curious, engaged, and joyful bunch. One of them revealed that she had been cooking for 90 years. Her neighbor at the table objected that she couldn’t possibly have popped out of the womb and started cooking right away. “All right, all right, so let’s say 87 years, then!” was the good-natured response.
The group included a co-author of several cookbooks; a group of women who had recently started a group called Food for Thought to discuss issues of food, culture, policy, and nutrition; and folks who just wanted to cook more and needed inspiration for their daily meals. One of the women told me about Adelle Davis, someone I had never heard of but have since discovered was a pioneer in the areas of health and food, and an early critic of the industrial food system.
I may have learned more from my 16 lovely students than they did from me, and so I can’t wait to return. And I hope to return soon, since I have one regret. Many of them talked about the challenge and loneliness of cooking for just one, sometimes two, people. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me until I came home and saw my new bumper sticker that I should have suggested that they invite each other over for dinner.
All they have to do is walk down the hall. They obviously like each other, and what could be more fun than ending the day over a meal with a friend?
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