It’s been forever, but I am indeed back! I apologize for the lack of pictures going up on my blog like I promised, but I ran into some problems while I was home. Now that I’m back at school, I’ll get it all done! In the meantime, here’s something I wrote up for class. To preface this piece, here’s a link to the NY Times Article I wrote this response to: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html
Without further ado, here’s my take on the growing home-cook crisis in America.
Off the Couch, Back in the Kitchen
From the very beginning of the article, it’s clear that Mr. Michael Pollan is a man in mourning. He has lost an essential part of his childhood and watched it decline and deteriorate before his very eyes. The decline of the home cook in America is indeed a terrible thing to behold. In recent years, Americans have doubled their daily meal intakes and sadly, have decided to let major food companies do all the cooking for them. Processed foods and instant mixes have all but replaced a well-stocked pantry, kitchen or refrigerator. It’s a problem that is reaching pandemic levels. Thankfully, there is a cure for this disease. While it is true that modern cooking shows are more for spectacle and less for education, there are many that still instill a spirit of adventure and exploration into home cooks the world over (Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” immediately comes to mind). If Americans can embrace this new-found spirit and take home cooking back into the home and out of the corporate kitchen, then they may be able to reclaim the regal domain that is, the home kitchen.
Chef Mario Batali described it best when asked about the Food Network: everyone has a niche to fill, no matter who it is. In recent years, the Food Network has only served to prove that statement correct. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter what’s being cooked. The focus is more oh who is doing the cooking. Many (one Harry Balzer comes to mind) see this as a detriment to food TV; it’s taking the focus away from the real star, which is the food itself. However, the argument can be made that, in some cases, this could actually be helping budding home-cooks to take up a knife and spatula and try cooking for themselves. It all depends on who is doing the cooking and in this case, food TV personality Alton Brown is the perfect example. From a personal standpoint, Alton Brown (not Emeril, not Bobby Flay) was my whole reason to take the leap and try cooking for myself. He embodies what the home-cook should be like; he embraces the spirit that Michael Pollan says all cooks should have. It’s that emotional connection to cooking that seems to resonate within me whenever I see “Good Eats” on TV. A connection can easily be drawn between Alton Brown and Michael Pollan: both want to see the revival of the American home-cook. It’s a movement that I wholeheartedly embrace.
Now, the careful observer may point out a flaw in my argument: If one is to forgo watching cooking for actually cooking, why advocate a cooking show? True, there is a paradox in that argument, but consider this: What is that particular cooking show was actually educational? That’s exactly why “Good Eats” embraces Michael Pollan’s stance on the current state of American home-cooks. Yes, it does use a bit of spectacle but it uses that spectacle to draw focus towards the food and techniques, rather than the person doing the cooking. What’s more, it actually drives home the message for home-cooks to forgo processed and pre-made ingredients for fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. It even continues Michael Pollan’s message of how home-cooking can break the hold obesity has over the American populous. The bottom line is thus: amidst the swath of spectacle and modern perceptions of cooking shows, there are true gems that will genuinely restore that spirit of curiosity and adventure within home-cooks across the country. There will always be, however, detractors and Harry Balzer is conceivably the biggest detractor the world has ever seen. Despite that, he does bring up some good points about the state of the American food market today.
Speed and convenience are the driving forces behind today’s mega-marts, fast food chains and food corporations. Who’s to blame? We are. Americans have gotten lazy, despite having added more and more work hours to their lives. In fact, the more work hours may have added to the overall laziness. More work hours means less time to cook a good meal. Therefore, we search for a quick and easy answer: frozen meals, fast food, casual dining restaurants, etc. It’s in these convenience answers that lie our three biggest enemies: fat, sugar and salt. The processed and/or pre-made foods we so often reach for after a busy day at work or school are packed and even over-packed with these three culprits. In addition, many of the food-bourne illnesses and outbreaks come from these mass-produced “convenience” items that the big food corporations sell to us. So why take that kind of risk in the first place? Why risk Salmonella and obesity? Because there’s less work involved. Americans today don’t want to do more work on top of the tough work day they just had. They’d rather relax and let the microwave do all the “cooking” for them. It’s a sad state of affairs to be sure and it’s one that has affected even my own family. There will be times when my parents would rather go out to a restaurant rather than cook at home, either because they’re too tired or too hungry and therefore too antsy to wait around for a meal to cook. It’s nice once in a while, but when it becomes a twice-a-week routine, it starts to make me sad. Thankfully, my mother has seized control and begun a very smart regiment against the easy way out: she’ll cook 2 or 3 meals over the weekend, portion them out and then freeze them. When the work week rolls around again, she’ll just defrost and reheat them and viola; a frozen meal that’s probably better than one you’d get at the local mega mart. It’s a strategy that I am more than willing to implore myself when the time for me to move out comes. And thus, phase one in the war against lazy American home-cooks is revealed: find a problem and solve it. Step two? Make like a scientist and experiment. Try different recipes and techniques that you find interesting in your own kitchen. It’s what inspired me to attempt cooking for the first time, and let me toll you, the very first time I successfully made an omelet without burning it was one of the happiest days of my life.
The joy of cooking. It’s what the late, great Julia Child instilled into many fledgling cooks in the 60s and it’s exactly what needs to be put back into home-cooks today. Amidst the ceremony and the spectacle of Food Network’s programming, there does exist, quite possibly, a modern day equivalent of Ms. Child, in Mr. Brown. I, like Michael Pollan, was and continue to be inspired by Alton Brown’s program and wholeheartedly embrace the value and fundamental spirit of adventure that seems to be lacking among home-cooks today. If more Americans would see the light and embrace that spirit, then the art of cooking will not be lost and the war on obesity may very well turn in our favor. I echo Mr. Pollan’s cry for a return to the kitchen and a return to the golden age of home-cooks so that one day, Americans across the country may rise from their couches and once again, create some good eats.