Some people like cooking. Others don’t—indeed, some would be happy to guzzle Soylent and throw the whole cooking thing out the window.
Yet many of us, as we grow older, become responsible for others: children, friends, and family members who may come over for dinner or who may live with us. Cooking isn’t a gender-specific task anymore (and rightly so)—but someone is always responsible, and cooking can be a daunting task for many adults, male or female. We live in a very health-conscious age, which makes cooking even more difficult: how are we to 1) get dinner on the table, in the midst of all of life’s frenzied activity, and 2) make sure that it’s healthy as well as 3) edible (preferably delicious)? As Virginia Heffernan put it in the New York Times, you don’t just have to “make” dinner these days—you have to “figure out” dinner.
I think several things in our society have made the act of cooking difficult.
First, we have saddled the act of cooking with a lot of cultural baggage and guilt: who cooks, what they cook, and when they cook, are all burdened with a frenzy of do’s and don’ts. Some moms don’t want to cook, because they see it as a sexist act: to bear the responsibility of being the meal-prepper, to “punch the clock” at every meal, as Heffernan puts it, is an unjust burden. Meanwhile, some men may feel pressure not to cook, from friends or societal stereotypes: they may think cooking is an unmanly act (unless you’re grilling steak). Other parents just worry that they’re doing it wrong: not enough vegetables, not enough protein, too many carbs, too much cholesterol—and is butter okay, or is it still taboo? And what about sugar? Also: who’s responsible for cleaning the dishes?
No wonder many people satiate their breakfast cravings with a hastily-bought coffee, or pick up Five Guys for dinner. Better to eat on the go, or to not eat at all, than deal with the overwhelming confusion that accompanies the modern meal.
We’ve also made cooking well a rather elusive prospect—both by the way we shop, and by what stores offer. Many people make weekly or bi-weekly runs to the supermarket, where they grab a glut of ingredients to last as long as possible. But this means that the fridge often becomes a jumble of various foods and jars, a confusing mass of potential meals that are difficult to concretize. Some cooks have the gift of planning and buying accordingly; some (myself included) get hopelessly distracted at the grocery store, walking away with perhaps ¼ of what they intended to buy, and at least twenty things they didn’t intend to buy but thought might be useful or tasty.
Which leads to the third point: cooking has become complex because of the many choices at our disposal. Back in the day, if you lived in India, you cooked Indian recipes with Indian ingredients. If you lived in Connecticut, you cooked with what grew nearby, with the recipes you were taught. But in today’s world, we are blessed (and cursed) with overwhelming knowledge and variety, both in the recipes and ingredients at our disposal. I can make Vietnamese food one night, and Italian the next. It’s fun, but it also makes cooking more complex.
Finally, I think we have complicated the simple through our ignorance. People think that baking bread is hard. But it’s not. We’ve just lost the knowledge of how to do such things, quickly and simply. Some come from an ethnic tradition or familial background that has handed down traditions or recipes. They are the lucky ones. Most people don’t know how to make a simple marinara sauce, how to make a loaf of bread in an hour or two, how to make hollandaise for a weekend brunch. Cooking has become complex, because we do not know any better.
Historically speaking, most cooks would not (and could not) have stocked up on ingredients for two or three weeks at a time (unless these items were canned). Many got their produce from their own gardens or farms; others visited the local market on a more regular basis, only buying things that wouldn’t spoil. This meant their produce was fresher, their pantries less overwhelmed, and their options more specific. The historical Massachusetts cook would not have access to mangoes in December, or fresh tomatoes in February. They would have a limited amount of produce at their disposal. This means the recipes they could make would also be limited, and they would have had a more regular cycle of meals to fit those recipes. This is why I like seasonal cooking: it simplifies life. In the fall, you cook with lots of squash and apples. In the winter months, you use a lot of citrus and hearty greens like kale. In spring, you enjoy asparagus, mint, strawberries, etc. It’s about enjoying what comes in its season.
Additionally, a three-meals-a-day structure is relatively modern: people have eaten their meals at different times, in different countries, throughout history. The modern day is more structured and time-sensitive than it would have been in ages past, which makes flexible mealtimes more difficult, but not impossible.
No matter how we cook or what we cook, two things are important:
First, that we cook from scratch whenever possible. It doesn’t matter who in the family does it, or what specifically they cook, but this is 1) infinitely superior taste-wise to buying pre-cooked food, 2) a great exercise in learning more about your place and the traditions and ingredients that it sustains, and 3) much more cost-effective, and 4) much healthier, in general. See Michael Pollan for more about the health benefits.
Second, it’s important that we gather—as friends or as family, to take a break in the busyness of the day, and to remember what’s important. Not to just eat dinner around the television, or to grab Chipotle on the go (at least not all the time), but to also sit and savor time with each other, to practice the art of conversation, to invest in each other’s lives. It’s a way of telling each other: you are important. You are worth my time and attention. You are worth a half-hour or so working over a hot stove in August, or making a grocery store run in the dead of winter. You are worth learning to make bread, or attempting homemade marinara sauce. You are worth cooking and cleaning for, and you are worth sitting with. You are more valuable than my time, my job, my everyday concerns. So here, in this moment, for you, I bake this bread, and break this bread. So that you will know how much you mean to me, and so that I can know you better.
To me, this is what makes meals important. It’s about the other, and demonstrating that you care about their hunger—physical, and communal. That you will take time to satiate both hungers, however you can, with the finest fruit of your labor; because they are your kith and kin, your spouse or best friend, and you love them.
I understand that cooking, in its mundane everydayness, rarely seems as poetic or important as all that. But I think when we boil it down, this is what cooking a meal can be, and perhaps even what it’s meant to be.