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 

On Cooking, Part 1

posted by on 2011.07.04, under Food

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

I have  been cooking a lot lately. One thing that goes through my mind while I cook is the fact that I know how to do this. My students do not. I’ve discovered that some of my colleagues are lost when it comes to preparing most of what they eat. More than one has declared proudly, “I don’t know how to cook.” This declaration is not too far from the 18 year olds that stand up in class and proudly proclaim that they have never read an entire book. We are eating poorly and thinking poorly and we are proud of these facts. Something is really, really wrong.

I lost over 60 pounds 2 years ago, due in no small part to the fact that I’ve become a locavore (as much as one can be a locavore in Cleveland) and a “Clean Eater”, meaning, I prepare most of the food that I eat. When more than one person at work asked me how I did it, I’ve replied that I count calories and prepare most of my food at home. Every one shook their heads in disappointment and muttered, “I’m not going to cook.” As if this is both the most repulsive and the most frightening thing on the planet.

I know that most of this is ignorance. Underneath the bravado of “anti-cooking” lies a basic lack of understanding of those appliances they spent thousands of dollars to put in their homes. They don’t understand the equipment. They can’t find the ingredients. They don’t know if they have the “right” skills to use the equipment and ingredients they do have. Recipes seem daunting. Novices think they have to know how to break an egg with one hand plus have an array of  those “knife skills” before they can make dinner (even if dinner doesn’t include eggs or any fancy cuts). The actors playing chefs on all those HBO shows seem to understand “knife skills” and one of those blogs that are everywhere declared that poor knife skills are the mark of a bad cook.

So if you’re still burning your oatmeal why even try?

Because food matters. This will take me some time to explain fully, but food really matters. And we’ve become far too separated from our food sources. Most Americans have no concept of how to clean a fish or cut up a chicken, and both “skills” are conceptually repulsive. Let someone else do this. Then, one can continue to not think about what it means to clean a fish or cut up a chicken.

This fear seems counter-intuitive. There are 2 cooking CHANNELS (while I was growing up I only recall 2 cooking SHOWS, both on PBS – Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet). Each channel has their own websites (Food Network and Cooking Channel). Jamie Oliver has a wonderful site of his recipes and techniques, and of course there’s the venerable Epicurious.com followed by The Splendid Table and  FoodAndWine.com.Then there is the newly launched and supremely bizarre GiltTaste.com (this has to be a post in and of itself), and an unlimited number of blogs about cooking and food. With all this “collective knowledge” online, you’d think that cooking was ubiquitous in our culture. Yet, my thoroughly unscientific poll has shown that this is not true. I am a college professor, working with the progressive elite. If they are afraid to cook, who can expect the overworked, underpaid, overwhelmed and over exploited working class to cook? What on earth is going on?

Cooking, like news and politics, has become entertainment. It is no longer something that “ordinary” people do. Cooking has become the purview of the privileged elite. For the rest of us, The Food Network and The Cooking Channel are not instructive tools. They are merely bearable alternatives to Fox News and Two And A Half MenIron Chef is the WWWF for yuppie wannabes. Food and Wine is the magazine of yuppies. The bizarre GiltTaste.com appears to be aiming to supplant F&W for the hearts and minds of yuppies once and for all. In the meantime, America becomes fatter and less capable of understand this basic activity; eating.

OK, this is all speculation. I don’t really know, because I don’t have television reception and my entertainment options are Netflix and NPR. My magazines are The New Yorker, Good and The Atlantic Monthly. So please explain to me why the person with limited access to all these televised and online resources is the home cook, and all the others with this access are still buying Healthy Choice frozen dinners?

I thought about this yesterday during the 3 hours I spent making dinner. I don’t get it. I do know that the best resources (Epicurious, The Splendid Table, Food and Wine, Jamie Oliver) may seem daunting to the novice. But they are manageable, with just a nudge of guidance. This may be insane, and no one may ever read this, but I’m offering that guidance here. Why? Because I love making good food. It’s easy, fun and affordable (most of the time). There’s an obesity epidemic (no matter what Penn & Teller say), and cooking your own food is a good way to manage your weight. Finally, there is something really, really wrong with industrial agriculture. From the environmental impact, to the labor exploitation combined with animal cruelty, contemporary agriculture is as damaging to our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as Wall Street and the banking industry. There has to be another way to feed the world.

I believe the solution is based in cooking at home and eating local food. First, the ordinary citizen has to get over this fear of making food. Epicurious is actually a great starting point. Not only do you get recipes from the experts, the “citizen journalists” on the site make terrific comments and show the novice how to “adjust” the recipe. Those “adjustments” are the way you start really cooking. Following a recipe, so long as you have all of the ingredients, is easy. Making your own chicken and vegetable soup from what you have available is real cooking. Any one can do it. It just takes a little bit of knowledge, a fair amount of experimentation, and a little bit of communicating with your peers. Start with Epicurious and see what happens.

bloody mary

My Bloody Mary that I drank while I wrote this post. Photo by me.

Here is the Bloody Mary recipe – a very good place to start. Tomatoes, spices, vodka…who could ask for more? I make it verbatim, but please try all the variations suggested by the reviewers. While you do this, think about why they make these suggestions. Why lime instead of lemon? Why more pepper or less Worcestershire? Just think. A little. And try it out.

This is Part 1 of a 3 Part Introduction. Then, I’ll introduce you to the best thing ever – Broth Bags!

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