Continuing the discussion about cooking, and having time to cook, Michael Ruhlman threw down the gauntlet at the IACP event in Portland, Oregon last week when he called “bullshit” on the idea that we all lead such busy lives that we don’t have time to cook. Ruhlman’s point is that we all have the same number of hours in the day, and we choose how to use them — many of us may choose not to cook, but by claiming we’re “too busy” we’re just buying into propaganda the food industry has been selling us, nonstop, for the past 30 years.
Here’s a Wendell Berry quote on the same subject from “The Pleasures of Food”:
“The food industrialists have by now persuaded milions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. THey will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so. We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way. The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.”
This essay was published in 1989, and as the popularity of “nutrition drinks” like Ensure and whatever the horrible one is that they try to get people to feed to their kids (I saw a TV ad the other day urging mothers to give their kids this drink when they won’t eat vegetables) all I could think of was Berry. I’d also argue that the fast-food drive-through window is in many ways the equivalent of Berry’s consumer strapped to the table. Passive consumption, consumed while passively restrained in an automobile.
I sometimes worry about preaching about cooking since I work at home and I don’t have kids — the two excuses people cite most often about why they can’t cook. Working at home is a choice I made, and one I’ve paid for in reduced income on a couple of occasions. What I’ve gotten in return is a level of autonomy that is worth more than money to me. It’s a choice I made. Every time I saw an opportunity to work at home I took it, starting in my twenties. We make choices. And I know it’s a shitty economy right now, and anyone with a job is being driven to work as many hours as the corporate machine can get out of them, but I think that one of the larger issues these discussions about food and cooking and home life are bringing up are questions about whether those choices make sense. In some ways I think what the food-and-cooking advocates who question the industrial food paradigm are also questioning is the industrial work paradigm. There aren’t any easy answers, but it’s my hope that the recent economic crash might have distracted everyone for a moment from the incessant acquisition of useless crap, that maybe it’s given us all a chance to come up for air, to question whether commuting in a car for long distances to a job that eats up all our time just so we can make enough money to pay for the car and the gas and the house in the suburbs that we’re never in because we’re so “busy” working so hard, well, maybe it’s giving us a chance to ask whether this system makes any sense at all.
Which brings us back to cooking, and time. I’m old-fashioned. I believe in meals not snacks, and I believe in cooking for yourself, not letting some anonymous, safety-challenged industrial force do it for you. I’m also a sort of artsy hippie weirdo, who reacted to my first office with florescent lights twenty-five years ago by trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there. So take it as you will. But I’m with Ruhlman on this one. “No time to cook” is bullshit. Everyone seems to have time to commute, or shop, or as he puts it “dick around on the internet.” How can we not have time to cook? To feed ourselves and our families? It’s not rocket science people, it’s just dinner.
Over the Easter holiday, my adopted family was back in town, and because we all miss them, their house is full of people when they’re home. They’ve got five kids of their own, and most evenings there were at least eight or nine kids in the house, and anywhere from three to five grown-ups. And we cooked dinner. One night Elwood threw a couple of chickens in the oven, and a pan of potatoes. We made a big salad. When the chickens came out he put them on a big board, and chopped them up almost Chinese-style. The kids all ate chicken, and hot roasted potatoes, and salad. The next night, we threw a ham in the oven in the afternoon, and twenty minutes before serving, threw a sheet pan of asparagus in along with a loaf of bread. Again, plenty for everyone, and no big deal. Meat, veg, and a starch. A big long table full of chattering kids passing food around, helping the littler kids out, while we stood around the kitchen with glasses of wine, catching up and filling our own plates. It wasn’t hard. There were no tricky recipes or big-deal meal planning involved. We all pitched in with the kids and the dishes and we did what makes us family, we ate together.
Or perhaps, if you need some extra incentive to start cooking, you might consider Ruhlman’s suggestion for using the hour it takes to cook a roasted chicken and some vegetables — repairing to the bedroom and reconnecting with your beloved. Because at root, this is what it’s all about, the cooking thing. Being there together. Feeding our loved ones, taking care of them and ourselves. What’s any of the rest of it worth if we’re not doing that?