Hip Girl and the Art of the Kitchen Ecosystem

There’s a lot of ways to come at the idea of integrative cooking, and it is always a treat to meet a like-minded person. I met Kate Payne in 2009, shortly after I’d published Well-Preserved. She was, at the time, working on The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, a millennial generation approach to the chores and joys of maintaining a home. That first book was a swirl of tips and solutions and ideas for pulling a first household together: it took the panty hose off Heloise. Last year she asked me to write the forward to her new book The Hip Girl’s Guide to the Kitchen, which just came out from HarperCollins. It was my pleasure, not least because Kate represents the kind of home activist that I think is key to correcting the failures of our industrial food system. Here’s an excerpt from my forward.

The kitchen paradigm has changed. The use of fresh regional produce and proteins had become a choice rather than an imperative, and that choice is dictated by a bevy of considerations: flavor, health, economics, environment, and politics. Deciding how to eat today is laden with self-identifiers: am I gluten free? Vegan? Paleo? What percentage of my time and dollars should be devoted to disengaging from the grid? Should I boycott General Mills, Nestle, and Tyson Foods? Today’s food choices are not just about what’s for dinner. They promulgate personal truths and values.

Prewar families used local foods, put up preserves, made dishes from scratch, and utilized the waste stream of foods, like bones and stems, out of necessity. During the cold war era, those kinds of kitchen ecosystems were increasingly replaced with cheap, pre-made, caloric foods with an enhanced shelf life supported by chemicals. Kate comes out of the post cold war era where the values of corporate America in general, and industrial agricultural and its cohort, the biotech industry in particular, have become suspect.

The artisanal movement, once the arena of hereditary family operations, has risen (in part) in reaction to our fast food culture. Every year we learn of new cheese makers, picklers, chocolatiers, preservers, and specialty farmers of all sorts who offer tempting alternatives to heavily processed, transported, or treated foods. Supporting these endeavors is a food enthusiast’s passion. It’s also a hobby for the rich, for while artisanal producers address key issues of health, environment, and flavor, their products are often expensive, a reflection of the David and Goliath-like challenges of competing with the industrial food system. 

Community supported foodways have evolved as a response to both the tyranny of the industrialized food complex and their allies in Congress, and the fiscal realities of artisanal products. Shared bulk purchases, coops, canning swaps, repurposing, reusing, recycling…all this is creating food communities that reinforce values and politics beyond the question of what’s for dinner. When Kate describes herself as a hip girl, this is what she is really talking about.

Her book shows the reader how to get there; how to get “hip” to what their options and, actually, their obligations are. This is not a cookbook, but rather, it is a primer for those setting up or beginning a life lived in the kitchen today, facing today’s limitations and opportunities. Her recipe palate is not ethnic, it’s multicultural and her recommendations acknowledge the dietary trends of the current generation and their slender pocketbooks, too. Kate is trying to reach a large and unruly audience, but her solution is the right one: the key to successful cooking is to get in touch with what you like to eat, and be realistic about what you have the time and money to prepare. If you are honest about your food preferences and priorities, and you let your conscience determine your choices, then your cooking will be easier and more satisfying. 

In truth, frugality, and functionality are the pillars upon which flavor rests, and those are virtues that Kate describes. Humble tools assure the cook is preparing foods by hand, and when a food is prepared by hand, it is controlled: pestos aren’t too smooth, doughs are not over-kneaded, because at the end of the day, it is skill that determines good cooking technique, not gizmos. That is what is so untranslatable about your grandmother’s recipes. Likewise, when the home cook uses regional foods that are, by nature, marginally processed and transported, dishes prepared with those foods simply taste better. That’s what makes Italian food so good: It’s not about the recipes. It is about getting out of the way of fresh ingredients. 

So here’s the takeaway: Cooking well is synonymous with cooking with integrity. Recipes that are uncomplicated and unpretentious, that are prepared by hand using good seasonal stuff, makes a kind of honest meal, and it is that honesty which is tastiest. 

This is the real but often elusive truth of good cooking: values matter.

And to the point:

Thanks Kate for this simple, necessary little recipe for homemade counter spray.

Buy a heavy-duty spray bottle and fill it with half distilled white vinegar and half water. Add five to ten drops of your favorite essential oil to cut the smell of the vinegar. (I use lemon.) Be sure to get pure oil, nothing that says “fragrance.”



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