Sunday, October 17, 2010

We are the masters... right?

As we move into late fall, I have to struggle to get out of bed on these chilly dark mornings.  In a couple of weeks  we’ll get a brief reprieve when we ‘fall back’ to eastern standard time and daylight greets us  at an earlier hour. But for now when my alarm rings, I shut it off and begin bargaining with myself, saying “One more minute.  Just one more minute.”  Ten minutes later, the second alarm rings, which usually gets Al up and into the shower.  My guilty secret is that I plan it that way, because once Al is in the shower, I get another 15 minutes of justifiable snoozing before I really have to get up.

One day last week, in the midst of that 15 minutes of contented dozing, I heard our coffee pot kick into gear.  We have one of those awesome “Grind and Brew” pots that grinds the beans and brews the coffee.  It sounds a little like a jet engine taking off, especially against the quiet of a sleeping household.  This fabulous device is programmable, so that when we finally stumble downstairs in the morning we have freshly ground, freshly brewed, piping hot coffee.  Spoiled, aren’t we?

Anyway, I was dozing happily when I heard the whir and grind of the coffee pot and my thoughts drifted to my breakfast-  oatmeal with cinnamon sugar and walnuts, orange juice and that freshly ground, freshly brewed, piping hot coffee.  I thought of the stories my mom used to tell about her childhood breakfasts- oatmeal, juice and, for the grown-ups at least, coffee.  Just like us.  Except, I am pretty sure that my grandmother did not doze contentedly while her programmable “Grind and Brew” coffee pot did the work of making the morning java.  In fact, I suspect that during my mother’s childhood on a depression era farm in upstate New York, my grandmother got up long before the family to build the fire in the wood stove, brew the coffee and slowly simmer those oats.  Dozing contentedly was probably a completely foreign concept, as incomprehensible to her as a wringer washer is to me.

Yes, times certainly have changed.  I enjoy the luxury of a technology-enabled healthful meal.  The coffee is wonderful- locally roasted, rich, robust- and automatically made for me.  I don’t have time, or rather, I don’t want to get up early enough to cook my oatmeal every morning, and I hate the instant kind, so I make a big batch of steel-cut oats on Sunday night and microwave servings each weekday.  (You can do this with no loss of quality if you use steel cut oats.  In my experience, at least, rolled oats tend to be less than appealing upon reheating.)  My breakfast takes no time at all in the morning-maybe 2 minutes from my arrival in the kitchen until it is piping hot and ready to eat, while I imagine my grandmother had an hour or more between her arrival in the kitchen and a hot meal for her family.

My mother used to talk about the farm style breakfasts of her childhood.  And not fondly. No misty eyed, rose-colored glass nostalgia there.  In fact my mom HATED oatmeal.  Aside from the texture, which my mother found pasty and gloppy, my grandmother made the ultimate culinary mistake (in my mother's opinion at least) of using NO salt.  My mother was adamant that a little salt is needed to enhance the flavor of pretty much anything and in fact she’s right about oatmeal.  No salt leads to a disagreeably bland cereal.  Clearly, you only need a little- you don’t want to taste it, you just need enough to bring out the nuttiness of the oats. 

My mother hated her mother’s oatmeal so much that she developed elaborate deceits to avoid  eating it.  Sometime in late elementary school, she hit upon a method that worked until she graduated from high school.  She appropriated a canning jar and hid it in the gathers or pleats of her full skirts.  Waiting until  the adults were not paying attention, she spooned that bland pasty oatmeal into the jar.  When she left the house to meet the school bus, she’d hide the jar under a bush near the front door. After school, she’d bury the offending cereal, wash the jar and be ready for the next morning.  This, by the way,  is the same woman who made me sit at the dinner table for hours until I cleaned my plate of the one vegetable that I truly detested as a kid- cooked carrots.  I tried a few deceptions of my own, like hiding them in a crumpled paper napkin, but since she had mastered the art of hiding hated foods it was pretty hard to fool her.   I  never really found a way around those reviled carrots, although sometimes, if they were served with a gravy bearing roast, I could sort of smush them into the leftover gravy on my plate and get away with choking down only a few. 

In homage to my mom's cream of wheat art!
Despite her insistence that I eat my carrots, she actually never forced oatmeal on us.  In fact, I always liked all hot cereals,  but she was much more likely to serve us Cream of Wheat than oatmeal.  I guess she was compensating for her mother’s oatmeal demands because she went out of her way to make that Cream of Wheat desirable and appetizing.    No raisins because I hated them when I was young, and she wouldn’t go so far as chocolate chips, but she did indulge me with colored sugar faces and designs.

So here we are seventy five years after my mother avoided her oatmeal with some crafty shenanigans, and I find myself eating that same meal most mornings.   I certainly have an easier job of it than my grandmother did, but despite our differing methodologies, we fulfill the same basic human dietary needs.

Technology has changed the way we cook, but has probably had an even more profound affect on the way we communicate.  Long handwritten letters and personal visits are now replaced by email, text messages,  facebook, blogs, twitter—things that would be completely alien to my grandmother -- but exist to fulfill the basic human need to be part of a social community.  Some people think that electronic communication has helped us develop even stronger communities and certainly it has made it easier to keep up with old friends, especially those who live at a distance.   But at the same time, there are limitations.  For local friends, I find it much more rewarding to sit across a table with a glass of wine or cup of tea.  At work, I prefer to talk to someone in person instead of calling or emailing.  The latter are perhaps more efficient, but lead to inevitable misunderstandings and eliminate the ability to read body language and other non-verbal cues.   Also, technology has lent validity and significance to some pretty insignificant things (like this blog???)  and in the worst case, has provided an arena for some outright hateful diatribes that would previously have gone unpublished.

I have no desire to go back to woodburning stoves and generally enjoy modern technologies.  I too use email, facebook, text messaging, blogs, etc. and value the immediacy of electronic communication.   I am not interested in moving backwards to a ‘simpler’ time , but I do think it is important to keep the goals in mind and use the technology to achieve the goals rather than defining  goals to just to use the technology.  The goal of technology in the kitchen is to make it easier to eat well, not just to eat faster.  The role of electronic communication is to facilitate social connection, not to soak up endless amounts of time and diminish personal relationships.   And certainly not to spread hatred.    Technology is the servant of humankind, not the master. 

I only met my mother's mother once, and then just briefly.  This story is one of the few connections I have to her, and it has significance partly because of the juxtaposition of old and new kitchen technologies.  The photograph was captured using a genuine technological miracle-- the digital camera.    I wrote this entry on a laptop computer in the car while returning home after visiting distant friends, with whom I usually communicate electronically.  And now I am posting it to some unknown server in some far corner of the cyber-universe, where it is available to you .... electronically.

We are the MASTERS of technology, right?


Today I am grateful for good food to nourish and sustain us.  However it is cooked!

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