Passing on basic kitchen knowhow

Former college roommates reunite to pen a new kind of cookbook

Rebecca Bloom adds a dash of pepper to a spread of homemade hummus, spinach and tomatoes on toast. Photo by Natalia Nazarova.

Back in 1985, Yale University roommates Rebecca Bloom of New York and Shelley Onderdonk of San Mateo had approximately no money, one pot, one pan and a couple of knives between them.

They didn't take the easy way out and subsist on Top Ramen. The duo navigated their early independence together, a big part of which was bonding over learning to cook.

Thirty or so years later, they're still friends -- Bloom now lives in Menlo Park and Onderdonk in South Carolina -- and both are raising families. Bloom is a writer, editor, tutor, activist and former attorney, while Onderdonk is a veterinarian, writer, rider and yoga instructor.

Both women say they were struck when their oldest kids, college grads trying to make it in New York -- a place where rent leaves little extra money for eating out -- came to their mothers, asking very basic, "eggheaded" questions about how they should feed themselves.

Recalling their own processes of figuring out how to eat well, cheaply and in ways that aligned with their values, they decided to team up to write "The Anti-Cookbook: Easy, Thrifty Recipes for Food-Smart Living."

They self-published the book using Createspace. It's available for purchase at Cafe Zoe and Kepler's Books in Menlo Park and through Amazon.

The end product is more than just an explainer for clueless Millennials, who are often lampooned for spending excessively on trendy foods like nitro coffee, kombucha and avocado toast. In addition to basic cooking advice, the authors sprinkle -- like their spice combination recommendations -- the book with reminiscences of their own culinary memories, handy recipes and screenshots of cooking-related text Q&As with their kids.

What emerges is a shared manifesto tying food and cooking to health, wellness, feminism, ethics and independence.

The book draws its title from a coloring book one of the authors had bought for her kids, called the "Anti-Coloring Book," which encouraged kids to literally color outside of the lines. Adopting a similar improvisational approach, the Anti-Cookbook encourages readers to riff on and experiment with the recommendations in its pages, the authors said.

"We aren't chefs, and that's kind of the point," Onderdonk told attendees at a crowded launch party for the book held recently at Cafe Zoe.

"We really both went through periods of struggling to feed our families, work and balance it all," she said. "We wrote this book so the next generation doesn't have to struggle."

Their kids, they say, are high-achievers who, like many their age, studied Shakespeare but perhaps not home economics in school. Public schools don't offer it anymore, even though, they argue, a substantial part of one's happiness, health and financial future depends on how one chooses to feed oneself. Their book seeks to fill in some part of that knowledge gap.

They insist that cooking needn't be painfully time-consuming, elaborate or intimidating. In that respect, they stand against some of the showier elements of cooking.

Food can be a trigger for complicated emotions, which they admit can sometimes be wielded to invoke shame. Food imagery presented through Instagram or glossy cookbooks can prompt feelings similar to those experienced while seeing other people's vacation photos, and can leave some people feeling discouraged by their own cooking because it may not be as beautiful or tasty as someone else's.

"It's not a measure of the quality of your soul every time you cook a meal," Bloom said.

Their recipes are simple and adaptable to whatever's in the fridge.

"So throw in those dried cranberries, add more spinach for color, or try a substitution that aligns with your values, resources, or whims," they write.

Alternatively, Bloom said, it's also OK to not add lemon zest to a recipe, for example, if you simply don't feel like zesting a lemon.

"We want to empower people to make healthy food that is not complicated, that's not going to take six hours and an extra trip to the grocery store," Onderdonk said.

The authors position themselves as advocates of what they've termed "food-smart living" -- tossing in their own recommendations on which types of produce it makes a difference to buy organic (foods that grow underground whose skins you eat, or are likely sprayed often) and when it's worth it to prepare something from scratch (slice your own veggies, shred your own cheese and blend your own smoothies, but feel free to buy pie crusts, pasta and pizza dough to save some hassle).

Most of their recipes are vegetarian and don't rely on costly ingredients. Bloom said that her daughter now spends only $30 most weeks on groceries in New York City, cooking with recipes in the book.

To teach her daughters to cook, Bloom writes, is to give them an empowering life skill.

"If you have the ability to gather ingredients and feed yourself you are well on your way to being strong and independent. I hope my daughters never feel that they have to rely on someone else to do things for them," she writes.

For the authors, food can be a source of serious comfort, and preparing it a meditative act.

"The act of your hands peeling a carrot, slicing some bread, or whisking up a concoction connects you to those who did those things for you when you were too small to do them yourself. ... It allows you to contemplate your place in the cosmos and to define yourself simply by repeating the actions required to prepare a meal," Bloom writes.

Another mindfulness-through-food suggestion: "If gratitude journaling isn't your thing, try toast," Bloom writes. Add butter and a dash of salt, then relish the simple deliciousness of it all.

To learn more about the book, go to anti-cookbook.com.

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