A lovely reader called Susan asked a damn good question in the comments on the weekend which has had me thinking. And thinking. And thinking. Why do I cook from scratch? she asked. Is it because it's cheaper? It tastes better? or is it for environmental reasons to cut down on food miles?
It's so weird, Susan. No one has ever asked me that question.
They've asked me if I'm bonkers (well my sisters have), because really, who makes their own butter? People have asked about the time commitment because, again, who really has time to make all their own bread and crackers and pasta if they have a job? Even if that job is at home raising small people.
Let me answer the fundamental question first.
Although I've cooked forever, and on occasion for a living, I first started diligently cooking from scratch when I figured out that Henry, then about three, reacted to artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.
Everyone knows kids react to sugar. That's obvious. But it was when he would get completely hyper after eating "healthy" rice crackers and dried fruit that I started paying attention. After discovering the amazing Sue Dengate, I started by taking him off dairy. This wasn't easy as his diet at the time was pretty much made up of milk, cheese and yoghurt. But after about three days he was an exponentially calmer boy and I wondered if I was onto something.
I started really reading the back of the packet (particularly of rice crackers and dried fruit.) I was surprised to find nasty flavour enhancers in plain rice crackers (not to mention the sodium) and discovered an insidious preservative in lots of things called 160b which really seemed to affect his behaviour. Anyway, the first step was avoiding all artificial preservatives. The natural next step is to make everything yourself.
I should say one thing: although I'm a huge advocate for kicking all artificial stuff out of kids diets and I have first-hand experience in how much this affects kids concentration and calmness, I don't think it's wise to attribute all behaviour to food. What I mean is that I think sometime kids get ratty, and it's not necessarily because of something they've eaten. If you're constantly telling a kid that their behaviour is being moderated by the MSG-laden chips they just ate, I wonder if they might stop taking responsibility for the way they're feeling and behaving. Just a thought.
So that was my first motivation.
Then I discovered how much deep joy I got making stuff from scratch. I am so intensely proud of my homemade yoghurt, and pulling a jar of homemade butter out of the fridge in the morning makes me freakishly happy. Maybe you start because it's a good idea. It is definitely cheaper – bread, 40 cents a loaf! But you keep on, until you discover yourself making not just breakfast cereal and peanut butter and icecream and hummus and stock and baked beans and pies and quiches but all your own cleaning products and washing powder too. Because it's FUN. Really fun. Freaks that we are. (You're here, aren't you? I'm betting you've at least made a loaf of bread once.)
And yes, food you made yourself from scratch does taste better.
Well, food made by someone else can sometimes taste better! Adam made a lasagne the other night which brought a tear to my eye.
But food from a box or a bag or a packet? It never does. Those frozen watery vegetables? Anemic boxed microwave meals? They never do.
Time, though. That is an issue.
To make everything from scratch takes time. But for me, so does going to the supermarket with three children. I figured out a while ago it was much quicker making my own pastry from my bulk bag of flour, and egg and some butter than going to the supermarket, buying frozen pastry then waiting for it to defrost. (If you don't make your own pastry, this should be the one thing you try. It's so fast if you have a food processor, you will never go back. Recipe later this week.)
And food miles?
I remember when I was quite little and Victorian milk started being brought into NSW, undercutting the local milk price. I was a dairy farmer's daughter. It was a big deal. You supported the local dairy co-op or the local farmers went out of business.
I'll admit though, since then I didn't give a whole lot of thought about food miles until this year and I found myself lucky enough to live in an area with a food co-op who are all about reducing food miles and supporting local farmers.
I also saw Food Inc and starting listening to impressive local market advocates like Joel Salatin.
So, Susan, in answer to your question, I cook from scratch for lots of reasons. Because it's healthier, because I love it, and I want to know where the ingredients have come from.
There's one more major reason. It takes me outside of the ridiculous and evil market manipulation that is large grocery chains. It un-links me from the chain of commoditisation that consumers are pushed into, ending with people putting crazy "fruit strings" in kids lunchboxes. (They're lollies, people. Don't let anyone tell you they are a healthy snack choice.) It's my little up-yours to giant food companies who have successfully convinced people it's cheaper to buy frozen pies and chips for dinner than a bagful of vegetables. Cheaper how?
Have you seen this animation?
Anyway, I hope that answers the question.
And perhaps inspires one person somewhere to make their own pesto rather than buy it.