Everyone says you can't make other people happy. The professionals agree, that is correct. Me, on the other hand, I think you can.
When I was young, I grew up in a small rural Pennsylvania town and when I think about the times I was the happiest, it had little to do with what was going on. It was the people around me. There in southern PA when people got together it was not taken lightly; it was food for days and amazing hosts. Its how status was established. It also was done often. You see in general, people in that area, or at least back then, typically did not have much but sharing and breaking bread is just, something, they did, it was part of the culture. This food would be spread across several mismatched tables and counters, and, man, was it good! You see what it lacked in financial cost was made up by passionate, hardworking, people. More often than not it was a hard-working woman at the center of the preparation, that were able to produce absolute magic, from what seemed to be the last of pantry scraps. Those people, they go against, whatever, psychology will ever tell you. These folks, they made happiness, they produced it, and emanated it to entire communities. It is for this reason, I decided I'd become a cook. After seeing the harshness of the world, as member of the military, I wanted to become one of these producers of joy and good times, to make people want to drop their phone's and worries for a few hours, and gather around the kitchen table.
*Image: by Suzanne Snyder, food also prepared by Suzanne Snyder
There are two of these particular women that come to mind. One was a master of making food materialize out of what I thought was nothing. Most kids at some point will holler out "Mom, there's nothing to eat in this house", and from my experience at my friend’s house, growing up, most of their mom's would just give a simple shrug or even cave and go to the store. My mom, after a mild reminder that I wasn’t looking hard enough, I don't know, I swear, maybe, she took at as a personal challenge because that phrase would be met with "dinners ready" without the turn of a car key to go to the store. I'm still baffled where it came from, I was certain there is no way you produced anything from what was left in that cupboard, let alone a full course meal, but she did, with a flavor complexity and depth that would rival the top restaurants. Expect a further article on her in the near future and if y'all are lucky, I'll convince her to share her recipes.
The other was a woman that when attending her memorial service, every person who got up to speak, would start with the phrase "we were around the kitchen table...". Now, that phrase might not sound like much, but let me tell you what that meant. It meant even when she was already hard at work putting a meal together for the family, that would take the care and passion of hours cooking, someone would come in and say I have a problem with this or that, she simply smile and tell you to pull up a chair and let's talk. She knew the importance of time for others, and the importance of time as an ingredient, no not the herb thyme, the indefinite continued progress of existence that occurs in irreversible succession from past to future.
This woman was my great grandmother, Mildred Kistler, and visiting her house, the little farm, snugged up into the Pennsylvania Appalachian mountains is something that just can't be compared. It was a unique experience, as her husband, a man not related to me by blood, but the man I knew as my great grandpa, Robert "Bob" Kistler, raised black bears, caught alligator snapping turtles with his bare hands, and even had a pet kangaroo on the property too these are by no means metaphors or hyperbole. Chickens, my brothers and I would chase or more often be chased by, would produce the eggs and some of the meat for the table. We would eat deer, rabbit, squirrel, and other wild game that we're abundant on the farm. If you were a picky eater it was probably best not to ask what you were eating. I promise it was some of the most delicious food you'd ever eat, and every part was attempted to be used. While she had a gas stove, she preferred the comfort of wood stove range that also heated the old wooden farmhouse during the cooler months and, man, Fall was the time to be there. The view was extraordinary and it was comforting to sit around the stove waiting on bowl of snapping turtle soup, squirrel potpie, or rabbit stew after a long cold rainy day of hunting, would have you salivating while family members would swap stories and catch up around the kitchen table.
*Photo: Scott Huntington, Pennsylvania Appalachian
She not only maintained this "around the kitchen table" demeanor with family but an entire community she was the supervisor of the Letterkenny Army Depot, post restaurant for 25 years and later worked at the C&S diner in East Waterford, PA for 15 years where she was surely everyone's adopted relative. She would also be the one organizing meals at the VFW, American legion, and Moose lodge where she was also a life member of each. She was a staple of the community throughout south-central Pennsylvania with a simple, modest approach to life, taking care and helping others from around the kitchen table.
Image: Hardyplants at English Wikipedia • CC BY 3.0
We have forgotten what it means to live this way, of spending time with each other, the joys of a well-prepared meal. With and increased distraction from technology and a faster pace world Americans are only spending on average 30 minutes a day on food preparation compared to the rest of the first world countries at 2 hours and 8 minutes. We have forgotten how to prepare food, the techniques. Our mental and physical health are suffering as a result. For the first time in history the average life expectancy has decreased, medical expenses increase, and prescription drug use are on the rise. In order to keep up with the demand of a faster paced world our husbandry and farming practices have changed we no longer take the time, plants and animals, need to develop nutritionally and flavor wise. We simply forgot the techniques for how to farm for a community instead of the world as post war corporate farming became popular and small family farms pushed out. We became master of efficiency in tonnage and no longer used the whole plant and animal contributing to the increase problem of excessive food waste. Food is becoming bland and losing its nutritional value.
We need to learn to slow life down again and live around the kitchen table. To work to understand where our food comes from. How to use every part of the plant and animal, to give it the time and attention it deserves, in the kitchen, to give its life purpose. Its sacrifice shouldn't be just to sustain us but to be full committed to act of cooking and dining.
This is the refocus of The Cowboy Chef page and the new book project to examine where our food comes from, to slow life down, and recognize the role of food in our family, our friendships, and our community. To give passion and respect to the plants and animals that sacrifice for us by giving them the best possible attention in the kitchen and using as much of it as possible and we’re here to help via weekly meal preparations for those that are busy, classes for those that want to learn, a private chef for the parties, and a cater for the big parties, done with this all in mind.