Fake cooking news: just stop, already!

If you want to give away Brandied Fruit for a Christmas gift, you need to start in July. There are no Ontario strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or currents to buy in December.

More than 30 years ago, when I was just a novice cook (well, I started cooking when I was eight years old so I was not exactly a novice cook; maybe more of a novice gourmet) I bought the December issue of Chatelaine magazine with a cover photo filled with home made gifts you could make for Christmas.

The most appealing photo and write up on the recipes was Brandied Fruit. It looked luscious and colourful and was packed in a mason jar with a ribbon and a lovely label. I was so excited to make some Brandied Fruit, and give it away as a gift!

Then I read the recipe, published in December.

“Clean a quart of fresh strawberries,” it read. “Rinse a pint of blueberries, raspberries and red currants….”

“Well, for cripes’ sake!” I exclaimed in disappointment. “The ONLY way you could make this recipe would be if you started in July!”

I won’t say the Chatelaine Magazine was a complete waste, as it did motivate me to organize myself to get out and get picking all the berries required the following July. But advertising Brandied Fruit as a “home made gift” you could give away for Christmas, in December, was pretty misleading.

July in Ontario….is there anywhere better on Earth?

It is no wonder young cooks get discouraged.

The entire reason I started shooting cooking videos is because I so despise the current batch of cooking shows. They are all stressful to watch, with young chefs getting cut, chopped, fired and insulted, running off of the set in tears. This is NOT what cooking is about, not at all!

I grew up to believe cooking was a wonderful thing, work done with love for people that you love. My mom and my sisters were patient, persistent and purposeful, involving me in every step of numerous processes so that I would understand cooking.

When I was eight years old, my mom handed me a box of Jiffy yellow cake mix and a chocolate frosting mix.

“Here,” she instructed me. “Make this.”

She only returned to the kitchen once, to tell me not to try to frost a cake hot from the oven.

“Let the cake cool before you frost it,” she told me, before she disappeared again. That cake was actually pretty good, which is kind of amazing when you realize I only learned to READ the year before; and now, I was reading instructions including measurements and oven temperatures.

My sister Jeannie taught me how to brown hamburger meat. “You never put raw hamburger in spaghetti sauce or chili,” she told me. “First, you brown it, and drain away the fat.”

My sister Mary, who worked in food service her entire life, made endless Easy Bake Oven cakes with me and taught me about the fact that food can go bad. I had no knowledge of this before the day she sniffed a container of potato salad and exclaimed, “This stuff smells raunchy! Throw it away!”

Mary, who worked in the kitchen of St. Joseph’s Home for the Aged at Cornwall and Cadieux from age 12, came home from work one day and informed me that the public health inspector had visited the home that day.

“He took a swab from underneath everybody’s finger nails!” she described dramatically. “THREE PEOPLE had germs under their nails that could make residents sick!”

So I learned early on to follow instructions, to fully cook ground meat, and wash, wash, wash my hands.

Also I learned how happy it makes people to arrive home to a meal cooked with love. All of my older brothers had newspaper routes and were gone early in the cold, dark mornings to deliver bike loads full of copies of the Detroit Free Press.

On weekends, I was happy to stand in front of the stove and fry eggs and potatoes for each one of them as they returned from their routes. They ate with such gusto and appreciation, I felt I must have been the most brilliant girl on Earth, that I managed to get a plate of good, hot food in front of them moments after they entered the door.

One of the first winter Saturdays on which I took over the stove, I was dismayed that the potatoes had turned an odd orange colour – I did not know what I had done wrong, and was quite embarrassed at my failure.

“I’m so sorry,” I confessed when I served the plate of eggs, ham, potatoes and toast to my brother Wally. “I do not know why the potatoes are orange.”

“Rita, honey!” he laughed. “These are golden brown! They are perfect! This is exactly how you want fried potatoes to be!”

That’s how I learned about “golden brown.” Who knew? I was eight, and did not know from “golden brown.” I knew how it felt to be loved, and to share love, though. To this day, I believe this is what cooking is about.

Now I see that cooking has become a combination of complicated, competitive, and confusing.  I subscribe to a number of channels that deliver a new recipe to my email box every day, and many of them are simply wrong: the photo of the finished meal cannot possibly be achieved with the steps described.

The worst offenders are crock pot meal recipes. The photo provided often displays crisp, caramelized meats which can ONLY be achieved by broiling or barbecuing. Nothing that comes out of a crock pot ever looks like that! It is so unfair to mislead new cooks this way.

Then there are the almost-impossible “simple” recipes demonstrated in 30 second videos which skip half of the steps required. A friend recently commented on my fresh Ontario strawberries, which are – as all real local strawberries are – much smaller than the giant, woody imported berries she bought at the grocery store.

“I was trying to make Jello shooters I saw on a video,” she described. “I was supposed to hollow out the inside, and then flatten the bottom. I hollowed out the inside, but by the time I flattened the bottoms, the filling was running all over the tray. It was impossible to do!” she moaned.

“It was a stupid idea, which has probably never worked anywhere but on that video,” I comforted her. “Cups are cups, and strawberries are strawberries. God did not intend for strawberries to be cups, I promise you. Just enjoy the strawberries; make a daiquiri, if you want. Pour it in a cup.”

When I was a teen-ager growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in rural Ontario, we got two TV stations: CBC and CTV. The CTV affiliate, CKCO-TV Kitchener, had a cooking show and a sewing show which aired weekly. Each show was half an hour long and featured a mature woman, who clearly knew what she was talking about, teaching something that was sensible and helpful. By the end of half an hour, I had learned something new and had a hope of re-creating it.

There was nothing complicated, competitive or confusing about those shows. They used ingredients or materials we could buy locally; nutrition and value for money mattered; the women were friendly and informative.

Nobody ever got fired, or ran off the set in tears. No one was ever required to make a “mystery basket” recipe including fish and pineapple. There was no swearing and no insults.

I realize that we will never go back to those simpler times; however, I still feel sorry for young cooks who will grow up thinking that cooking has to be difficult and challenging. Cooking should be about love, whether you are cleverly whipping up a paella or just frying some eggs.

Enough, already, with the Fake Cooking News.

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