I've been thinking a lot about my hotel cookery. It reminds me of when I watched the Sandra Lee "Chefography" a few months ago. She caught a lot of flack for what the critics called "fake cooking". Now, it's not secret that I'm not a big Sandra Lee fan. But seriously, fake cooking? There are some people out there, primarily parents, who have enough to deal with every day before they even think about what to cook that night. And then Sandra Lee shows them a quick and easy way to do their job. Fake cooking? Who cares? She puts food on the table, and it's probably not half bad. Her cooking isn't the problem here. I just don't care for her personality or the way she does her show.
It makes me wonder what people think about my hotel cooking. It started out innocently enough. I knew I should be eating breakfast in the morning, and I knew that one day bacon and sausage and homestyle biscuits were going to do me in. Then it occurred to me that I could eat oatmeal, which I do actually like, and it would be good for me. Perhaps it would keep me alive for long enough to see my daughter graduate from high school. Then I realized that I didn't need to eat the crappy sugar-laden storebought mixes, I could make my own. And it would be good. And I did that. And it was good.
Then it got out of hand. This was evidenced by my next project: cheesecake. I didn't skimp. No jello-based no-bake cheesecake for me. I was going to use sugar and cream cheese stolen from the complimentary breakfast bar, and an egg purchased at the most convenient shopping location. The microwave was to become my friend and foe, all at once. I did several tests. The tests started to span into other hotels. And then it got worse. Bread pudding and panna cotta, both created from the comfort of my hotel room. It was better than room service. It was better than any restaurant I could afford. I felt like I was cheating.
And then I thought about Sandra Lee. I don't know if she ever made cheesecake, bread pudding or panna cotta. I'm sure she has. Probably took a few shortcuts too. But she would be proud of some of the avenues that I started to consider. I started to look for organic markets when I would travel, because I knew that they would be the easiest place to find freeze-dried food. I would never eat it straight, that was just disgusting. But my oatmeal experiences had taught me the power of freeze-dried produce.
I picked up some mixed veggies, all freeze-dried. I had ideas for soup. I remembered Alton Brown making a stew with beef jerky. Why not in a hotel room? I investigated minute-rice. Combined with freeze-dried veggies and a little salt and butter from the complimentary breakfast bar, I could make a killer pilaf. I started looking at boxed scallopped potatoes in a new light. What was to keep me from making potato cheese soup? What were my limits? Not ingredients, certainly. I was bound only by the mechanics of an average hotel room, and learning how few limits there truly were.
Yes, my thought process has gone out of hand. Hotel cookery has never meant to be like this. I'm sure the Hilton that I'm staying in as I type this expected the microwave to be used for little more than heating up the frozen dinners that they sell in the alcove next to the front desk. I doubt they ever expected them to be used for cheesecake.
But that's not really the point. I found myself headed down a path that, as I was beginning to realize, was already well-travelled. When canning and salting and corn syrupping and other forms of food preservation became the cries of the mid-20th century, there were armies of food scientiests who were already anxiously exploring the possibilities of a world that they once thought they knew, and had suddenly realized was different from what they thought. And I was following them down that road, but in a different vehicle. I wasn't trying to extend shelf life. I wasn't trying to feed starving children in 3rd-world countries. I wasn't trying to make a buck off the unknowning masses as I spewed my culinary travesties across the land. I was trying to learn.
There is a science to food, and there is an art. Both must be in balance, every bit as much as the seasonings in a dish must properly showcase the flavors which they help present. Too much salt and the dish will be insipid. Not enough and it will be bland. Too much science and food will seem manufactured and unnatural. Too much art and it becomes hippie chow or worse, unfit for human, or possibly even animal consumption. As in all things, moderation is key.
Sometimes art doesn't work. Sometimes science doesn't work. Sometimes our feeble wanderings in either world cause travesties that surprise and horrify even ourselves. And yet we learn. In a world so impossibly large that we won't ever discover it all, we find a handrail, a path. As we continue to feel around, the path becomes more known to us. It may not be the correct path. It may be one disdained by others, perhaps everyone else. But it's the path that we've found. And until we find another, we content ourselves with what we can and we continue to explore.
It fascinates me. I love learning what food can do, what it's about. I'm not a brilliant chef, and I may never be one. Am I fake cooking? I don't think anybody has accused me of that yet. I wonder if they ever will. And those that do, I challenge you: can you make a cheesecake in your hotel room?