When it comes to food and the buy it vs. make it debate, a lot of folks take the initial leap with, say, making their own peanut butter or mayonnaise. When it comes to curing pancetta or making your own mozzarella, well—the tune changes. Those are culinary feats best left to the professionals, don’t you think? Not according to Jennifer Reese in her book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch – Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Food. Within this (mostly) cookbook-(partial) memoir, Reese tackles everything from the simple (homemade oatmeal) to the complex (duck prosciutto) with a sparkling enthusiasm and contagious confidence that leaves even the most cowed family cook-inspired to attempt something as intimidating as home-cured fowl.
Written shortly after the 2008 recession, Reese takes into account the financial demands and time constraints of making fare from scratch while also assessing quality of food and the eating experience as a whole. Organized into sensible sections (Breads and Spreads, Restaurant Food, From Beak to Tail, to name a few), Reese walks the reader through basic information and prefaces each recipe with a foolproof formula of three components to consider when deciding homemade or store-bought: buy it or make it, hassle, and cost comparison.
Even though formulaic can often translate into dull and dry, this book manages to stay witty and entertaining. Within the first few pages, Reese is someone you want to be friends with. Her hassle descriptors for the recipes are hilarious and unassuming: salsa touted as “lots of wet chopping,” and homemade Nutella™ straightforwardly and succinctly summed up with “skinning hazelnuts is maddening.” She is warm and accessible and real, and her tone is encouraging and completely reasonable.
Oftentimes, the homemade-only crowd can forget to take into account that some of us (ahem) appreciate a good corn dog or glazed doughnut every now and again, but Reese refuses to get evangelical. Junk food has its very own section and Reese isn’t shy to admit that making a Pop-Tart is more expensive than buying one and barely worth the trouble (“Hassle: Make it. Once”). If you’re going to eat Pop-Tarts, she seems to say, then just eat some dang Pop-Tarts, don’t be noble. She isn’t afraid to cop to the fact that pasta is a spectacularly cheap luxury and also a pain in the neck to make. Often, her answer to the question of, “buy it or make it?” is an emphatic both. Reese understands that people have demanding work weeks, needy kids, and not enough hours in the day. She’s not on some from-scratch crusade, but rather a rambling, inquisitive stroll through the lands of reality and quality, accessibility and convenience.
And what about cost? As someone whose grocery store budget calculations are solidly in the realm of, “Meh, I’m just going to round up and call it close enough,” Reese’s cost comparisons are precise and all encompassing. She’s particular about cents per ounce and actually quantifies what makes a serving size. This makes it easy to lean one way or another from a financial point of view and I applaud her this commitment to accurate math. In fact, it is clear from the start that Reese is wholeheartedly committed to this experiment in a number of ways. At one point she acquires bees for honey, raises ducks for the eggs and meat, and adopts two goats for cheese and milk. Reese even goes so far as to care for and slaughter her own Thanksgiving turkey (She braves the gore, so you don’t have to)!
Weaved throughout the monetary scrutiny and tested recipes are stories that are personal and rich and relatable. Exploring what constitutes love and grace around a mealtime, Reese writes about an extravagant fried chicken dinner she once made for her family. Yes, the food was amazing, but by the time dinner was ready her family was grumpy and she was “bleak with exhaustion.” And yet, the time Reese purchased a bucket of KFC chicken to bring home during a Lord of the Rings movie marathon with her kids? “One of the happiest nights of my adult life,” she recalls. Her family was “hungry and the chicken was hot and we had five more hours of Viggo Mortensen to watch. … My children [still] get dreamy and nostalgic talking about it.” Complication and intricacy don’t necessarily translate into memories, Reese implies, and, then again, sometimes they do. There is no right way to connect through food.
Even so, food choices can feel so loaded, so “maddeningly fraught [with] time, quality, money, First World guilt … meaning, and health.” It’s refreshing to have a road map that focuses on what you could do to save money, increase quality, and preserve resources, without telling you what you should do. With comprehensive cost analysis and step-by-step instructions, Reese provides this guidance, along with a few laughs, and all the while you know she won’t judge you when you reach for those Pop-Tarts on your weekly grocery run.