Friday, July 31, 2009

The Decline of Cooking

Day 5: Baking breadImage by lorda via Flickr

Michael Pollan has a wonderful article in this week's New York Times Magazine about the coincidental decline of cooking and rise of cooking shows. I have written about the pleasures of cooking a few times before. I really enjoy doing it and I love the results as well. Although I take Pollan's point that most people don't learn how to cook from shows like Paula Dean's, I think people who have rudimentary cooking skills do learn something. I have learned things about ingredients, about what flavors might go well together, new preparation techniques, and more. I also take Pollan's point that there's a lot of focus on consumption rather than production of food, but I have also seen a strong relationship between those who cook and those who appreciate good food even in the consumption of food. And that seems to be a bidirectional relationship. People who consume a good meal are often inspired to create similar kinds of meals at home and those who create good food at home expect good food when they eat out. Although I've been known to eat at a fast food place on the road (almost only when traveling), when we eat out, we tend to choose restaurants that serve good food, often food I won't prepare at home (Thai and Indian are common choices as is sushi). When my kids were younger, we would eat at places like Applebee's and Chili's, but I really don't like these places now. People I know that don't cook have no problem with places like these and consider them treats next to the canned and frozen products they prepare at home.

I credit some of my food snobbery, of course, to my parents. My mother had learned how to cook Southern food from her mother and added more sophisticated food to her repetoire as she began entertaining law partners and clients. She could cook butter beans, lady peas and fried chicken one day and oysters bienville and rock cornish game hens the next. The one restaurant in town was owned and operated by a couple who spent every other weekend in New York. They insisted on prime beef, fresh ingredients and were always trying new dishes. We frequented the place as it was good for my father's career and because both he and my mother enjoyed a good meal. At the age of 13, my parents took me to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia for a full 7-course meal. And though I've never had one since, I've never forgotten the elegance of it. Each dish was small and elegant, from the Vichyssoise to the nuts. I sometimes gave my mother a hard time for her fussiness over appearances, but I was always appreciative of her fussiness over food as I learned so much from it.

Although Pollan complains that many of the shows that are highlighted in the afternoon (when sahm's are around to "learn" from them) focus on premade ingredients and shortcuts, many of the other shows, some of which are hugely popular, spend a lot of time talking about fresh ingredients. I watched a Good Eats episode the other day where Alton Brown insisted that we use fresh grated coconut in coconut cake rather than the stuff you could buy in plastic at the store. So maybe some of that will, or is, rubbing off on people. Maybe they will see the meals that the chefs prepare on Top Chef and want to make something close to that on their own. Those shows do provide many of the recipes on their web sites and the web more generally has a ton of available recipe sites. There's no need to rifle through cookbooks (though I have many) to find the perfect chicken recipe. Some of my favorites are Cooking Light's site and

I hope it is rubbing off, because Pollan's last point about the connection between not cooking and obesity is one that makes sense to me. Americans aren't cooking as much as they used to, in large part because the food industry has given us foods that don't need to be cooked and are laden with fat, sugar, and salt, which we are naturally disposed to crave. And not cooking is a key predictor of obesity rates:
The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not.
There are a lot of reasons for the decline in cooking--from a food industry pushing convience food on us to an increase in work hours and commute time. But I hope that one thing that the cooking shows can convey besides the food itself, but the real joy that cooking can be.
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