Thanks for Nothing

The Chronicle's annual parade of prepackaged Thanksgiving recipes needs to be canned

Obviously the world has changed, and cooking along with it. For the generations of women who followed Criswell into the workplace, cooking is a choice -- and it's a choice available now to men. Some of us never do more than nuke a Lean Cuisine. Others, male and female, enjoy piddling with knives and cutting boards; we're the ones who own lemon zesters and can happily debate the theologies of gumbo (filé or roux?), pie crust (lard or Crisco?) and popovers (preheat or cold oven?).

Other newspapers have managed to keep their food offerings current, to imagine their readers as something more than female consumers of grocery products. These papers serve both men and women, both cooks and those who only read about cooking. Food coverage stops being a lame-brained, product-driven ghetto and becomes, instead, a place for cultural reporting -- with recipes.

Last week, for instance, The New York Times described a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Alice Waters, the culinary saint who in the '70s led California to embrace fresh, organic produce. The meal's many highlights included wine made by Waters's friends in Napa; four kinds of West Coast oysters; a tray of gorgeous raw vegetables; chanterelle stuffing; and a free-range turkey, soaked in brine, then spit-roasted over an open flame. Dessert was a cranberry upside-down cake. Everything, including the cranberries, was organic.

Still have the Chronicle's Food section from Thanksgiving 1986? No reason to read this year's rundown of recipes.
Joe Forkan
Still have the Chronicle's Food section from Thanksgiving 1986? No reason to read this year's rundown of recipes.

Whether you cook or not, it's interesting to read about that meal, and to consider the careful way that it combines pleasure and cooking skills, ideology and nutrition. Home cooks might try to reproduce that mixture, even if they're intimidated by Waters's demanding turkey recipe. (Her stewed fennel, at least, looks easy.)

The Chronicle Food section, on the other hand, does little to attract either cooks or non-cooks. Ideology in food? Never heard of it. The science behind a technique, say, how flour binds a white sauce? You won't see it here. A passionate embrace of whole grains and local produce? The issues raised by genetically engineered tomatoes? The cultural significance of Indian spices? The sad state of grocery-store lettuce?

You won't read about it in the Chronicle. What you will read about are products: at best, authors promoting their cookbooks; at worst, a celebration of something like Canned Food Month. That's a real example from February. In her story, Criswell relayed the Canned Food Alliance's praise of food in you-know-whats, and even promoted the marketing group's recipe contest. Among the recipes that followed the story was one called "Food Editor's Ten-Can Soup," created by Criswell herself.

By offering recipes full of prepackaged shortcuts -- boxes and cans and mixes, rather than flour and salt and fresh vegetables -- Criswell does little to help home cooks improve their skills. Often, those shortcuts don't even save much time. Why use Pioneer mix to make the cornbread for your stuffing, as Criswell suggests year after year, when it's child's play to make cornbread from scratch? I understand why Pioneer would recommend its product; I don't understand why Criswell does.

Every Monday before Thanksgiving, it has become my own, private tradition to grow furious with the Chronicle, to meditate on the ways that it lets us Food readers down. We turn to the section hoping to learn to produce good home-cooked food; Criswell teaches us, instead, to consume highly processed grocery-store products. We seek sustenance. She gives us Jell-O.

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That's funny! My Table stole the Criswell mantle and ran with it, updating it just enough to remain 'edgy'.


@heflinH  That's funny! Linking My Table to the Old & Infirm thread...whoever you are you are a genius!


@heflinH  & you're here to ensure that "bitter" and "jealous" are still your trademarks, right?