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Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, by Kathleen Flinn

20111019bookthumb.jpgFrom cookbooks to television shows, live demonstrations to call-in radio segments, chefs are constantly attempting to simplify the art of cooking so that aspiring home cooks can master basic recipes and techniques. Author and culinary school graduate Kathleen Flinn has her own process. In The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks, she takes a hands-on, step-by-step approach to teaching nine normal people how to cook. The result is an entertaining if somewhat uninspired tale of mastering culinary basics.

Flinn decided to take on this challenge after encountering a woman in the grocery store who was buying many packaged, unhealthy foods for her family. Flinn escorted her around the store with a copy of her own cookbook in hand, indicating how the clueless mom could make cheaper and more nutritious choices. After this assumed success (Flinn doesn't get the woman's name, let alone contact information for a follow-up), she decides to provide this service to other culinarily handicapped individuals.

She accumulates nine volunteers who are willing to have her come into their home and watch them cook a typical meal, as well as examine the contents of their fridges and shelves. These all-female participants were eating primarily processed dishes such as "White Trash Garlic Bread" (hamburger buns with garlic salt and canned parmesan) and frozen dinners when Flinn entered their lives. The one woman who prepared a vegetable and chicken curry for her family was chided for using a curry cube with too much MSG and sodium. The visual of her slumping to her chair, distraught about accidentally feeding her toddler son unhealthy food, was a bit troubling.

But despite the clear hurdles that Flinn and her participants must face—among them issues of limited food budgets, and zero knife experience—she perseveres with her free cooking lessons. The women convene once a week to go over the basics. Flinn begins with chopping vegetables, and moves week by week to butchering chicken, making pasta sauce, shaping bread loaves, and cooking a proper omelet. The women seem receptive and unintimidated, and take well to Flinn's advice.

At the end of the book, Flinn revisits these women's homes to see whether they've changed their lifestyles. On the whole, it does seem that the participants kicked their packaged and fast food habits in favor of preparing more of their own quick and easy recipes. Additionally, these nine women reveal deep-seated insecurities about cooking and the role it plays in their lives. While the midsection of this book is rather lackluster, providing many nothing-new cooking tips and too much dialogue, the beginning and end portions provide a human element. Flinn does a nice job telling the stories of these women, even if the book does lack more interesting tips for somewhat experienced home cooks.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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