Home cooking follow up: Super Bowl edition

A couple weeks ago, I wrote this piece extolling the virtues of a nice home meal. Just so you don’t think I’m a hypocrite, I want to show a bit of what I was up to in the kitchen over the weekend.

The Super Bowl is a big food day regardless of where you are in the country. However, given that the New England Patriots were one of the teams competing this year, the game naturally took on extra significance in Boston, where I currently reside. It seemed only fitting to have a small shindig at my house featuring a few of my favorite dishes for my friends to enjoy.

My theme was “Ohio.” Ohio’s deep football tradition is evident around the state, from the historic Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals to the juggernaut Ohio State Buckeyes, alongside a true “Friday Night Lights” high school football culture. The biggest football game of the year begs for some Ohio representation!

As a native Clevelander with Polish roots, pierogi have long been a favorite of mine. For the Super Bowl, I thought it was appropriate to fuse a little Americana into this ethnic staple in making Buffalo Chicken pierogi with blue cheese as a sour cream substitute.

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I also had a little Cincinnati chili. In case you are unfamiliar with this dish, it’s not really “chili” per se. What makes it specifically “Cincinnati chili” is spaghetti covered in the chili (a “two-way”). If you add shredded cheddar on top of the chili, it is now a “three-way.” Have a hankering for onions on top of that? Four-way. Kidney beans too? Five-way. Since the Super Bowl is a go-big-or-go-home occasion, I opted for the five-way (or at least the potential five way; diners were able to pick and choose which toppings they wanted). Created by Macedonian immigrants to the “Queen City” one hundred years ago, Cincinnati chili remains popular in southwest Ohio today. The rest of the state might be familiar with Skyline brand Cincinnati chili, but I’ve found my own to taste better. I really love making this dish because it’s something that New Englanders have never heard of, let alone sampled before. It has an interesting flavor: beef with cinnamon, cocoa, all spice, cheddar and spaghetti. Must be tried to understand!

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To represent the capital of Ohio, Columbus, as well as my alma mater, the Ohio State University, making the traditional “buckeye” desert was a necessity. The genius is in the simplicity and the presentation: just get some sugar, butter, vanilla extract and peanut butter and mix it all up and shape it into little balls, freeze them with toothpicks poking out, melt some chocolate chips, dip the frozen balls into the chocolate (leaving the top exposed to make them look like buckeyes, a poisonous nut found only in Ohio that looks a bit like a Chestnut, but IS NOT A CHESTNUT!!!), then freeze them again before enjoying.

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We also had some chips and homemade pretzels out for the game. The party ended up being a great time just with the food alone. The incredible Patriot comeback didn’t hurt either. Even though it was a joyous night for New England, it still felt right to have those little pieces of Ohio with me.

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Home cooking is an amazing exercise in human freedom.

Back before my time in Post-War, carefree 1950’s America, so-called “TV dinners” took the culinary landscape by storm. Marketed especially to women (who bore the brunt of all home duties at the time), these prepackaged meals required merely the application of a little heat and almost immediately would be ready for the whole family to consume. This innovation, along with other new products such as the dishwasher and washing machine, was a sign of a new era: one that would liberate humanity (especially women) from the drudgery and monotony of time-consuming but necessary chores, opening them up to a new world of possibilities beyond the home.

I am a huge advocate of convenience creating technologies. I don’t like wasting time unnecessarily on simple tasks. However, this whole movement away from actual home cooking to convenience food from the 1950’s to now, I submit, is robbing us of our culture, creativity, and even our freedom.

21st Century Convenience

I understand that microwave meals are somewhat passé these days. Walking around the fashionable neighborhoods in my city, I don’t see many hipsters munching Lean Cuisines as they sip on a cappuccino in the process of mixing their baroque pop revival band’s new EP on a Macbook. According to a study by AMG Strategic Advisors, it does seem that the younger crowd has undeniably been turning away from the TV dinners of their parents. However, a recent Gallup poll shows that eating out is still a major pass time  in the USA, above all among 18-34 year olds. As per the poll, millennials tend to go to restaurants at similar rates across the board, regardless of income level.

This information stacks up well with what I have personally observed on a daily basis. New restaurants are opening at an eye-popping rate here in Boston, especially in the areas with higher concentrations of 20-somethings. Trying to navigate the sidewalks around Harvard Square is difficult with people jumping in and out of eateries. Over the years I’ve been alarmed by ringing doorbells at strange hours, only to find a delivery guy summoned via Grubhub (which boasts 7 million and growing diners, almost exclusively millennials) asking if I happened to be my roommate.

As a free-market, laissez faire kind of guy, I honestly have no problem with how people choose to spend their honestly earned money. Many people would probably poke fun at me for spending hundreds of dollars a year on sporting events, coffee, and Gregorian chant CDs. Fair enough. Nevertheless, get back in the kitchen, America!

So much more than a chore

Just the prospect of preparing a meal should excite anyone. You get to go to a magical grocery store where literally 10’s of thousands of products from all over the world for all kinds of tastes sit waiting for you to take them home. At what point in human history have we ever had as many choices in anything than we do today at any grocery store in the land? What a magnificent privilege! Then you head back home and still have a multitude of possibilities in front of you. How are you going to prepare the vegetables? Stir-fry? Sautée anything? Are we going to do a marinade? How about a rub? Dessert sounds good too…

Cooking allows you to flex your creative muscles like nothing else in every day life. Sure, you could strictly follow a recipe, but I tend to view those mostly as just suggestions. Over time, you will develop your own preferences that you didn’t know you had as a result of your kitchen experiments. Making dinner at home, you don’t have a boss telling you what to do. You are not obligated to do anything in a certain way. This comes as a huge relief after a long tedious day in the office or classroom. Plus, you have the added satisfaction of having created something ex nihilo! Ok, not quite out of nothing, but you did take things that by themselves are inedible (like raw beef) or disgusting (broccoli) and transformed them into something (hopefully) delicious.

Cooking is also such a crucial cultural activity. Personally, I’ve used it to get in touch with the ethnic culinary traditions of my  family, which has been very rewarding. But going beyond this, it allows you to form your own new culture here and now. Most people in my generation have a deep existential longing for connectedness in a world of growing alienation. What better way to accomplish this than by randomly baking your friend some cookies? Or inviting someone over for dinner? Or preparing a meal together with your parents or boyfriend/girlfriend? Who knows, together you might just make the next great innovation! At the very least though, you will start forming bonds with the people around you.

We do not have to despair over the loss of culture all the time. Rather, let’s focus on not only regaining some of the great traditions of the past, but especially on starting our own new ones now. I think that in returning to home cooking, we are in a unique position to use our freedom to benefit ourselves and others in ways that most of humanity couldn’t conceive of. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.

So. What’s for dinner?