The man who brought us The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food has tackled the next logical step in the chain: the loss of home cooking among Americans, and its effect on us. This article in the New York Times Magazine is long, but well worth your time. For those of you without time or who would like a preview, I sum up:
Nowadays, Pollan says, Americans would rather watch people cook on television than cook for themselves. It wasn’t always this way. Pollan begins with his memories of Julia Child, a woman who specialized in making cooking fun, tactile, and accessible:
“When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, Julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: “When I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up.” And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, WHOOOO” — the pronoun is sung — “is going to see?” For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers’ recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers’ social standing), Julia’s little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”
He goes on to chronicle the loss of home cooking through the marketing efforts of Big Food and the loss of time at home brought on by Americans working ever more hours. At the same time, the roster of celebrity chefs on Food Network has exploded. Would we really rather sit in front of the TV for 30 minutes or an hour watching someone cook while eating processed food than actually stand in a kitchen for the exact same time actually cooking a delicious, fresh meal?
Now, he says, we’ve been so trained on boxed cake mixes and instant rice packets that we’ve all but forgotten how to cook from scratch. And our health has thereby suffered, he says. When we don’t have to bake chips, cakes, cookies, and fried foods from scratch, foods that were formerly for special occasions, we eat more of them. LOTS more of them.
If you believe in the principles of community supported agriculture, gardening, organic food, and reforming the industrial agricultural system that is sickening both our planet and us, then cooking at home is an essential part of the game plan, he says.
The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?
Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.
But if this is a dream you find appealing, you might not want to call Harry Balzer right away to discuss it.
“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.
Well, me, for one. I’m not going to take this sitting down. I’m only a tiny part of the solution, though. If you are a cook, keep your eyes open for people you know who might be interested in learning to cook. Invite them over for dinner one night, and offer to let them help you (and let you teach them) in return for the meal. Help rebuild the culture of cooking and the community of shared meals around you.
Once people taste the products of home cooking — freshly baked biscuits, homemade cake, simply but deliciously seasoned vegetables (you’d be amazed what a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil can do for steamed veggies) — they may finally realize what they’ve been missing in flavor and taste. People who grew up in homes without cooking may have no idea that a homemade cookie or loaf of bread tastes radically better than one from a box or a bag. I even have a friend who had no idea that bread could be made at home, at was utterly amazed to see me doing it! And once they see that you can do it and they can do it, they may gain both the desire and motivation to enter the brave new world at home.
America is a can-do nation. That shouldn’t stop at the kitchen door. So get out there, team, and cook!