By JO ANN HUSTIS
STREATOR, Ill. — Area cookbook author and public speaker Deborah Neimann of Cornell, Ill., says cooking has become a spectator sport today.
“One of the things I think scares people away from all the cooking shows, cookbooks and stuff, is that they make things seem very complicated,” Neimann noted at Streator’s observance of National Farmers’ Market Week Aug. 4-10.
Her talk and demonstration centered on how cooking from scratch can be speedy, thrifty and healthy. Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated,” she assured listeners. “I stress in my speaking and my writing is that cooking really isn’t complicated, so you can make things simply, cheaply, swiftly and they taste good.”
Neimann participated in the Streator Downtown Farmers’ Market celebration. During the event, the market promoted three educational classes and concluded on Aug. 10 with a petting zoo and live bluegrass band.
The recipes Neimann developed are in her two books, Homegrown & Handmade and Eco-Thrifty. Her third cookbook is due for release this fall. Many people call families such as the Neimanns urban homesteaders because their goal is to become more self-reliant by raising and cooking their own food.
“Urban homesteading is getting very popular today. When writing my first book, I interviewed many Chicago residents. Several hundred people in the online group have chickens. Others have goats. One couple lived in an apartment, and on the ridge of their building, they had chickens, two cows and bees,” she said.
“They grow much of their own food, make their own beer and do lots of canning. They’re eating their own food year around. It’s very impressive what people can do on a small area now.”
Neimann grew up “180 leagues away” from where she is today; that is, she ate lots of fast food and convenience foods. Her mother bought every kind of food at the grocery store that made life easier.
“If it came out of a freezer or a can, Mom was all for it. She thought these modern things freed people from the kitchen. I was always sick. I never heard about the connection between diet and nutrition until I was pregnant with my first child,” Neimann said.
“A book on pregnancy spoke of diets, the importance of a good diet and how it could affect your health. I thought, ‘Really! Is it that easy?’ This was something Mom didn’t know and neither did the doctor. I talked to the doctor constantly about whatever was making me sick. He said it was bad genetics and I just got unlucky.”
Neimann began dieting. She found as she becomes older, she also is healthier. She is 50 this year, and takes no prescription medications. She was ill in April for the first time in four years – “Some kind of stomach thing I got after a trip.”
Her recipes simplify everything to the most basic possible. “I don’t think anyone needs a cookbook just to make all kinds of bread. With three recipes, you can make sandwich bread, buns, hot dogs, flatbread, pizza, cinnamon rolls – pretty much anything,” she explained.
People don’t need a plethora of cookbooks to be able to cook, either. She demonstrated making a basic cream soup for use in recipes that call for canned cream soup as the base. “I don’t buy cans of soup. By simply using milk, butter and flour, you can make that base,” she pointed out.
A cream soup base is a simple white sauce that takes five minutes to cook over a flame. Various cheeses can then be melted into the base, or mushrooms, celery, broccoli, asparagus or diced cooked chicken. Chefs’ schools teach making a cream soup base. “From that, you can make all the cream soups in the world,” she said.
Neimann likes to cook. “I grew up hearing Mom talk about how horrible cooking was. Then I’d see really pretty food pictured on magazine covers. As an artistic expression, I thought I’d like to be able to make these things, because the pictures were so much prettier than the stuff dumped out of a can and heated up,” she explained.
Her audiences mostly consist of those with an interest in cooking. “Many are like I was 25 years ago. They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and they’re looking into natural ways to improve their health,” she said. “We learn to do the things that are important to us. I don’t think anyone can’t learn to cook. It’s a matter of, ‘Can you boil water?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you can cook.’ ‘Can you stir?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You can cook.’”
Eating whatever one wants is okay as long as that person has cooked it from scratch, a chef once noted, Neimann said. The idea is that food high in calories is usually difficult or complicated to make, so the person will not make it often.
Farmers’ market Manager Curt Bedei of Streator introduced Neimann for her talk. “The market provides a valuable economic boost for the region,” he said. “It helps local farmers and businesses while feeding families with fresh, healthy and local produce.
“It’s very affordable, as it didn’t travel thousands of miles to get here. It’s a direct sell from farmer to consumer, a true sense of knowing where your food came from.”