I really can’t believe this, but, hey, if a best-selling author writes it in a New York Times Magazine cover story, someone thinks it’s true. Americans no longer cook, writes Michael Pollan. Instead, exhausted, confused and overwhelmed, they make sandwiches, order pizza, gulp fast food, heat soup. Ugh.
I don’t buy it, although I’m clearly in one serious minority as one of the nation’s 10 percent who don’t own a microwave oven. Never have, probably never will. My galley kitchen is too small. I’ve never wanted to own one, even when I had slightly larger kitchens. I know, they do stuff fast. I’m not a big fan of speed as my life’s highest value, even when I commuted an hour each way into Manhattan to an office job and came home tired and hungry. Putting together a meal of fresh or dried pasta and a sauce and a green salad, which really isn’t cooking, per se, still takes maybe 15 minutes, tops.
The average American, Pollan writes, spends 27 minutes a day on food prep. If they’re eating two meals a day at home, only breakfast and dinner, that’s a big 13.5 minutes per meal. If three a day — and an estimated 30 percent of us are now working at home, whether by choice or between office-based jobs — nine minutes. That’s actually plenty of time to make real food. In 27 focused minutes on a rainy Sunday afternoon like this one, (and maybe your partner or kid [s] can help), you can make a fantastic stew or sauce or casserole and freeze it into portions you pull out later in the week. You can prep a roast chicken and vegetables, then boil down the carcass and make stock for the freezer for soup.
I don’t want a life so rushed and frenzied and ankle-grabbing it doesn’t allow me the time or energy to make a meal of real, fresh ingredients. Tonight it’s boneless chicken breasts with fresh spinach and plum tomatoes, wild rice, maybe some broccoli. Tomorrow night — yes, I plan meals in advance — cheeseburgers, corn, salad. Nothing fancy, but not salt/fat/sugar-laden junk from cans or bags or boxes. (I do not have young children nor several of them. I know, that makes a big difference.)
I love sitting down with a pile of Bon Appetit or Gourmet, or my clipped recipes going back years, or my cookbooks, leafing through them finding something fun and unusual — or a new version of something — or just one of my old stand-bys like carrot-yogurt soup (with a base of rich, smoky Indian spices) or leek and tomato quiche (cheap, good at any temperature and beautiful enough to serve at parties to vegetarians.) I love planning out the mixture and rhythm of a meal. I love watching my sweetie smile when I light the candles and start to serve dinner, even on a frazzled weeknight. It’s fine to serve. He cooks for me as well. Serving carefully made food to someone you love is not a retrogressive activity. It’s a hug on a plate.
I grew up with a divorced mom who was a journalist, busy, traveling, not enamored of the kitchen. We made hamburger smash, which is what it sounds like: hamburger, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, salt and pepper, thrown into a frying pan. As we used to joke, we knew dinner was ready when smoke poured out of the kitchen. It tasted fine. My late step-mother had stacks of Gourmet magazines three feet high and made things like osso buco. Neither of them ever took me aside and taught me to cook. It wasn’t their style. I figured it out. I read cookbooks and watched a few people in their kitchens; I add a little cinnamon to my homemade meat sauce thanks to my step-mom’s example. My Dad’s salads are enormous, and almost always have some fresh apple in them. So, now, do mine.
So I simply don’t buy this argument, made in Pollan’s piece, that cooking skills have been lost. Where’d they go? It’s not like repairing an engine.
Put a pot of water on the stove. Add a little oil and maybe a little salt. Throw in some pasta. This is complicated? Heat a frying pan and sear a decent piece of meat. Buy some terrific cookbooks — I love Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking and my falling-to-tatters Vegetarian Epicure Book Two — and read them with the attention you might pay to a video game or a novel. I recently had a couple over for dinner, he a Frenchman, she his wife who had met him in France. I wanted the meal to feel a little like home for them so I made vichysoisse (easy and cheap, it’s leeks, potatoes and water), salade nicoise (a can of tuna, some olives, eggs, greens) and we started with fresh mussels and a baguette. None of it was crazy-expensive or complicated. (Unlike an earlier dinner party we threw, for six, that included a Julia Child recipe for flambeed chicken with mushrooms, whose instructions — no joke — included the immortal words “avert your face”. One learns.)
Singed eyebrows or not, cooking, for me, is a way to show people I care about them. To me, not cooking feels weird and sad.
I also bake. A recent essay in “O” magazine defended (?!) the writer’s decision to make muffins from scratch, something I do with about as much fanfare as brushing my teeth.
Suzan Colon writes:
For me, baking is better (and cheaper) than therapy. It gives me something to do with my hands besides wring them nervously. It makes the house smell great—I’m convinced that warm bread is the original aromatherapy—and it yields tangible results. Baking is a form of meditation, as I learned from Edward Espe Brown, a Zen Buddhist priest who wrote The Tassajara Bread Book. Mindfulness is essential; one wrong measure (was that a quarter or half teaspoon of baking powder? or was it baking soda?) really can make the cookie crumble…..
In a time of tremendous anxiety, when suddenly we all had so many questions, there was something simple I could do that yielded positive results almost instantly: Hunker down and make food. For me, that meant baking—something comforting, sweet, small, and warm. Something that could be shared, like the little chocolate cake that gave my mother a moment’s distraction from worrying about that phone bill. Something that, when eaten alone in the afternoon with a cup of tea, could make me feel like everything would be okay.
So let my friends sneer. Let them laugh. Let ’em eat cake! Baking muffins doesn’t make me a work-shirking antifeminist Good Wife. It makes me happy.
What have we gotten ourselves into when people don’t cook, don’t want to cook, don’t know how to cook?
Who, exactly, is going to feed us?