10/25/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System


"How cool is this!"

Susan, a 68-year-old retiree from Philadelphia, was on her maiden voyage with her new toy, a salad spinner.

As she pulled the spinner's retractable cord, the room filled with a rattling hum, similar to a washing machine at the end of its cycle. She was visibly pleased that after just a few pulls, the lettuce leaves tucked inside the colander-like basket were nice and dry. She marveled at how she could both wash -- "Wow, there's a lot of dirt in these leaves" -- and dry salad greens with just one tool.

This was just one of the many ah-ha moments for Susan, who signed on to take an immersion cooking course with me earlier this summer. Over the course of a week, we met in her kitchen each day with one primary objective: Getting a handle on the bare essentials of cooking.

With beautifully washed and dried greens before us, the next logical step was to make some salad dressing. She could hardly fathom, as with the salad spinner, the low-tech simplicity of the DIY version. Surely there was more to salad dressing than a few tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a lemon, salt, pepper, and maybe a smidge of strong mustard. "That's it -- and you just shake it all together in a little jar?"

You see, during the twenty-plus years of raising three children, Susan put dinner on the table with minimal chopping, slicing or dicing. Instead, she opened cans, unsealed jars and unzipped seasoning envelopes, as per the directions on the back of a box, and within minutes, voila, dinner was ready. With so many heat, reheat and quick-serve options on supermarket shelves,
Susan, a young mother of three in 1971, felt no need to learn how to use a kitchen knife, and it certainly never occurred to her to make salad dressing. In her mind, Susan fulfilled her job of putting a hot meal on the table for her family. Nobody ever starved, she noted.

Susan is right. Her kids did eat three "square" meals a day. But they each went out into the world without knowing how to prepare one.

I should know; I'm her daughter.

I was 21 when I graduated from college, the same age Susan was when she gave birth to me. With my first cookbook (The New Basics by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso), I fumbled my way through my apartment kitchen. Cooking dinner, I quickly learned, was a practical way to stretch my measly paycheck. But it also set me on a path of personal discovery.

Learning to cook reminds me of discovering my true love for reading, when I was six years old, the lucky recipient of a brand new hardbound copy of Charlotte's Web. Reading took me places I longed to go and helped me to better understand the world, even then.

At the stove, my world similarly expanded. Even when I screwed up a dish, I learned something new: Maybe math or chemistry, botany or history, or a hard-fought lesson in patience. Looking back now, with the perspective that comes with a culinary degree and a 17-year food career, I still believe deep in my bones that cooking, which marries the practical with the magical, can be the greatest teacher of all, and that it's never too late to learn.

It was in this spirit that I approached Susan about the kitchen project. Nothing too cheffy or complicated, I said to her over the phone. Simple tricks and techniques like washing and drying salad greens, and making legumes.

Legumes. What are those?

You know, lentils.

Oh yes. And can we make some quinoa? I would like to learn how to make some quinoa salad. I love the one that's on the menu at Terrain.

Sure. And maybe work on some knife skills, you know, how to dice and slice.

Ugh, my knife is so dull. Maybe we need to buy a new knife.

Our adventure began, as it did every day, with warm-up exercises that went something like this: "Okay, ready? Heel, tip. Heel, tip. There you go. Glide, glide. Twenty times on each side."

You might think we were working out to a Jane Fonda tape; instead we were honing our knives with a sharpening steel. A long metal rod used to maintain the edge of a knife, the steel is one of the first things I learned to use in culinary school, but rarely sees the light of day in home kitchens.

By our fifth day, Susan had prepared two kinds of lentil dishes, boiled quinoa ("wow, it took only 15 minutes!"), seasoned it with her newly beloved salad dressing in a jar, and stuffed that quinoa into bell pepper halves. We bought just-harvested asparagris (her word) from a local farm stand that we roasted and topped with lemon zest and grated Parmigiano.

I'm sure some of you are asking how this sweet little mother-daughter cooking story has any business appearing in a serious publication about the food system.

The thing is, home cooking is serious business. The food system is more than crops and livestock; it's what we humans do with them. In these disheartening times, when we're asked to make sense of mega farms, antibiotic-resistant foodborne outbreaks and poverty-driven obesity, cooking is a beacon.

Back in 1966, a woman named Margaret McNamara founded Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating illiteracy. RIF points out on its web site that "Literacy -- the ability to read and write -- is essential to developing a sense of well-being and citizenship."

Couldn't we say the same thing about the ability to prepare a simple meal? Cooking is as fundamental as it gets - to our personal health and nourishment, and to the well-being and longevity of our communities, culture and society. It can be the cornerstone of a sustainable food system, if we give it a chance.

See you in the kitchen.

This is an abridged version of this essay, which originally appeared on Civil Eats.