In Praise of Adventuresome Cooking

August 7, 2009

julie julia 2

Last week the New York Times Magazine published a long and delightful piece by Michael Pollan about American cooking.  Inspired in part by the new movie Julie/Julia, Pollan examines the question of why we seem to have neatly traded a culture of cooking for a culture of sitting in our living rooms watching other people cook on TV.

As for the film, I’m not in the business of writing movie reviews.  So I’ll just say that this one was great.  If you like cooking at all, or have every enjoyed watching Meryl Streep or Amy Adams in anything, you’ll enjoy this one.  Its gotten mixed reviews but the bad ones are mostly critical because it focuses too much time on the food and doesn’t have enough drama in the plot.  Nobody dies.  Nothing blows up.  Nobody cheats on their spouse.  But … that’s not what the movie is supposed to be about.  Didn’t they watch the preview?  In actual fact the movie was delightful, fabulous and buoyant.  I was hugging myself with delight and silently clapping my hands for joy every few scenes.  Streep and Adams were both fantastic.  Go see it immediately!

Anyway, here’s what Pollan says on the subject:

“But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”

Pollan quotes a statistic that Americans spend only 27 minutes a day on food prep.  This is less than half the time we clocked when the French Chef debuted (and you’ve got to bet that number had been dropping significantly since world war II as well.  This is less time than episode of standard TV.  As he puts it, “What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.”  So true.

The most popular “cooking shows” today feature dramatic competition rather than helpful tips.  Hells Kitchen and others I’m glad I don’t remember the names of are clearly spectator sports.  But Pollan points out that even the actual how to shows are pretty quick and dirty.  They are filled with make-it-easier tips and tricks and ways to dress up simple concoctions to appear more impressive.  None of them share Julia Child’s simple message – that gourmet cooking could be attempted by anyone and that the process of creating the food was as fun and important as the actual eating.

He gets into a lot of the reasons that Americans have stepped away from cooking from scratch: more two income families, ever increasing work hours, the lack of cultural knowledge or support and (more than all the rest) the influence of a huge corporate persuasion campaign to make us stop.  It is, at its root, a “supply-driven phenomenon.”  Corporate food interests have been pushing us steadily toward a diet of their making since they got out of the business of feeding troops full time sixty years ago.  And it hasn’t done us any good at all.  The time saved in preparation comes at a cost in health, in satisfaction, in family togetherness and in basic humanity.

“So cooking matters — a lot. Which when you think about it, should come as no surprise. When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite. Now that check is gone, and we’re struggling to deal with the consequences.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Even as someone who spends more than 27 minutes a day in food prep and thoroughly enjoys it, modern life doesn’t really support this behavior.  I have perhaps four friends in my age bracket who cook as much or more than I do and the rest avoid their kitchens as if they contain unspeakable smells (well some of the kitchens do).  It makes me worry sometimes for the future of food in our hands.  But here’s how Pollan sums up:

“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Oh and by the way.  For anyone who was born to late  (as I was) to see this live, or anyone who did see it and needs a refresher, you really must check out Dan Akroyd’s impression of the French Chef from SNL.  Here’s a link.


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