How Three Generations Learned to Cook

Story by Alana Kent, Photos by Alaina Van Slooten

Like a lot of young adults, I spend a lot of time on my phone. If I decide to scroll through Instagram, I see posts from restaurants advertising their food, and from nutritionists saying which foods are healthiest. If I close Instagram and move to YouTube, my feed is flooded with suggested content from Tasty, BingingWithBabish, and Bon Appetit. I close YouTube and go to  Pinterest, which greets me with countless blogs about the best coffeehouses in Boston. I close Pinterest and open Instagram, and thus the loop starts all over again.

Though I constantly consume food media and enjoy spending my time learning more about cooking, I wouldn’t describe myself as confident in the kitchen. While the Internet allows people to interact with food media in ways that were previously unimaginable, it eliminates the need to memorize basic culinary techniques. I cook for myself every day and maintain an Instagram account for posting pictures of my food. I’ve made so many chocolate mousses, quiches and apple pies that baking has become a part of my identity. I can’t make any of these recipes without instructions. I don’t remember even the simple steps I’ve followed time and time again. Why would I when I can Google anything I need to know?

When I was growing up, both my parents cooked frequently and even suggested that I make dinner from time to time, but I was never asked to help them regularly in the kitchen. I started baking frequently in high school, but it wasn’t until sophomore year of college that I really had to start cooking for myself. I had my own kitchen and a very limited meal plan. While I had the Internet to teach me, I wondered what my parents and grandparents had done without such an expansive and easily-accessible resource. So I asked them.

My dad’s interest in cooking started when he was around eight years old, far earlier than mine.

“As soon as I learned how to put pancake mix together, I was making pancakes,” he said. “Once I confused something with onion powder and put that in my cookies. That wasn’t good!”

When he was a little older, his interest in cooking became more serious as he was able to go out to eat and try new cuisines;

“As a teenager, you go out and have buffalo wings and it’s like, ‘Oh this is good, how do I make this at home?’” For him, cooking is an inquisitive task: all about asking questions and digging into the answers. “By practicing, experimenting, trying to figure out where you find the ingredients, how you put them together, it kind of became like a fun quest.”

When my maternal grandmother was 14, she moved out of her aunt’s house and began living with her single father. She and her sister took over the house, doing the cooking and cleaning. She learned even more about cooking when she got married and continued cooking and trying new things.

“I would visit your grandfather’s mother. She wasn’t a great cook, but she made good stew and cooked spaghetti and you learn, you pick things up.” However, my grandma admitted that mostly taught herself. “Somebody taught me how to knit, somebody taught me how to sew, but cooking? Nobody taught me how to cook.”

I remember watching shows on Food Network with my dad when I was younger, specifically Good Eats with Alton Brown. This has evolved into watching different series or movies about food on Netflix. My dad already has an expansive repertoire of what he can make, but watching these shows inspires him to try new things. Recently, he combined foie gras with lobster salad after seeing a chef on the Internet do something similar. My grandma prefers watching the Cooking Channel.

“I like Ina Garten from the Barefoot Contessa. I watch the Pioneer Woman and The Kitchen,” she said. “You do learn from the Food Network.”

My grandma has always been someone who I see as self-assured and experienced when it comes to matters of cooking. But before she was watching the Food Network and picking up new skills, she learned the basics of cooking from reading recipes and experiencing different dishes.

“I’d see recipes in the newspaper and I learned from cookbooks,” Visiting friends and trying food they made also helped her branch out. “You try something somebody else made, and then you always come up with your own style.”

Neither my dad or grandma learned the fundamentals of cooking from television, but they understand the value of drawing inspiration from it, and of picking up new skills and testing out different culinary styles.

The three of us learned how to cook in different ways, but there are commonalities in why we do it. We need to eat to survive, but the three of us all truly enjoy cooking, especially for other people. My dad has a special talent for cooking for others.

“I enjoy creating food that’s good to eat, and I enjoy sharing food with people– that’s what I really like,” he said. “I’d rather cook for other people than cook for myself.”

I’m lucky enough that my dad will specifically cook meals that I love, even if they take a little more effort to put together. I always look forward to coming home on vacations and eating his garlic bread, rack of lamb, and linguine with clam sauce, all the things he knows I’ve been missing out on at school.

“Making something for myself is good, but sharing what I like with other people is even better”.

Food media has transformed since my grandmother learned how to cook. From handing down recipes generationally, to cookbooks, to television shows, to Netflix and the Internet, there is now a whole array of sources to draw inspiration and knowledge from that never existed before. While this increases exposure to different cuisines and allows people easy access to information, it means they do not have to remember specific instructions for cooking if they can search on the Internet for the answer. While food media has changed significantly in the past few decades, cooking has been a very personal learning experience for my grandma, dad, and me. Although I didn’t learned how to cook from my family, I do have them to thank for instilling in me a love of eating and sharing food.

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