The Past is Yet to Come

Today I read Michael Pollan’s six thought provoking points in the New York Times article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html?scp=2&sq=pollan&st=cse&gt;.  The film Julie and Julia has stirred up nostalgia for educational cooking shows, flaws and all, among the “cooking and chattering” classes.  I have not seen the film yet, however I felt a similar longing of Child’s ability to empower home cooks, via imperfection, humor and matter of factness, to experiment with classic French recipes (like my twenty-something mother did in the 1970’s).  I felt a similar longing when Child’s actual kitchen was restored at the Smithsonian in 2002 <http://americanhistory.si.edu/kitchen/index.htm&gt;, and again when Child passed away in 2004.  For years, folks like me who appreciate Julia Child-like behavior, have held the Food Network at arms length, with skepticism (and disgust and dismay) as pronouncements about the death of cooking making way for convenience culture and the redefinition of cooking.

Cooking is nothing to be ashamed about, or embarrassed by, however the home cooking resistance has worked against strong cultural currents to keep the everyday practice alive. We insignificant castaways of modern society.  We the crazy cooks of the United States of America…

Yes, the Food Network, with it’s false message of empowerment, has certainly changed the culture of eating in this country, but it has not changed the true cooks among us.  The act of cooking one’s own food is too simple for stardom.  It is based on ingredients, time and elements in harmony.  It can be easy or it can be complicated.  It is up to you to make it what you want or don’t want it to be. Cooking has everything to do with that relationship we have to our food, our history, our origins as the so called superior species.  It’s as much about our survival as it is about our pleasure.   Admittedly, not everyone who cooks should do it very often, but I think everyone should at least learn the basics.

Finding ourselves in opposition to cultural trends for many years, the home cooking cohorts and I (representing all ages, male, female; rich and poor) seem to be an artifact of the past because we know that cooking (and not just assembling) food is a holistically correct way to live.  I have never been conflicted about this as a female, even while other women pointed to cooking as a symbol of domestic slavery,  I really just like to cook and learn. I get annoyed when the busyness of life prevents me from cooking my own food. For me, I never connected with sewing, or learning a foreign language, or playing a musical instrument.  As much as I like the idea of learning those things, only cooking has stuck with me.  It’s fun and it’s as much about taking care of me as it is for others.  We all need food, shelter and water to survive.  Food is first.

I rolled my eyes at a quote in Pollan’s article.  Consumer insights analyst, Henry Balzer, declares that cooking will not make a comeback.  He says, 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.“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket.”

Well, I can teach someone.  I know a few others who would be open to it.  Why not?

Am I more optimistic?  A little.  I see a lot of cheap and lazy people who really couldn’t be bothered.  That’s OK, because on the other hand, I also see a lot of people sincerely interested in cooking and really learning about food.  Personally I (want to) see the end of the celebrity chef, reality TV contests and The Food Network.  I see generations of home canners from across the U.S. organizing Can-a-Thons this summer <http://cansacrossamerica.wordpress.com>  Just when an artifact like cooking from scratch seems dead and gone, a sprout of hope emerges at the surface of culture, providing trend analysts something else to talk about and around.  They actually like to be proven wrong.

Just as I discovered gardening only after moving to New York City from Texas, after years of reluctantly helping weed flower beds and the garden with my mom. Finding that I was surrounded by concrete and steel made me want to dig in the soil more than ever.  Something clicked.  I believe that we cheap and lazy Americans will really cook again, indeed rediscover cooking our own food.  Culture will change once that gravy train starts to pull away from the station. We like to eat and I can’t see us letting it go without a fight.

And when the cooking our own food is new again, won’t that be fine?

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3 thoughts on “The Past is Yet to Come

  1. Lucy, when you write “the Food Network, with it’s false message of empowerment,” what do you mean exactly? I don’t watch the Food Network, but I always assumed it promoted cooking at home. Do you see it as one long commercial for restaurants or products?

    • It actually started out with bit more of a cooking at home focus but it’s always been about “eatertainment” rather than education. Yes, there are certainly Food Network shows that educate with good recipes (Barefoot Contessa), common sense cooking tips (Rachael Ray) and cool food science (Alton Brown). The Food Network, like any corporation, spends money on consumer insights data. The resulting programming is (in my opinion) targeted to a non-cooking audience- the most committed of watchers are non-cooks who enjoy watching celebrities play with their food. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ bout!”

      And yes, a lot of what the Food Network does is advertise products and personalities. To me, it does seem like one long infomercial.

  2. Lucy, I found Pollan’s a particularly discouraging piece, especially regarding the death of home cooking.

    But in my family, at least, all is still well. I’m named after my, uncle, a chef. I learned to cook with my grandmother, mother, and sister. My grandfather keeps a kitchen garden, fishes, makes his own potato starch, horseradish, etc., and has established a land trust to protect farmland from encroaching development; my sister is a pastry chef; her fiancee, a chef; and I’m a passionate (and sometimes professional) baker. We even have a family cookbook, which contains at least four generations of recipes, some from our pre-immigrant days in Russia.

    Having literally grown up in the kitchen, I’m always somewhat shocked by the fear cooking instills in many of my friends.

    I realize the gift of my heritage, and I want to push past Pollan’s writing and actually teach the skills I’ve learned through a life in the kitchen.

    So I read your post with a thrill of recognition. I share your optimism, and it’s a relief to see it after much negativity in the past week, so thank you.

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