I was driving around town, searching for pre-shredded collards, when I realized some people would be surprised to know how excited I get about a good shortcut.
Southern food writer Virginia Willis had sent me off searching for the collards. She could find them at both Kroger and Publix in Atlanta.
I had never heard of them. And after scrubbing the produce department at my neighborhood Harris Teeter, I still wasn’t sure they existed. It took a second trip, to the Super Walmart on North Sardis Road, before I finally spotted them.
Yes, Virginia. I am happy to report that there is such a thing as pre-shredded collards.
While doing all that driving, I was thinking about the difference between shortcuts and from-scratch cooking.
I sometimes meet people who assume that I’m a from-scratch girl, all the way. I never eat junk food, I never use frozen food and I would never break a rule of food safety.
And I laugh every time I hear that. Sure, I’m careful about food safety – but that’s because I’ve broken the rules and paid dearly for it. That’s a lesson you never forget. But boy, do I love a good shortcut.
Now, I do mean a good shortcut: There are some shortcuts that just aren’t worth taking. Canned gravy is nasty stuff. And I don’t see the point of frozen whipped topping when it takes 2 minutes to whip real cream.
But other shortcuts are definitely my style. I’m not afraid to admit to using refrigerated pie crust. Canned biscuits are better than no biscuits. And yes, I will doctor up a boxed cornbread mix with hot sauce, Mexicorn and a few tablespoons of grated cheese.
A good cooking life ought to be full of a lot of things. I use refrigerated pie crust, but I also make sure I know how to make a real pie crust. Biscuits take practice. You have to keep your hand in so you can get a good one when you need it. I make cornbread from stone ground cornmeal sometimes, too.
Some days, you’re busy, and you need to cut some corners. Some days, you get to stay home on a rainy afternoon and invest a few hours in making real soup.
Many years ago, I had some time to spend at home. So I decided to try making puff pastry from scratch.
It took a couple of days, doing the “envelope” fold, rolling it out, chilling it, doing the fold again.
When it was finished, do you know what it tasted like? Puff pastry.
It was fine. But that’s all it was. It wasn’t special. It was just what it was supposed to be.
I was never tempted to do it again, but I also never use frozen puff pastry without noticing all those dozens of layers and appreciating how they got there.
If you never cook the real thing, you’ll never know how the shortcut version is supposed to taste.
And if you never cook, you never learn how to cook. And then you have no choices.
A cooking life ought to have room for both.