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cooking for non-foodies

The thread on the rarity of chowhounds prompts me to wonder how you all cook for people who aren't that involved with food. We get together regularly with DH's family, all of whom live fairly close by. I used to labor for days to produce something really good and because the family includes vegetarians, non-fish or seafood eaters, people who are lactose intolerant or have other issues with food, this is not simple.

I really enjoy cooking and eating with friends, but it's finally penetrated that DH's family doesn't care. They avoid all unusual foods including eggplant, any mushroom that isn't a button, all cheeses that aren't cheddar or local Brie, any meat that isn't cooked to medium. Further, when we eat at their homes, the offerings are usually storebought fruit and veggie platters, packages of premixed salad greens with bottled dressings, meat or fish grilled or roasted with no seasonings - you get the picture. I get a little annoyed that no-one makes much effort, but then if they don't care why should they do a lot of work? They're good people, we enjoy spending time with them but food is never going to be important.

I can't bring myself to buy premade food and just throw it on a table, but I don't want to spend hours in a kitchen putting together meals no-one will appreciate. How do others deal with this?

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  1. My husband's family is the same way, so I can sympathize. With them, I just try to keep it simple. I still make a homecooked meal, but instead of experimenting with a new recipe or slaving away in the kitchen for hours on end, I'll make an old standby that I can cook in my sleep - like spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, roast chicken, etc. - real down-home kind of cooking. I also avoid putting out "exotic" stuff like hummus and pita chips as noshes because I know it won't get eaten. I save the really amazing, blow-your-mind stuff for the people who I know are going to appreciate it.

    1. It's hard to say given your strong hints about their food "issues" but without a lot of detail; it may be that those issues have simply killed food as anything other than a nutrition source for them, but I cannot tell from your post.

      Absent those food issues -- which is probably unrealistic -- if you would still like the opportunity to improve as a cook and host, you might use their visits to perfect your repertoire of non-exotic foods that you may have neglected. Think of Edna Lewis's "A Taste of Country Cooking" and "The Pursuit of Flavor" and all manner of wonderful Amish and Mennonite cookbooks and the classic American offerings in Rosengarten's "It's All American Food" and "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook". There's a ton of wonderful foods that get neglected because they use no exotic ingredients or techniques. The kind our great-grandparents knew better than we do.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Karl S

        I didn't want to put in too much detail about the issues - BIL has acid reflux, SIL has finicky digestion, some of the kids are squeamish about anything they don't recognize. DH's stepfather is firm about what he likes (chicken, potatoes, apple pie) and doesn't like (almost everything else).

        You're right, I should learn more about traditional American cooking. I'm Chinese so my ideas about home cooking are a little different from some - homemade noodles with red-cooked belly pork are my best memories from my mother's table.

        1. re: cheryl_h

          Yes, but within each of those, you can make something special. I mean, there's chicken, and then there's CHICKEN!

          Try adding some Lavender to the apple pie, or making fondant potatoes next time. Just because you are constained by your ingredients, does not mean you can't be creative in their preparation.

          TT

          1. re: TexasToast

            I've tried this -- and who knows, it may work on the OP's DH's stepfather -- but usually what that sort of thing means is either "boneless skinless tasteless chicken breast in one of about five approved preparations", or "roast chicken"... potatoes means "mashed, baked, or fried"... and apple pie means "apples, sugar, flour, butter and cinnamon only".

            I have a friend who's the chicken person. Parmigiana, breaded-and-deep-fried, barbecued, in soup or in brown-sauce stir fry. That's IT.

            The worst was the day she called and said she needed home cooked food because she was sick, and could I make chicken with dumplings in that so-flavourless beige sauce, mashed potatoes that weren't at all lumpy, and green beans [from a can, of course]. I did make it (she was sick, I felt bad).

            She thought it was the best meal I'd ever made... until I showed her the menu.

            Suprême de poulet sauce Illinoise
            (Downstate-style chicken and dumplings)

            Purée de pommes de terre au Marquis de Sade
            (Mashed potatoes, beaten to death)

            Haricots verts à l'Anglaise
            (Green beans boiled Oxford-style, for three days)

          2. re: cheryl_h

            okay i don't know if this will apply across the board because of the lactose issues you mentioned, but check this one out.
            my father-in-law likes game. my mother-in-law is sicilian and puts mint in her meatballs (wtf??). my husband grew up without ever being properly introduced to the vegetable group (outside of tomatoes - and lettuce - in their family, a "salad" is a washed and chopped head of iceberg lettuce with gobs of dressing on it) but, every one of them dies for this recipe and it's so simple it hurts.

            Easy-Pleasy Chicken (lame name, but oh well)
            boneless, skinless chicken breasts pounded flat
            1 whole white or yellow onion
            butter or margarine
            heavy cream (again the lactose thing, but read on!)
            salt & pepper to taste

            peel the onion and cut into rings, breaking them apart. sautee in the butter/margarine until just about caramelized. add the chicken breasts and when they are just done, pour heavy cream over the top and simmer until the cream turns a nice golden brown. it's food the non-chowhounds can enjoy, as well as tasting like there was some effort put into it.

        2. I can relate. Same story with DH family. I'd do the homemade pasta..the works. They'd barely say a thing about the food..no matter how long I'd spent preparing it. So..one Sunday I decided to buy pasta (the cheapest)a bag of salad, a jar of Italian dressing (kraft), a jar of Prego sauce, and some frozen meatballs. So much easier and they didn't seem to notice any difference. Now I don't go hog wild when they come over. No need.

          I only cook like I want to for DH and myself...and for any chowish guests. I want to hear those ooohs and aaahhs thank you very much!

          1 Reply
          1. re: melly

            Dang, I'm glad it's just not me!

            SWMBO's family are food-is-fuel people and won't ever aspire to anything beyond prepackaged, prefab, over-processed foods. It took me the first ten years to finally give up and not put out different and unusual items. That usually meant there would be massive screaming, nashing of teeth and beating of chests -- usually mine.

            I've since decided to go with two simple dishes for this group: lasagna with meat sauce or spaghetti with meat sauce. (I'll put out a mini-salad of heirloom tomatoes or cherry tomatoes for my immediate clan, though.) Nothing beyond Safeway bread, First Street pastas, and simple meat sauce. They aren't made uncomfortable from new-and-different and I don't go psycho because they act like a bunch of pre-k kids.

            Our immediate friends and daughter-units are much more appreciative of the extra effort we invest in cooking so that's where the effort and energy are placed.

          2. I used to do this fairly often as my girlfriends run from the real foodies, to the real lolipops and then we'd all get together.

            My saving grace was that I TRULY enjoy to cook. So for me, the enjoyment really came in preparing the meal, durring the meal, I would focus just on the good company and the latest gossip... ;)

            As for how I would present it, I would annouce a simple menu a few days before the party... A Veggie Lasagna, Home Made Pizza, Fettucine Alfredo.

            Then, I got all the e-mails of 'issues', and worked them with my menu, I would serve and let the raves come in. It was only AFTER the meal I would say, "Oh, I used Truffle Oil, or a super aged Parm, or Shredded Eggplant...". Which would then cause another chatter because they either previously had hated one of those things or had been too afraid to try it (Or had never heard of it at all!)

            The thing is, these type of people will probably always be this way. Fearful of Slimy Eggplant, Wierd dried mushrooms, and stinky moldy cheese. I accepted that the greatest compliments I could recieve from these type of people is "Oh! Wow! That was so good, I didn't even taste it!"

            --Dommy!

            2 Replies
            1. re: Dommy

              When we're inviting the family, I send out an email with a short description (warning?) of what will be served. I add that everyone is free to bring anything they want. The vegetarian who has vegan kids often brings food they will eat because they refuse to eat anything their mother doesn't make.

              You have a great attitude. I've pretty much given up on sneaking in foodie ingredients but perhaps I should think about this some more.

              1. re: cheryl_h

                I used to have this problem years ago, but for me personally, I realized that what I enjoyed the most about entertaining was the whole creative process itself. My joy came from the actual cooking. Doing the simple tasks that as a teenager only seemed to frustrate me working in kitchens.

                Now when we have people over I tend to keep our menus pretty simple. For brunch I'll make them Lemon thyme honey pancakes with roasted peaches and homemade creme fraiche. The pure pleasure of manipulating these simple perfect ingredients into something delicious and ephemeral is almost zen like.

                My friends and family seem to take pleasure in the fact that I'm happy cooking for them. They don't always have to know that the peaches were picked that morning by my daughter and I at an organic farm. Simplicity is good.

            2. The thing of it is, you still have to eat whatever you make, so you might as well please yourself! Once in a while, out of love, I will make something I actually won't eat (i.e., peanut butter cookies for my favorite person in the world), but generally, if I'm going to put any amount of effort into cooking, I want that effort to go into something I'm going to be excited about eating.

              It seems like there might actually be 2 issues here:
              1. Your in-laws don't have the same interest in food.
              2. Your cooking, aka time and effort, are not being properly appreciated.

              To deal with #1, eh? no biggie. I have to admit that if I'm going somewhere I know the food will suck (to my family or to the family of peanut butter cookie lover from above) I will actually fix it so that we'll make the meal ("Oh, you have so much to do, let us cook"), or I'll just barely eat and then have a "real" meal later (I happen to like this option because then we can rant about how bad the food was, which lets us feel superior - yes, we're petty and we're bad people). ;)

              #2 on the other hand could result in some hurt feelings.

              Personally, it doesn't really matter to me if other folks understand and appreciate the level of technical skill required for a particular dish, or recognize any special ingredients involved. It's nice if they do, but that's not a pre-requisite for eating at our house. However, if a certain amount of general gratitude isn't displayed for our general hospitality, that's a good way to get crossed off our guest list!

              Anyway, we basically have 3 ways of handling the non-chowhounds in our life:
              1. Coming to our house for dinner: ask them to bring specific bottles of wine or specific brands of beer.
              2. Going to their house for dinner: suggest going out.
              3. We think this one is the best: do things together that do not involve food (this is actually possible).

              9 Replies
              1. re: grubn

                I have to admit we're dealt with #1 in the same way as you do. We take food to their homes so we know something will be to our liking, and I peck at the food at the vegetarian's home because it really is pretty bad. Then we eat a full meal at home, or we eat before going.

                Clearly I need to deal with this more competently. We can't cross them off our guest list, and I need to find recipes that suit their tastes as well as mine.

                1. re: cheryl_h

                  I feel kind of bad...obviously I have the need to have my food appreciated. I do enjoy cooking a really great meal..but I guess only if it is appreciated! Arghhhh! That sounds bad. Maybe it's because I grew up in restaurants and if it wasn't appreciated, we went broke! That's my story and I'm stickin to it. (I promise you this...my husband tells me every time how much he appreciates it..and when he cooks, I do the same).

                  1. re: melly

                    Melly you're perfectly normal. We all want to be appreciated. My husband is a great cheerleader for me and I am for him. But with his family I can't bring myself to make something I wouldn't eat myself so I have to compromise somehow.

                    He's never met my family who live on another continent. It's going to be a shock when he encounters people who talk about food ALL the time.

                    1. re: cheryl_h

                      Oh yes, it was a shock for me when I first met my husband's family and they talked about food ALL of the time. Since I really was scared of food, I thought it was the strangest thing ever.

                      And it never ceases to delight me that not only did I get over my food phobia, I am now the person who talks about food all of the time at family gatherings.

                  2. re: cheryl_h

                    I admit to bringing ingredients or eating prior for one person in particular. Houndish friends and I would conspire to bring over coordinated items. This started after one evening where we watched the evolution of a disaster and had to run out to the grocery store to get some key ingredients. I mean, simply dumping a can of tuna fish into a pot of boiled pasta is NOT getting the job done. At that time in my life, going out was not $$$ possible.

                    I also admit to asking for specific bottles of wine, nothing extravagant, just decent. This after an especially cheap friend kept bringing over the worst plonk after I put in extra effort for some meals.

                    1. re: ShortOrderHack

                      I stopped asking anyone to bring anything after being handed Baskin-Robbins butterscotch ice cream and having to serve it with apple pie made with apples we picked ourselves and my very best pastry.

                      1. re: cheryl_h

                        I would have brought Hagen Daz vanilla. Would that get me banned or asked back later for more pie?

                        1. re: cheryl_h

                          That's exactly what I would have chosen. You would have been invited back with hugs and kisses.

                          1. re: cheryl_h

                            I would have brought Cool Whip.

                            ...just kidding.