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If pre-cooked is the way of the future, what kind of future will it be ?

September, 2009

There have been several stories recently proclaiming the end of food. Not food as nutrition, of course. We will always have to eat, something. The warnings are that we will no longer need to cook. We will regard Grandma’s wonderful babka recipe as amusingly archaic since we’ll be able to get “Grandma’s Babka”™ from the frozen food section of any supermarket.

The fastest growing – and most profitable – section of supermarkets is prepared food. In a rush after work? I can pick up salads, ribs, chicken and dozens of other presumably freshly cooked dishes on the way home. In the mood for lobster salad? Damn! Last time I checked, I still have to buy the pre-cooked lobster, crack it open and put the meat onto the pre-washed and packaged mixed greens. Well, at least I can say I “made” it myself.

What concerns the Flavourguy in me, however, is that there is a level of cooking before we even get to the recipes. That’s where we turn on the heat. If cooking food led to civilization – another current hot topic – what happens when we lose that skill?

The Flavourguy knows how to light a fire – and a barbecue Photo: Scott Philip

I write this from PEI, where we have spent much of the past several summers renovating a cottage. Toward the end of this summer, our daughter invited some of her friends from Charlottetown for a beach fire. “Dad, if they don’t know how to make one, can you do it?”

This question is provocative. How do 20-year--olds raised in the Maritimes not know how to make a beach fire? What happens when they actually want to cook something? When the crew arrived, I loaded them up with wooden matches, newspaper, several armloads of dried brush, and a few stout pieces of lumber that we no longer needed and herded them to the beach. They soon had a roaring fire and were scuttling in the dark looking for driftwood. I heard one of them chortle, “Look what I found; it came from a pile of wood with a sign saying ‘please do not remove.’ ” That’s the campfire equivalent of illicit downloading.

Soon they were roasting marshmallows and playing guitar. These are deeply subconscious traits that remain even if we don’t quite remember how to make a fire.

Walking away from the inferno, I passed my fire-making contraptions. There was an old and cranky Weber, which, like me, when prodded in the right places, still does great bbq-ing. There was also an insane, propane-fuelled wok burner purchased mail order from a Chinese graduate student. Dongsheng Zhou was studying in the USA and couldn’t get his apartment kitchen wok to the high level of heat required for decent stir frys so he built one that can out-power a jet engine. Last night I cooked 10 pounds of mussels in a few minutes. On most stoves, it would need a half-hour.

We have an old propane stove in the cottage and even a microwave oven, but, for me, serious summer cooking is done outdoors on one of these finicky fire-burners. The Weber must be checked frequently. Wood and charcoal burn unevenly and those Weber baffles, great for maintaining an even heat, rusted away years ago. The wok needs constant watching. It can turn a noodle dish into scorched earth in less time than it takes to chop a garlic clove.

Each of them demands an involvement with my meal beyond eating. Consumption is a fine thing, but preparation is passionately rewarding. Here is the secret that cooking teaches: I know how to use fire and therefore I create. In creating, I am.

Slow-cooked brisket:

This makes a smoked meat that my clan liked better than Schwartz’s!

Coat a 4-pound brisket with a thick layer of salt, cracked pepper, cracked coriander seeds, finely chopped garlic and onion (or garlic and onion powder). Use a cup each of salt and pepper and about 1/4 cup each of the rest. My nose guides me. Cover the meat and cure it in the refrigerator for 3 days.

Heat the bbq to about 135C (275F). Leaving the spice rub on, put the meat on a rack in a pan. The heat should circulate around the meat without fat hitting the fire. Put the pan on the grill, pull the lid over and cook for 6 hours, adding smoking chips or wood two or three times. If you have to lift the lid frequently (as I do on my old Weber), add another hour of cooking time.

Remove the meat and let it come to room temperature. It will be tasty but tough. Steam it in a covered pot for 2 hours. Serve by slicing thinly across the grain. This is important; if it is still tough you are likely cutting in the wrong direction. It should slice easily, falling apart as it comes off the knife. Serve with mustard, rye bread and pickles.

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