Cooking Is A Rewarding, Fulfilling Experience
I've never understood people who can't cook, don't cook, or won't cook. I've never been able to fathom the kitchen aversion that drives the popularity of philosophies like the ones behind Peg Bracken's I Hate To Cook Book. Really? You “HATE” to cook? I just don't get it.
Maybe it's because of the way I started out cooking. I was about seven years old and already an outrageous lover of bacon. Don't tell anybody but I used to sneak a nibble of the stuff raw while I was waiting for Mom to cook me some for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meal snacks. I know, YUCK! I feel the same way in retrospect and my grandmother used to go apoplectic and start screaming “trichinosis” whenever she caught me in the act. But it's just an illustration of how much I craved bacon in those days. And in those days the only way to fulfill that craving was to pester my long-suffering mother to fire up the stove to cook me some because there were no microwaves or “ready-to-cook” strips you could just toss therein. When I wanted bacon, somebody had to cook it and Mom eventually decided that somebody should be me. Since I was just about tall enough to reach the built-in flattop griddle on our gas range, she armed me with a spatula and stood over me as I learned to prepare my favorite food for myself. So right from the get go cooking became a rewarding experience.
Research on the subject published in the Harvard Business Review divides people into three groups: (1) people who love to cook and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook and avoid cooking by heating up convenience food or by eating or ordering out and, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation. The most recent results of that survey show that forty-five percent of Americans “hate” cooking, forty-five percent are “sometimes” cooks, and only ten percent make up the demographic that loves to cook and cooks often. Those are scary numbers, made even scarier by the downward trend they imply: fifteen years earlier the same researcher found the ratio to be fifteen percent cooking “lovers,” thirty-five percent ambivalent, and fifty percent “haters.” I guess the fact that the “lovers” and the “haters” both dropped by an offsetting five percentage points should be seen in a positive light, but still the prospect that ninety-percent of people in this country either loathe the idea of cooking or only do it occasionally when and if they “have to” is a sobering one.
I know people in that ninety-percent. Lots of people. They're the ones that grab coffee and doughnuts on the way to work, hit the cafeteria or food court for lunch, and pick up “supper” at a fast-food place on the way home. Or they line the pockets of the executives at Kraft, Nestlé, General Foods and other Big Food companies as they assemble “homecooked” meals from Stouffer's frozen entrees, Hungry Jack potato flakes, Green Giant canned vegetables, Pillsbury refrigerated dinner rolls, and Duncan Hines cakes or Mrs. Edwards pies. They're also the ones that will require very little embalming when they die because they are already preserving themselves with the chemicals and additives in what they eat.
My wife and I are definitely “10 percenters.” The kitchen is the center of our home and we love to cook. Not only do we love to cook for ourselves, we frequently feed friends and neighbors and hire out as personal chefs and caterers to feed others. We just finished a wedding that left us footsore and weary, but as we sat recovering in a booth at a friend's restaurant, we raised our glasses to one another and toasted a job well done. The bride and groom were happy, their families and guests were happy, and we were happy to have made them all happy. How can it get better than that? We used to have a “love/hate” relationship with our restaurants. We hated the stress and the long hours, but we loved the sense of fulfillment we got from satisfying our customers.
But you know what? Even when we're not cooking for hundreds – even when we're just cooking for each other – it's still a fulfilling experience. In the first place, we enjoy working together. Always have. In the second place, we are both creative individuals. She's a graphic artist and I'm a writer and a retired entertainer. Far from being a “chore” or a “task,” we find cooking to be another creative outlet. When we work with images and words or music, we produce things that are aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. When we work with ingredients and techniques, we render things that are physically and emotionally satisfying. Same creative process. How can you “hate” that?
“But I can't cook,” you say. To which I say, “balderdash.” Of course you can cook. You just have to have the desire and the ability to learn. Nobody is born with a wooden spoon in their hand. Did you come out of the womb with a license and the innate ability to drive? No, you had to develop a specialized skill set. You had to learn. If you can read and understand a recipe, you can cook. And just like whatever occupation you pursue for a living, the more you practice and the longer you do it, the better you'll get. I started out making macaroni and cheese from a box mix. Now I make my own pasta. You can cook, but do you want to?
Back in the “old days,” almost nobody cooked for the pleasure of it. It was a pretty simple paradigm: everybody had to eat so somebody had to cook. Servants were for the wealthy and visits to restaurants were a rare and expensive treat. A hundred years ago, women like my grandmother spent an average of thirty to forty hours a week in the kitchen. And they were laborious hours. Most all the food preparation was done by hand with what we now consider primitive tools. Modern electric conveniences were either unimaginable or unaffordable and even basic equipment was labor intensive. Along with washing, ironing, mending, and sweeping, cooking was something you had to do in order to continue eating, wearing clothes, and living indoors. It was a “chore,” defined by the dictionary as “an unpleasant but necessary task.” And the task most often fell to women. Men wore the white coats and tall hats in professional kitchens and everybody called them “chef.” Women donned faded house dresses and worn aprons at home and were usually called “mother.”
Then came the economic boom of the post-Depression, post-war era. From the late 1940s through the '60s, newer, faster, cheaper, and easier ways of doing things were being developed every day. And nowhere was this trend more impactful than in the kitchen. Canned food, boxed mixes, frozen foods and myriad new ways to prepare them meant that a woman raising a family in the '50s only spent about twenty hours a week in the kitchen. And it was more than just a change in food products and preparation techniques; thanks to Madison Avenue, there was a sea change in attitude taking place.
Clever advertising convinced women that they were being “freed” from the “drudgery of the kitchen.” Why “waste” all that time cooking the way your mother did? All that chopping and stirring and kneading and roasting and braising and boiling. Why, that, the ad men would have you believe, was tantamount to slave labor! Open a can or a box or a pre-packaged, pre-cooked frozen “meal” and “free” yourself to do other, more important, more fulfilling things! No wonder women began to view cooking as onerous and hateful and something to be avoided. It was being marketed to them as an affront to their very womanhood and self esteem. And they took the bait: nowadays women spend just five and a half hours a week in the kitchen. About what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers spent in a day. And most will tell you it's because they're “too busy” to cook, they “hate” to cook, or they simply “can't” cook. All because of the successful effort begun two generations ago to demonize, denigrate, and disparage cooking as an “old-fashioned,” soul-crushing, life draining “chore.”
If there's a ray of hope peeking over the horizon, it's the increasing awareness among members of the current generation of the importance of fresh food and the rise of so-called “subscription” meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others. More the former than the latter, I believe. Meal delivery operations are a small step in the right direction mainly because they introduce generations raised on artificial food-like stuff to the healthful and substantive advantages of real food. But they are not in and of themselves the answer to the larger problem. An opinion piece I read in the New York Times entitled “You Don't Need A Blue Apron to Teach You to Turn On Your Oven” echoes my own thoughts on the subject. The author praises the subscription delivery model for bringing American consumers closer to the way the rest of the world shops for and prepares food, i.e. keeping a basic stock of staples in the pantry and shopping for fresh ingredients on a daily basis. But at the same time, the author opines – and I agree – we're not actually teaching people how to cook that way, only how to prepare meal kits. It's kind of like the public school system teaching kids how to take tests rather than to impart real learning about actual subjects. Sure, you can make a “gourmet meal” from the ingredients and instructions Blue Apron provides, but if you are not willing or able to take the next step and develop your own creations from ingredients you source yourself, you're really just making upscale versions of boxed mixes.
To those who are able, though, it's a good entry point to the scary world of measuring and seasoning and sauteing and all those other mysterious things your grandmother used to do when she laid out the big feasts you probably still remember. If you are willing to approach cooking as a creative exercise rather than as a depressing chore or a necessary evil, you've already won the battle. And you'll quickly outgrow the meal kits and move on to more adventurous kitchen adventures. As the author of the Times article wisely said, “the whole point of training wheels is that eventually you don’t need them anymore.”
And if you're a complete nervous novice, there's nothing wrong with starting out with a few comfortable, unintimidating boxes and cans and frozen entrees. Anything to get you into the kitchen. I was the master of Minute Rice when I was in junior high school, but I didn't stop there. I read, I observed, I asked questions, I took classes and from there it was just a matter of practice, practice, practice. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, a top chef in his own right, says, “it's about creating good habits. It's about learning good solid technique and methods. Much like learning to play a musical instrument, you have to understand basics, you have to understand theory. And then from there you can improvise.” So maybe you'll never cook for hundreds. That's okay. Even if you only cook for yourself, you'll be so much better off. There isn't a medical or dietary expert on the planet that won't tell you cooking at home with fresh ingredients is more healthful and beneficial than eating out or cooking with preservative-laden junk.
Start now. I started as a kid, but when it comes to cooking, it's never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks. I've been at it for more than fifty years but there isn't a week that goes by that I don't pick up something new. And I still get all happy every time a new technique or process or ingredient works out and makes me say, “Wow! I've never tried that before.” The thrill of discovery and the expansion of knowledge and the development of skill – those are the things that make cooking a creative and fulfilling activity and not just something I do because I have to eat or feed somebody else. And that, miei amici, is the way it should always be.