As The Kitchen Counter Cooking School begins, Kathleen Flinn, freshly returned from Paris and the Cordon Bleu school there, “stalks” a shopper around the local mega-supermarket, mystified about why the stranger is piling her trolley high with packages and bottles when she is surrounded by delicious nutritious ingredients which would produce delicious nutritious meals at a fraction of the cost. Finally, Flinn works up the nerve to approach the woman and ask; the woman admits to being a poor cook–she doesn’t know how to cut up a chicken, much less roast it, and the packaged foods produce a familiar edible meal with little effort.
This encounter inspires her to start, not a cooking school exactly, but rather to seek out a group of volunteers from that group of people in the same boat as the woman she encountered in the grocery stores: people who didn’t eat well because they didn’t have what she considered basic cooking skills or the knowledge to judge the quality of ingredients. Flinn started the experiment with a visit to each of her future students’ home, to go through the contents of their pantries; this resulted in a not unexpected mix of prepackaged foods and leftovers gone bad as a result of overestimating what the family would be able to and inclined to eat before the supplies went bad. The remainder of the book is a combination of the description of each class, and the students’ reaction to them, with a listing of any recipes used in that class listed at the end of the chapter. The lessons are an interesting and useful mix of practical techniques–how to use a knife easily and safely, how to make an omelet, how to braise just about anything–with an education in determining which is the best ingredient for the purpose, including taste testing a spectrum of simple foodstuffs from olive oil to salt. Flinn returned to her students’ homes several months after the classes ended as a followup to see how much of her lessons the students had incorporated into their lives at home on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, there was rather a lot of what I’d call backsliding, but all the students had managed to take some things back into their real lives; one student would make omelettes for dinner rather than grabbing McDonalds on the way home, another would pack a sandwich to carry with her on her hours long commute, and so on. The best lesson they took away was simply confidence in their ability to cook; not everyone can be a Brilliant Chef and all too often seeing Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin or the current Celebrity Chef du Jour can put even decent home cooks off their stride, not realizing that those cooking shows have backups to their backup sous chefs.
On the whole, this was a breezy quick read for me but about as substantial a work of literature as a puff pastry–fun while it lasted but once eaten, vanishing from the tongue. But then, as with the YA books…I’m not the target audience. The basic idea is a good one. There are uncountable people out there who really have no idea how to make salad dressing, or potato salad, that different condiments taste so very different or even how to chop a zucchini or scramble an egg. I’m nowhere near Cordon Bleu level, and indeed got vapor lock recently when trying to figure out how many potatoes to boil for potato salad, but I know how to roast poultry and mix a salad dressing. Or rather, I know that it’s not a difficult task and to check a cookbook for details.
Bluntly, I hope Flinn isn’t quite as disingenuous as she comes across in this book–if a stranger approached me in the grocery store and started critiquing my selections, I’d be more likely to get huffy than listen to her suggestions. (How does she know this is my primary shopping trip?) Overall, I’d put the book on a par with Julie and Julia rather than My Life in France: enjoyable but not brilliant. For more information, here’s the author’s blog (go WordPress!).