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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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‘The Ability To Cook Is A Passport To A Different Life’ [Author Kathleen Flinn To Visit Tampa]

Posted Oct 19, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Oct 19, 2012 at 04:52 PM

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Last year I wrote about “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School,” a book by author Kathleen Flinn (above).

The premise of the book was that even the most novice home cook can put together good meals by learning to rely on fresh ingredients and a few basic kitchen skills.

Flinn comes to Tampa’s Inkwood Books on Thursday for an interactive evening of cooking demos, wine and small bites in celebration of the book’s paperback release. (For more info about the book and the event, click here or here.)

Here is the story I wrote when the book was released in hardcover:

* * * * * * *

ANNA MARIA ISLAND Author Kathleen Flinn admits to being an occasional supermarket voyeur.

It’s a natural impulse to sneak a glance at a fellow shopper’s cart and do some amateur psychology. Nineteen cans of cat food can tell you something about a lifestyle, the same way a package of tofu hot dogs can indicate a range of appetites.

A few years ago, Flinn noticed that a shopper at her grocery had a cart full of boxes and jars and almost no fresh ingredients. At the meat counter, the woman gasped at the price of chicken.

Flinn, who wrote about attending Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in her first book, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry,” mentioned that a whole chicken is less expensive. She could section the bird herself and save half the cost.

The woman made a confession: She only knew how to cook the breasts.

“I don’t know what to do with the other parts,” she said.

While doing publicity for a book, Flinn told this story on a radio show. Emails poured in from women with a similar lack of cooking experience. And although she isn’t a trained instructor, she picked nine women from the group to help build their basic kitchen skills and reconnect them with fresh food.

Flinn tells their story in her new book, “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School; How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks” (Viking, $26.95).

Kathleen Flinn - Kitchen Counter Cooking SchoolAs they learn to chop, simmer and serve, the women transform their relationships with food and understand how the foods they choose affect everything about their lives.

The ability to cook even the most basic dishes is a passport to a different life, Flinn says. If you can walk into the produce section and pick out food that isn’t in a box, you are buying freedom.

“If you can’t cook, you’re putting yourself at the mercy of companies to feed you,” she said. “Their interests are primarily financial and not about your health.

“If you can’t cook and you’re having toaster pastries for breakfast and fast food for lunch and you eat food you microwave for dinner, that’s all about companies feeding you. It’s not you feeding you.”

Or, as one woman quoted in the book says, “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve eaten Tuna Helper while watching Gordon Ramsay.” We’ve become a nation of food spectators, Flinn says.

The first step to take is to learn what vegetables and fruits are available in season at your local grocery and farmers markets.

Flinn learned this firsthand while growing up on a farm, but realizes many consumers have lost connection to the land and are nervous about what to do with unprocessed food that doesn’t have directions printed on the side of the package.

Supermarkets traditionally have positioned produce sections near the entrance to send the message of freshness and to encourage a buying atmosphere.

But things are changing, Flinn says. Now the emphasis is on speed, with ready-to-eat and takeout portions available for customers to grab and go.

“Stores realize that people today are cooking less,” she said. “They’re doing what they can to adapt to the reality of the marketplace.”

The next step is to take time to learn basic skills, like how to use a knife properly. Feeling comfortable using tools in the kitchen opens possibilities when it comes time to cook.

The intimidation factor lessens when you don’t have to worry about what pan to use to make a recipe come out well.

Choosing fresh ingredients will keep you away from the pretzel bites and bagel-wrapped hot dogs in the frozen-food aisle.

“I’m a big supporter of the local, sustainable movement, but I think food writers need to start spending time in the center aisles of supermarkets and stop fawning over farmers markets,” she said. “That’s where the real story is. People need to choose food, not brands.”

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