On Cooking, Part 2: The myth that cooking takes too much time

posted by on 2011.07.06, under Food

This is part 2 of a 3 part article. Go to Pt 1 

There are two strong arguments against cooking; “It’s too time-consuming” and “It’s too expensive”.  Let’s start with the “time-consuming” issue.

Cooking takes as long or as short as you want it to take. Before anyone responds with the “parents are exhausted”, “between my commute and my job I’m never home long enough to cook”, “no one ever showed me” litany, please. Take a breath and just bear with me for a minute. We are the beneficiaries (or dupes) of an incredibly successful, long-running marketing campaign against home cooking.

The convenience food industry began real growth in the 1950’s and took hold in American culture in the 1960s. A combination of the rapid expansion of industrial agriculture combined with greater disposable income among consumers laid the groundwork for the convenience food industry to replace cooking in the home with pre-made, or processed foods. The ground was laid, but it took the highly sophisticated marketing industry to sell us on the idea.

Campbell's Soup 1960

Campbell's Soup Ad from 1960

McDonald's Ad 1971

McDonald's Ad, 1971, image from SA_Steve's Photostream on Flickr












Look at who was targeted: women. Specifically, moms. The soothing “You deserve a break today”  was combined with the reassuring “Soup is good food”, just in case women started to feel guilty about that “break” they were taking. Brands such as Betty Crocker, Jello, Lipton’s, and Pillsbury created “social networks” of housewives using their products in inventive new ways (the Pillsbury Bake-Off is in it’s 45th year). Networks were created to build loyalty and trust while the incessant mantra of “this is so much easier than cooking from scratch” played in the background. We were lulled away from making our own food by marketing. This seduction has gone on, virtually unchallenged, for 60 years. Even the social consciousness that has grown up around food in the last 10 years, led by figures such as Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver, has not broken our trust in the message that cooking is time-consuming and difficult.

In recent years, food industry marketers have massaged the message to isolate their critics. Their message is, in essence, “cooking from scratch is an upper-class activity”. In other words, only the wealthy have the time and the disposable income to buy unprocessed food. They even have the very charming “working class” spokesmodels Rachael Ray and Paula Deen to front their products to the principle demographic of the processed food industry: overworked moms.

Rachael Ray on Wheat Thins

Rachael Ray and Nabisco

Paula Dean At Walmart

Eblast from Walmart introducing Paul Deen's foods.










Let me first dispel the myth that cooking takes too much time and energy. Day-to-day cooking consists of a repertoire of techniques and dishes that range from short and simple to longer dishes you create only for special events. And all the medium-length ones in-between (which are usually “stock-up” foods like stews or soups that can be made in bulk and stored for easy reheating later). Most of what you need to know to be a long-term home cook is found in the simple techniques of steaming, broiling, sauteing, and simple chopping. I must note, I’m speaking about cooking, not baking. These are two very different activities. (well, I think I’ve got another article to add to my growing list!)

Yes, even the shortest recipes will take longer to make and longer to clean up than 4 frozen dinners, but not by much. Start slowly, just cook a few meals a week, make some simple, manageable food rules and stick to them. Just do what you can do until it becomes a habit, and then up the ante. You’re aiming for armloads of short, fast techniques, coupled with some standard stock-up recipes and save the fancy stuff for once or twice a year. Here’s an incredibly simple meal that takes almost no time to prepare:

Blanched Snap or Snow Peas

Trim the hard ends (and pull the strings off the Snaps) off the peas (a pound or so will feed 4). I usually watch tv while I trim veggies. Put about an inch of water, lightly salted, in a 10 inch frying pan. Bring the water to a boil. Have a medium sized bowl standing by, filled with cold or iced water. Once the water is boiling, add the peas, then stir and watch them. The second they turn bright green (this is usually less than a minute), drain the peas in a sieve or colander and immediately immerse the peas in the cold water to stop cooking. If you wish, return the peas to the empty pan, place on medium heat and stir until the excess water cooks off. Or, just drain them. I serve them with a little salt and pepper. Some people like butter or olive oil on them as well (make sure the water is either all drained off or cooked off if you do this last step).

Simple Green Salad:

Hand tear a variety of lettuce greens (red lettuce, green leaf, romaine, etc), about 220 grams or 4 cups. Cut up fresh tomatoes (preferably in the summer, only). Add 1 tablespoon of wine vinegar and two tablespoons of olive oil and toss with clean hands or a fork (if you must). Add about 1 tablespoon of grated parmesan for more flavor if you wish.

Classic Sole Meunière

Worried about expense? This meal is in the range of affordable, but remember, this post is only about speed. Next post I’ll tackle the issue of economics; first, the tragedy of food deserts, and then, the myth of fresh foods being expensive.

And hang out on Epicurious, making sure you read the comments

This is part 2 of a 3 part article. Go to Pt 1 

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