Cooking Chaos? A Rebuttal
Help me, gentle reader, wrestle with a question to which I truly have no answer: why do so many people consider cooking to be such an onerous chore?
Cooking shows like “Top Chef” win Emmy awards. Crappy and derivative as it has become, Food Network and Cooking Channel programming still pulls in large numbers. A recent Nielsen survey found that one in every five households boasts a "budding gourmet chef." Cookbooks top best seller lists. Retail purveyors of fresh and/or organic ingredients are barely able to keep up with increasing demand and local farmers markets are seeing levels of support unheard of a decade ago. Obviously, somebody besides me likes to cook.
So why is it that the late Peg Bracken's time seems to have come again? A small publisher re-released her heretical “I Hate to Cook Book” a couple of years ago. I say heretical because the 184-recipe tome, first published in 1960, is to cooking what “Nuclear Physics for Dummies” is to building fusion reactors. Bracken, a Pennsylvania ad-copy-writer-turned-cookbook-author, managed to convince more than three million buyers that cooking was a matter of combining cans, boxes, mixes, and other processed foods into the palate-numbing concoctions that defined an unfortunate generation of American cooks; a standard proclaiming that busy, modern-day people have better things to do with their time than waste it in the kitchen preparing fresh, nutritious, and flavorful foods. If you can't make it, fake it. It has taken decades for the pendulum to reverse its swing.
And yet, the sentiment that cooking is a chore to be avoided at all costs still echoes and resonates in some circles. I came across an example of this school of thought in the form of an article written by someone who proclaims herself to be a writer on the topics of family life and frugal living. In my estimation, based upon what I read, she is qualified to be neither.
Her basic premise in this execrable scribbling is that eating out is preferable to cooking at home. She begins her assault on common sense by stating that “the whole dinner routine is an exercise in chaos.” She substantiates this opinion with a litany of whines about how time wasting it is to have to figure out what to eat, check the pantry for ingredients, drive to the store, walk the aisles, stand in line at checkout, drive home, put away the groceries, and then start to cook. Cooking takes an hour, she states, and then there's the time involved in eating (?) and cleaning up. This “expert” on family life considers all this activity to be a waste of time. “You could be doing anything else in the entire world with that time,” she opines, “maybe something more productive or beneficial to you, your family, and your world.”
I'm sorry, but what could be more productive or beneficial than preparing a delicious, healthy meal to share with your family and friends? In her questionable point of view, it's better to spend two minutes ordering take out, enjoying thirty minutes of “free time” while you wait, and then taking one minute to toss the containers. At least she doesn't begrudge her family the time it takes to eat the food, something of a reversal of her earlier position.
My wife and I shop together every week. We love searching the aisles for new things to try and hunting for bargains on the foods we enjoy. And we cook together nearly every night. After busy days spent in pursuit of a dollar, cooking – or “playing in the kitchen,” as my wife calls it – is an integral part of our shared time together doing something we both enjoy. Isn't that rather the definition of “family life?”
Our benighted “frugal living” correspondent goes on to praise the “value” in eating out, stating that she could never make a meal at home for the cost of a restaurant meal. She can get a steak dinner with a baked potato and vegetables for about fifteen dollars, she crows, and it's all cooked and seasoned and ready for her to pick up curbside to take home and enjoy. The same items purchased at a grocery store would cost her more, she says.
I'm a former restaurateur who now cooks primarily at home, so I know a bit about both sides and I have to ask, “My goodness, lady, where do you shop?” In my world, a potato and an ear of corn or a couple of carrots are going to cost less than two dollars, which, according to her reckoning, leaves me with about thirteen bucks to spend on a cut of meat, which I can do with change to spare. Of course, what she doesn't bother to mention is how that fifteen dollar figure relates to a family of, say, four. This “expert” wants me to believe that sixty bucks for a single meal for four people is “frugal living?” C'mon, get real. Let's expand this idea to its ridiculous conclusion. Sixty dollars a night times seven nights a week equals four hundred twenty dollars a week. For dinner alone. That doesn't include breakfast and lunch. Lets allow five bucks per person per fast food meal. Seven breakfasts and seven lunches times four people times five dollars comes to an additional 280 dollars a week. Seven hundred bucks a week to eat out? Sounds “frugal” to me.
Catch this one: this “supermom” says she can only cook maybe five things and none of them well. So she “improves” her family's life by exposing them to “a plethora of new foods” courtesy of various ethnic restaurants. She says she's not about to spend “tons of time and money” on ingredients only to mess up the dish or to find that her kids don't like it. So she heroically offers them a varied diet and the opportunity to “ expand their palettes” (I know; that's not the correct form of “palate,” but she's a professional writer, after all) by not cooking for them. That's just weird. How about this option: learn how to cook!
Far from serving the nutritional, educational, social, and cultural needs of her family, this “family life” writer is sentencing her kids to a life of inadequacy and dependence. I look back on my early life and remember a mother (and a grandmother) who could, would, and did cook anything I wanted. And they imparted their knowledge and skills to my sister and me. As a result, either of us can step into a kitchen anywhere, anytime, and prepare almost anything for anybody. What kind of legacy does the “family life” writer leave for her kids? The ability to read a take-out menu and dial a phone?
Kitchens don't need to be scenes of chaos and cooking doesn't have to be a chore. Whether in a big professional kitchen or a tiny home galley, organization is the nemesis of chaos. I don't have to scramble around looking for ingredients because I know what's in my pantry and fridge at any given time. I “stock up” on basics once a week and hit the store for fresh meats and produce a couple of times during the week. I don't necessarily write out a full menu for every meal – although I know people who do – but I always have some basic meal ideas planned out a few days in advance.
And my kitchen is organized. I don't have to hunt for every pot, pan, and utensil I own because I always know where they are located within my working space. I know people who store their breakfast cereal in the same cabinet as their mixing bowls and their canned goods in with their pots and pans. Yikes! I wouldn't last two minutes in that environment. That truly does represent chaos. A well-organized kitchen takes a lot of the “chore” factor out of cooking.
So does a well-stocked pantry. Inventory is everything in a restaurant kitchen and it should be the same at home. Knowing what you have on hand is essential to efficient planning and cooking and eliminates the chaotic element introduced by the last minute discovery that you're out of milk.
And then there's self-confidence. My mom always told me that Dad used to eat a lot of Jell-O the first year they were married. With a few years of practice under her belt, she was able to run a home kitchen like a pro. I admit that forty or so years ago, I was a “Peg Bracken” cook. There was little that came out of a box or a can that I couldn't “cook.” But as times changed, I learned better techniques. And once you have a sense of confidence in what you're doing, it stops being a chore and becomes something in which you take pride and find joy. You know what they say about the person who loves what they do never having to work again? It's true in the kitchen, too.
Going back to the idea of stocking up and planning, if you're really so time-crunched that making meals every night is an exercise in “chaos,” how about preparing meals in advance? For example, I had family over for ravioli not long ago. I made enough fresh pasta and fillings that I could portion out some ravioli and freeze it. Whenever I make fresh tomato sauce, I always put some up in the freezer. So, a few days later, I transferred some sauce from freezer to fridge in the morning. That night, I put some water on to boil, warmed up my sauce, and dropped some frozen ravioli in the water. While it was cooking, I toasted a little bread, drizzled it with olive oil and rubbed it with garlic while my wife threw together a little salad, set the table, and poured some wine. In about fifteen minutes, we were sitting down to a perfectly delicious meal. So why does it take the “family life expert” an hour to cook? I don't know.
On Sunday mornings, I grab a couple of potatoes from the bin and slice 'em or dice 'em, depending on my mood. I toss them in a pan with a few seasonings and move on to laying out a few slices of bacon on a griddle. While that's going on, I scramble a couple of eggs and drop some bread in the toaster. The eggs hit the pan as the potatoes and bacon come out and head for the plate. Butter the toast, plate the eggs and pour some orange juice. Twenty, twenty-five minutes tops. Better than a Pop-Tart, cheaper than IHOP, and, excuse me, did somebody say something about an hour?
Let me really put a kink in our correspondent's case: I do the dishes as I go. Takes about ten seconds each to wash out the pans as I empty them and by the time I put breakfast on the table, the kitchen is clean. All that's left to wash post-meal are the plates. Chaotic, eh?
This author of misguided missives claims she can only cook five things. Whose fault is that? Used to be I could only drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission. When I got a job that required me to “drive stick,” I learned how. There are formal and informal cooking classes taking place in culinary stores, restaurants, community colleges, recreation centers, and other such venues in towns and cities all over the country every day. And they cater to every skill level. It's not that you can only cook five things, lady. It's that you're too lazy to learn how to cook more.
Hey, “family life writer.” How about taking a class with your kids? Or are there more “productive” and “beneficial” things you could be doing? Maybe we just see the world differently, but I think that teaching a child to feed himself – by means other than dialing a telephone – is pretty damn productive and beneficial.
Okay. The soapbox is starting to catch fire under my feet, so I guess I'd better jump off.
Demosthenes said it: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” And my point is, mealtimes are only as chaotic as you allow them to be and cooking is only a chore if you make it so.