If You're Really Not Cooking, What Are You Eating?

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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?

12 thoughts on “If You're Really Not Cooking, What Are You Eating?

  1. I read Pollan’s article with great interest, and I agree with your argument that it hardly takes more than a few minutes to make some spaghetti and salad. That was where I had the biggest objection to his piece: he says no one’s cooking. But I think there’s a big difference between buying frozen pb&j sandwiches and making yourself a delightful sandwich with fresh veggies and avocado…sure, it takes five minutes, but isn’t it distinct from the frozen variety? I guess what I mean is that the distinction between cooking and non isn’t so clear cut. Frozen sandwiches on one end of the spectrum, and a five-course roast beef dinner on the other…if we fall somewhere in between, what’s the big deal?

    1. misterb

      I think you and Caitlin both missed the point of Pollan’s article. To me, (admittedly a big fan of his) his point was made in the final sentence:
      “Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
      Remember that Pollan’s crusade is to get us to eat real food, mostly plants and you can see why he argues that we need to cook more. If you both are thin healthy people who cook regularly, good for you – unfortunately many Americans are not.

  2. thesmoots

    sorry to have to tell you but you’re off on the percentage. It’s lower than 1% from the poll I saw (microwave owners. I don’t know why anyone would want not to own one. Warming a cup of coffee, cheese dip, cold pizza anything like that in seconds. Maybe it’s too big a hurry but rather than turn on the gas burning oven for 10 mins or more the few secs of electric seems greener to me and I’d much rather be doing something else, anything else than stirring and dirtying pans. I usually warm and eat in the storage container, lots less dishes.

  3. Todd Essig

    Having just pulled this week’s bread out of the oven after spending the morning “putting up” our weekly CSA bounty for the winter, I think Pollan is on the mark when, in describing the spirit of Julia Child, he says cooking is “a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles.”

    But not all food preparation is cooking, not really … anymore than all words being strung together is writing. I think real cooking is sacred, like real journalism (bravo J-Day Thursdays!). Cooking is communion, for all the people in the kitchen and at the table, even if its only one.

    So, let me pompously ask, those “boneless chicken breasts” you say are “real, fresh ingredients,” did they come shrink-wrapped in a plastic tray? Compare that, or even chicken from a butcher, to breaking-down the chicken yourself with plans for the other parts, even taking the bones out yourself for that stock you’ll be making in a couple of days. That’s cooking! Pollan is right, so much of what we do is buying, not cooking.

    I would go on but I have to go now and heat up the leftover take-out we’re having for dinner. After a day with so much cooking, thank goodness I can heat something up in the micro-wave!

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Lots to answer here.

    Katie, I agree there’s a false faux-dramatic dichotomy being set up here between hugely labor- intensive food prep and eating quick junk. It seems risible to some of us, except that it seems a real issue to others. If you keep fresh fruit and vegetables in the house — which hardly seems a radical choice — you’ve got healthy choices. I learned a lot when, a few years ago, I invested some real money and went to see a nutritionist.

    misterb, I’ll give you one of two. I’m healthy, not thin. Katie’s thin! But I do cook regularly and would feel deprived and weird if I didn’t. Cooking is a great pleasure for some people, clearly a chore at the level of cleaning a toilet for others.

    thesmoots, we’re on different pages on this one. I eat off china, use linen or cotton napkins, eat by candlelight most of the time. Eating can almost always, if you’re in control of prep and consumption, be sensual and pleasurable, even if it’s a bowl of cereal.

    Todd, you’re right. I did not, I confess, de-bone those breasts myself. But watch me bake or scrape or chop, and, I agree, that physical activity of prep connects me/us to the meal in a way that unpeeling a box or bag isn’t going to do. I find it sad that cooking and real prep of real food — even when it arrives boneless — is considered a bizarre choice. It’s one of the few affordable pleasures left.

  5. Misterb: Sure, I agree with Pollan’s point. Eat real food. Cook. Enjoy. I’ve been vegan since 12, and I love to cook – but I also love a good sandwich, so long as it wasn’t frozen first. Maybe I’m just not his target audience.

  6. lineargirl

    Cooking is *exactly* like repairing an engine. Both take simple, basic knowledge of the world (and of physics and chemistry) and practice. I cook, my guy cooks and repairs engines. If anything ever happens to him I will do both, too, like I did before I met him.

    I cook. I roast whole chickens, I make broth and I use the chicken bits in pasta, pizza, sandwiches, enchiladas (you get the picture). Tonight was fritatta and goat cheese toasts with homemade salsa; last night was burgers, salad and the first corn from the garden. I bake my own bread and there isn’t a part of a lamb for which I don’t have recipes.

    You ask where did the skills go? They went the way of convenience. My best friend loves food, loves it as you describe, but she probably only cooks once a week. Why? Because she’s busy, because her partner isn’t into food like she is, because she likes convenience, because she likes to and can afford to eat out, because she likes to support her local restaurants (she’s in a small town where that can be the difference between success and failure of a business), but mainly because cooking requires commitment that she isn’t ready to make.

    It’s not that I don’t empathize; I think everyone should cook. I wrote a cookbook for my nephew when he moved out on his own that included basic instructions for baking potatoes and cooking rice, as well as other simple recipes. But it’s disingenuous for you to question this when you just have to walk through a supermarket to discover that people actually buy frozen French Toast. Here’s hoping that you start repairing engines, too. Cheers, lineargirl.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for your thoughts, lineargirl.

    Here’s another piece of this story, though….money. In this economy, plenty of people now out of work and out of disposable income are having to discover how to use their pots and pans, even if they don’t find it amusing, because eating out is expensive. Even a diner meal for two can be $30, (at least here in NY) and you can buy a few bags of groceries for that price. So if you can afford it, sure, don’t cook. I eat out when we can afford to do so, and really enjoy it. But I know it’s a treat and a break from the norm, and I don’t panic at the thought of cooking from scratch.

    I also made a recipe book for my youngest brother, a collection of my favorite recipes. But he loves to cook. I wouldn’t have given it to him if he didn’t. Clearly, in our family, we enjoy cooking, eating and entertaining. Some don’t.

    As I blogged earlier this month, I leave the engine repair to our terrific mechanic, Bill. That’s one machine I really can’t afford to screw up or feel like practicing on. My cast iron frying pan can take a bit more abuse than our only vehicle.

  8. Marc Flores

    I absolutely love to cook! Spending 20, 30 or even 60 minutes on a meal doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Even during months in which I’m really busy. The only time I ever wanted to stop cooking was a few years after I went to culinary school. I was so burned out by it that I never wanted to cook again. It didn’t last long and I’m back to cooking all over again. Maybe I’m being a little broad and sweeping here but it seems like a lot of people don’t like to do things that take time anymore.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Marc, thanks for your comment. Interesting irony that culinary school made your want to flee the kitchen! Like you, I see cooking as a real pleasure (not all the time, but mostly) and something I enjoy using my time for. It makes me wonder what more pleasurable things one does with all that “saved” time.

  10. joanmccue

    Caitlin, I do have two teenagers, and a husband who’s out most nights for volunteer commitments. If not their palates, their schedules can wreak havoc with even the most carefully planned week of menus. Not all my favorite recipes can be prepared in the afternoon and served multiple times in the evening depending on who’s at the table when. The crockpot is a godsend, especially in the winter months–it’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to throw some fresh ingredients together in the morning, then come home to a wonderful stew or hearty soup or pot roast that makes the whole house smell fabulous. “Breakfast for dinner” is another standby–you can scramble eggs and toss in some ham, cheese and chopped spinach or whip up pancakes in no time.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    I love a good omelette for dinner, too. My idyllic version of planning and serving meals is, I admit, predicated on our household of two adults with predictable schedules who really value eating together while sitting down undistracted and uninterrupted. These days, that’s not the norm. I also grew up in a household, and a time, where eating dinner together each night was simply expected (and a pleasure we looked forward to) and our activities fit around it — not vice versa. The food we ate wasn’t what I specifically wanted, but whatever had been cooked. After years of boarding school — i.e. zero food choices and some of them memorably horrible — I was fine with that.

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