25 September 2011

Some people just don't like to cook, okay?

Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley.
--Mark Bittman, in today's NYTimes
Ugh.  Here we go again.

Don't get me wrong: I love to cook.  It is a matter of great pride with me that I can come up with a homemade, three-course dinner for six with three hours' notice, one trip to the grocery store, and not more than a cursory glance into one of my more well-worn cookbooks.  This photo is from a never-written post about my organic fruit & veg delivery service, and how pleasant it was to make a dinner of pasta and salad using only what I had available.  I consider sitting with a stack of cookbooks and planning a menu or several to be a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

But even I, someone who works part-time, enjoys cooking, and loves feeding people, do not want to cook every night.  Cooking turns into a chore very quickly when you're doing it out of necessity rather than joy.  And even when carefully planned to minimize mess, cooking leads to dirty pots and pans and knives and gadgets--none of which go in the dishwasher--and another 30-45 minutes in the kitchen, after the fun part's over.

Cooking also leads to leftover ingredients.  The blog post about the pasta never got written, because I cancelled the delivery service.  If there's one thing more guilt-inducing than feeling you don't cook enough, it's throwing away organic beets that rotted before you got around to reading the instructions for how to prepare them.  But even if you're buying for a meal you know you're going to make, you're pretty much guaranteed to end up, later, wondering what to do with those other four scallions or that last quarter-cup of coconut milk.  Every now and then I'll make a salad to keep in the fridge, but even buying one head of lettuce and one carrot and one pepper and so on, it usually goes bad before I can finish it.

If I only sometimes find myself able to rise above these obstacles to make a home-cooked dinner, what chance does someone have, who has more responsibilities than I do and doesn't like to cook in the first place?
The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.
Why, Mr. Bittman?  Why do we all have to cook (and, ahem, clean) every night?  Why can't we just have convenient, healthy, prepared food, so people don't have to chose between convenience and health?

I know this can be done, because it's my daily reality.  I haven't cooked unless I wanted to for three years, because I can pick up a healthy dinner from the grocery store on the way home from the Tube station.  Sometimes it's fish cakes and steamed vegetables; sometimes it's microwaveable Indian or Italian or Chinese food; sometimes it's vegetable soup and whole-wheat rolls.  (Every now and then it's pizza and a bottle of wine.)  There are low-sodium and low-saturated fat and low-calorie options available.  I've read the ingredient lists, and they're the same as the ingredient lists in my recipe books:  no preservatives, no fake food.  (You can tell, because they expire after 3 days in the fridge, or about a month in the freezer.)

Now, before you all yell at me: I know this means a lot more paper and plastic is coming out of my house than if I were cooking from fresh ingredients.  Most of it gets recycled.  In any case, waste is an engineering problem, not a physics problem.  Ditto cost, as I do suspect that eating this way is more expensive than cooking--though not if you believe that time is money.

If you read the op-ed, Mark Bittman says a lot of bad things about processed food, and they're all true.  But none of them have to be.  It's the current method of processing food in America that's at issue, not the definition of processing--which does, after all, include "cooking".
The 1998 tobacco settlement limited cigarette marketing and forced manufacturers to finance anti-smoking campaigns — a negotiated change that led to an environmental one that in turn led to a cultural one, after which kids said to their parents, “I wish you didn’t smoke.” Smoking had to be converted from a cool habit into one practiced by pariahs.
But that's the thing, Mr. Bittman: people had to be convinced to stop smoking, or better yet, not start.  They didn't have to be convinced to: spend time planning, drive 10-20 minutes out of their way, learn a new skill, spend 15-60 minutes a night performing that skill, and then clean up after it.  Not starting to do something is generally a lot easier than starting to do it.

Look, I spent a lot of time a few years ago kicking myself for not cooking.  I was pretty much living on take-out while I worked full time and went to graduate school.  On my few evenings home, I popped a WeightWatchers meal into the microwave rather than cook up something from the Moosewood book.  I spent weekends writing, doing housework, and--gasp--relaxing with my fiance, when I should have been making batches of the week ahead's meals.  I was sure this was a moral failing of the first order.

Finally, Christmastime came, and I re-read A Christmas Carol, as I do every year.  I came across the line, Scrooge took his usual melancholy meal in his usual melancholy tavern.  That sent me to thinking about other meals in other books: the bachelor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter arranging to have his lunch and dinner with the diner nearest his boarding house; the many meals botched by Betsy Ray Willard while Joe is at work (and the fact that one reason Betsy can't cook is that her family's always had a housekeeper to do it); Jo's failure to make a nice lunch on Hannah's day off.  It dawned on me: expecting people to come home from work and cook dinner is a pretty short-lived phenomenon, historically.  For most of the history of western civilization, preparing daily meals has been accepted as a perfectly acceptable job to pay someone else to do.

I'm not sure why that has changed.  The world is full of personal tasks that are as perfectly okay to outsource as they are to perform.  I can't imagine anyone sane claiming that everyone, regardless of circumstances, must compost their own waste rather than leave it out for the garbage collectors to deal with for them.  I never worried, in the days when I sent out my sheets and towels rather than spend hours in the laundromat trying to get them dry, that I was somehow letting myself down by not doing every stitch of my own laundry.  Nobody writes op-eds about how important it is that busy people clean their own house instead of hiring cleaners (provided those cleaners are fairly paid).  I don't see any reason why cooking should be any different.

When it comes to food prep, why not give people a chance to do what they're already doing, but differently?  What is it about the chore of cooking that makes some people say, "you must do this for yourself"--against all available evidence?

There's no reason why eating healthfully shouldn't be as easy as eating unhealthfully.  People of America: you don't need to cook more, you just need better non-cooking options.


  1. Sing it, sister! As a person who lives alone and works close-to-full time, I have actually made the decision that there's just no point in my buying produce at the farmer's market; I simply can't eat it fast enough. You know I dream of being a good cook someday, but in the short term I dream of a really good veggie burger. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

  2. Ah, veggie burgers. Things they don't have in England, but should. I about lived on Boca Burgers for a few years in my mid-twenties--not satisfying. Garden Burgers are better, if they still make those?

    Somewhere out there a true foodie is jumping up and down and yelling at the screen how easy it is to make freezable veggie burgers. That foodie should start a business.

  3. ...you sent out your sheets and towels!!??

    I'm trying to develop a system where I decide what we'll always be able to make--tuna casserole, TJ's fish nuggets and soycatash, quiche, pasta & pesto--and plan 2 main meals for each week and make the plan for 6 weeks out. It took 10 months of unemployment to come to the conclusion that it's the decision making part of meals...

  4. When we were both working 60+ hours/week? You better believe it. We washed the clothes; that was enough time at the laundromat.

    Meal planning really does make a huge difference. When we first moved here I went through a long period of planning meals and shopping on Friday, then cooking for the rest of the week--things like, roast chicken on Sunday, with chicken leftovers (quesadillas, soup) at least two other days. It was nice to have a plan, and not have to think about dinner when I was hungry... but it also made for a lot of dishes. We finally decided the home-cooked dinner every night wasn't worth the nightly dilemma of whether to clean up while we were tired and wanted to be relaxing, or have to face a kitchen full of pots and pans in the morning.

    Now I plan for which ready meals I'm going to eat before they expire!