The Working Waterfront

Yes, it is ‘so much work’

Paying attention may be the hardest part

Sandy Oliver
Posted 2015-10-26
Last Modified 2015-10-26

“You make your own bread? That’s so much work!”

“Look at your garden. That takes a lot of work.”

“Cooking a meal takes a lot of work.”

And so it goes. As if making an effort was not entirely worthwhile. As if we each were somehow entitled to ease and comfort instead of foolishly expending effort when there are alternatives, shortcuts and painless ways to accomplish the same thing.

Some things do take a lot of work. Heating with wood, especially if one cuts one’s own trees, bucks, splits, piles the wood and hauls it into the house. Being a migrant laborer, picking apples, or tomatoes, or raking blueberries. Lobstering. Then there are the jobs that keep people on their feet for hours, sometimes on the run, like wait-staff do in busy restaurants.

It is true that making bread means getting out flour, water, salt and yeast and stirring, kneading, forming loaves and then after baking, actually having to saw off slices. (How many times have you heard, “The best thing since sliced bread!”) No-knead bread is popular because it eliminates a step or two.

A garden can indeed be laborious, requiring digging, hauling, weeding, yanking (as in carrots or beets out of the ground). Mulching is so appealing because it eliminates the weeding and reduces the watering effort.

Cooking? Usually, it doesn’t require using large muscles unless one is cooking for 100 and must haul the fatted calf to the fire

Sometimes I suspect that the word “work” is code for “paying attention” and “spending time.” No-knead bread means one gets to ignore it for hours and hours—none of the revisiting after an hour-long rise, punching down, then keeping it sufficiently in mind to come back to see if it has doubled again. No-knead bread takes a long time, but you don’t have to stand around watching it so it requires much less attention.

A garden suffers terribly when the gardener ignores it for a while. Bugs infest, seedlings crowd each other, weeds spring up and choke, vegetables go by their best and their most usable condition while the gardener is engrossed in texting or off on vacation. Gardens need consistent attention and steady observation. Same thing is true, I suspect, of raising children.

The hardest part of cooking from scratch is the effort required to figure out what to cook, doing the needful thawing, or marinating or prep work. The worst thing a cook can do is to ignore the issue until hunger strikes and then scramble to satisfy it. Hence, hot pockets, take-out pizza and that ilk.

Around here, a portion of the household population suddenly starving could subsist on boiled pasta with anything on it, or a flour tortilla with a slab of cheese oozing from it, quickly heated in the microwave. The problem? Not paying attention to the need to think ahead sufficiently to plan a more balanced meal. I doubt very much that this is unique to our household.

Cooking can certainly take time. I remember once being in a cookbook store in New York City when a harassed-looking mom with a four-year old in tow came in and asked the clerk for a book with quickly prepared recipes in it. “Fifteen minutes,” she said, “I’m serious, nothing longer than 15 minutes.” I thought, how about just peeling carrots and eating them raw? Oh, heck, never mind peeling, just scrub them.

I’m sometimes amused at recipes which make a distinction between the duration required to create the dish and what is called “active time” when one must be on hand actually doing something. I suspect long-duration dishes look like they take a lot of work because of the attention factor and the shorter active time is small comfort.

Then there are the people who say they never cook because they always burn things. That is about paying attention, too; I know because I’ve burned food when I was distracted. It takes work, I suppose, to stay focused.

Come to think of it, living on an island takes a lot of work. Think about the effort it takes to go to the mainland, the planning it takes ahead of time, double-checking the aspirin supply because running out is such a headache; planning the errand route to be the most efficient it can be; watching the time so that one is back at the ferry in time. Always paying attention. It is such a lot of work.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who lives, cooks, writes and pays attention on Islesboro.