Taking a cooking class has been a perpetual New Year’s resolution of mine. I’ve been intrigued by food almost as long as I’ve been a terrible cook. When the opportunity arose to take a cooking class hosted by friend and cooking enthusiast Bruce Gingrich, I jumped at the opportunity. In time, my resolution would lead to more than just a new way of life.
First, a little bit about Bruce. He’s always been interested in cooking and, during his time in college, a chance encounter with a chef at a cooking demonstration opened the door to improving his own kitchen skills. The chef suggested he buy the Culinary Institute of America’s textbook, The Professional Chef, and follow it from beginning to end.
Although the book was expensive (from a student perspective), Bruce took the chef’s advice, anted up the dough and cooked his way through the book. Envision the movie Julie and Julia, and you’ll get the picture.
Our connection? I met Bruce at a photo shoot for Lancaster County magazine. Not ironically, food and cooking were involved, as the storyline entailed a dinner party at the home of Pete and Carol Heth. “You look familiar,” Bruce said to me. In playing out a lengthy round of the Lancaster County game, we concluded our paths had crossed time and again, including the New Holland Coffee Co., which we both frequent.
Thanks to that assignment, Bruce and I have become buds, riding bikes together and collaborating on photography for some of Bruce’s building and remodeling projects.
Last year, Bruce launched a home-based cooking school of sorts and invited me and my girlfriend, Jessica, to participate. Eight of us typically gathered once a month to cover a new topic and prepare a host of recipes. We learned to make soups, pesto, fettuccine Alfredo, salad dressings and mayonnaise from scratch. One night we grilled each course (I highly recommend grilled pound cake). We sharpened our cooking techniques with improved knife skills.
The culinary experience alone would have been life-changing, but the difference the classes made in our lives was far-reaching. They affected how we shop; the quality of our meals improved with better ingredients, so many of which Lancaster County bountifully provides. We’ve begun to explore local roadside stands and added Lancaster Central Market and Stoudt’s Wonderful Good Market to our itinerary. We now stick to the perimeter of grocery stores like Shady Maple in order to focus on fresh produce, meats and seafood. Our new routine pays dividends when a recipe comes together.
A Greater Sense of Community
As the months went by, what started out as a journey in pursuit of preparing better food became so much more. We began looking for recipes, cooking inspiration, used cookbooks (the Lancaster Public Library book sale is a great source) and hot buys at The Restaurant Store.
Cooking also conjured up childhood memories. Everyone remembers cooking with a grandparent, leading to shared connections across generations. Recipes, techniques, family history and stories of days gone by are all passed on over food. It’s almost as though the point of food is nourishment not only for the body, but also for the soul.
Through cooking together over the course of a year, our monthly interactions quickly grew into a new community; as friendships developed, we discovered how much is shared through preparing and enjoying food as a group.
The more we shared at each class, the more we started to realize that opportunities to meet new friends or even catch up with old ones at meals are becoming rare.
Gone are the days when landlines reigned supreme and a last-minute call to a home phone number prequalified an impromptu Sunday afternoon visit. I thought of my grandmother, who was always prepared for guests to stop over. She had a well-stocked pantry full of fresh baked goods, sodas and other treats for the unexpected visitor.
My grandmother was also the perfect guest. She’d arrive at her destination with a thermal insulated bag filled with something in one hand and a pie from Bird-in-Hand Bake Shop in the other.
The Art of Being Neighborly
Contrary to what you might expect to hear in a cooking class, entertaining guests doesn’t require being a fantastic cook or baker. A hectic schedule is not a detriment either. You can buy prepared food, such as a rotisserie chicken, homemade soup, potato salad or a cake for your dinner party. It’s not a rule that you must make everything from scratch.
You can also take prepared dishes to another level if you’re feeling creative. One of my secrets comes from New Orleans’ French Quarter: a sliced pecan pie grilled with butter on a heated, cast-iron skillet, then served a la mode. Similar to a grilled sticky bun, grilling adds a delightful, caramelized crunch with a sweet play on temperature.
Beautiful desserts from the Baker’s Table or La Dolce Vita are a convenient addition to your menu. Keeping a selection of wine, beer, tea or coffee on hand is another simple inclusion.
And, if someone offers to bring something, by all means, accept the hospitality.
It also turns out that there’s an art to hosting and being neighborly, and it’s a critical subject for cultivating community around food. For example, there’s protocol for what to communicate ahead of a gathering. In addition to establishing a start time, be sure to make inquiries about dietary restrictions. Serving Delmonicos to a group of vegans will definitely put a damper on the festivities. You’ll be asked about what guests should wear; again there’s lingo to learn. “Anything” will get you just that; learn the nuances of what casual, cocktail casual, cocktail, etc., entail.
Creating a theme for the night – such as a summer fete en blanc, where everyone in attendance dresses in white – creates fun and excitement.
Also, address what guests should bring, if anything, and that includes children (and, in this day and age, maybe the family dog).
Deciding whether topics such as politics and religion should be encouraged or be off limits can make or break more than just an evening.
When guests arrive, make sure to facilitate introductions. I always appreciate when there’s a lead-in with shared interests, which almost instantly replaces any introverted awkwardness I bring to the table with deeper and genuinely enthusiastic conversation. Also along those lines, if you’re hosting a sit-down dinner, I can attest that tactfully seating guests around the dinner table can encourage conversation simply by placing introverts (such as myself) next to the more outgoing extroverts.
In the end, taking a cooking class turned out to be less about food and more about community than I anticipated. I’m grateful to the Gingrich family and the many friendships that have formed and for all of the wonderful evenings shared since it all began. It has provided an enduring perspective on how I experience and share food.
If cooking is of interest to you, I encourage you to take a class and learn how to prepare at least one dish well. You never know what a cooking class will really teach you.