op-ed: know what the hell is in your food: the real reason to cook

November 21, 2016

Hello, I’m Kendra Valentine and my blog Americulinariska promotes cooking grub for yourself with big flavor and REAL food. Since I’m an expat living abroad, it was important for me to get the comforts of home no matter where I called home, using creativity and whole food instead of unnatural processed-food short cuts.

The moment I started to understand how my food was made and the ingredients which comprise it, my perspective changed and I was able to take more control and make better choices about my cooking. These same values find themselves motivating how I care for my body overall: from the products I use in my hair to the clothing I put on my body. Not self-righteous just striving to be self-aware!

By Kendra Valentine, Ameri Culinariska & AFROPUNK Contributor*

Why did I start really cooking? There was one crucial moment…

Ever since learning how easy it is the make tartar sauce, I’ve been ticked off. It floored me to think that while growing

up, when we didn’t have any tartar sauce for our Friday night fish sticks, the whole party was over… my family did not

know that we always had the ingredients on hand to make it ourselves. Ever really think about what tartar sauce is

made of? Well, it’s mayo, pickle relish and a dash of something tangy at best. Yes, you could have made it all along

instead of running to the store.

Many of our parents learned “convenience cooking” out of boxes disguised as real cooking. They trusted the supermarket and took pride in providing for their family. Knowledge was not as available as it is now. This kind of thinking has been ingrained in us, and I have been trying to break free from it these past years.

When I moved to Europe a whole new dynamic added to the mix: I found myself missing certain foods from home, so I had to do research to find out the specifics of what makes a favorite cut or meat or certain flour, and at the same

time keep with my promise to minimize eating processed foods. There was no way in HELL I could do without my

enchilada sauce, ranch dressing, beef pho or corn tortillas! FORGET ABOUT IT! So, I also started to innovate ways

to recreate favorite products in the kitchen from scratch. This is a common theme in the videos I produce on my

YouTube channel for Americulinariska.

How did I really learn to cook?

Here are three rules that I’ve stuck to over the years to really learn to cook and to start really understanding the

science of cooking:

1. Know what the hell is in your food: For a long time, everything I ordered out or ate, I would ask myself: “How is this made/what’s in it?” I’d look up, say Alfredo sauce, online and read a bit. You’d be amazed how simple much of the food you eat is to make and further, just knowing it can come in handy when it’s time to be creative. If Betty Crocker is helping, then you are not really cooking.

2. Avoid buying a lot of pre-made or flavored products: Since pre-made foods often have additives. Some have preservatives, some not. And some have coloring or suspenders to keep sauces fluid. Not that all additives are super bad, but do you really need to eat them unnecessarily? Your body will surely appreciate not having the extra work of dealing with them. Work with the base products and flavor or tweak to your liking. This teaches you how to manage flavor, saves money, and not to mention shelf space. Ultimately, this also helps you to learn to cook by instinct.

3. Try not to depend on recipes (baking excluded): I don’t like recipes very much, as they restrain my creative process. I do love cookbooks- but for inspiration. It’s best to know basic cooking techniques: if you don’t know why each step of a recipe exists then you should take a moment, and learn why- that way you can remember how to cook it for next time and experiment further. Trust me, things will start to click!

And if those arguments don’t persuade you, then try this recipe for cornbread!

Many of us have grown up thinking cornbread came exclusively out of a little blue & white box, but really it’s a lot

easier to make from scratch than you think, and not mention you’re able to skip all the extra additives, preservatives,

and anti-caking agents… did I mention it actually tastes better?

Now you’re wondering what the ingredients of Jiffy cornbread mix are? Well, take a look:



HYDROGENATED LARD), contains less than 2% of each of the following: BAKING SODA, SODIUM ACID




Told ya… Try this version instead:


Skillet Cornbread

You’ll need:

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup yellow corn meal (or polenta)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1/3 cup cream or milk

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon bacon fat (optional)

Tip: What’s that nice flavor Jiffy flavor come from?

Jiffy has HYDROGENATED LARD. A low grade way to get good flavor. Lard is rendered pig fat, and is not as bad for

you if it’s unprocessed… unlike shortening or hydrogenated oil. I use bacon fat (plus butter.) It’s like lard but with a

salty smokey flavor: this is a plus in my book.  However, if you’re not a fiend like me and don’t save bacon fat, then

just stick with the butter.

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F (175C) or average heat, you know your oven better than me.
  2. Put butter and bacon fat in metal bowl and melt in heating oven.
  3. While that is happening: add your cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder to another mixing bowl.
  4. Grab your metal bowl out the oven and sift the flour mixture into the main metal mixing bowl. This helps the batter to be well mixed and a little lighter in texture (not necessary but I don’t make cornbread too often so I don’t mind putting in a little more work).
  5. Mix a bit, then add the egg and the cream: stir thoroughly, no lumps.
  6. Heat your skillet on the stove. If you don’t have a small skillet (WHY??), then you can just use a muffin tin or any
  7. baking form, but then you have to skip this deliciousness step…
  8. Add a little bacon fat to the ht skillet and spread all around (even sides) then pour in the cornbread batter: this makes a nicely flavored crispy brown crust on the bottom!
  9. Bake cornbread for about 15 mins or until you see some brown spots on top.
  10. Leftovers: You can keep your cornbread at room temperature for a day or two wrapped in plastic wrap.

For more recipes and thoughts, checkout my website