Cooking “from Scratch”

Cooking “from Scratch”

Because I work at home, I see a lot of TV with the sound off — Oprah had a family on a week ago or so who had a big pile of kids — sextuplets and twins? something like that. The mom was talking about her schedule and how she copes and she mentioned something about what my friend Nina calls “the witching hour” — that hour before dinner where all the kids seem to lose their minds at once. It took a while this mom-on-Oprah was saying, because she cooks “from scratch.” “You cook from scratch!?” Oprah said, as though this was some arcane and exotic practice. “Well yeah,” this mom said. “We do the organic thing, and well … it’s a lot cheaper.” “From scratch?” Oprah said again.

This has been stuck in the back of my head ever since. When did cooking dinner become “cooking from scratch”? I did a little googling, and found these disturbing statistics:

According to a very sad and disturbing article in the January issue of Food Technology, about 75% of us eat dinner at home, while only 33% of those eating at home actually cook from scratch.

The other 42% use restaurant take-out. I don’t know if drive-thru windows count in this category—the article didn’t distinguish the difference. Is this where we get down on our knees and hail Appleby’s for car-side service? I think not, judging by their totally uninspiring menu.

Looking at these stats, I’d be curious to know how many of the 33% who are not eating restaurant takeout are actually cooking, and how many of them are eating out of boxes — but at least it appears they’re cooking something at home.
The eating takeout thing I find really wild — how do people afford it? Fast food I understand — its prime virtues are sameness and cheapness — but I remember when a Boston Market opened in Salt Lake when I was in grad school. I thought about buying dinner there one night when I was fried and it was late — but it was so expensive — much more expensive than buying a pre-roasted chicken at the store, for example.

My friend Nina has four kids, and sure, there were a bunch of nights this summer we ordered pizza, and she’s always got some shortcuts around like pre-grated cheese, but for the most part, she or her husband cook them dinner every night. Nothing elaborate, just dinner. And I know any number of people like myself who live alone who claim it’s “too much trouble” to cook a real meal for themselves — but what are they eating? Are people living on bowls of cereal?

When I first moved in with my brother, he did have a freezer full of Lean Cuisines — and those disgusting Hot Pocket things — and I remember about a year after we’d moved in together as he was making tomato sauce one night (chop and saute an onion and some garlic, add a can of tomatoes and a splash of wine) when he looked at me and said: “If I’d known how easy this was I wouldn’t have been buying jars of sauce all those years.” I guess making sauce in a skillet while the noodles cook does take longer than opening a jar and dumping some on — but it doesn’t take that much longer.

So why the hysterical tone about cooking “from scratch”? Why has this become so out of the mainstream that it’s seen as odd? Am I so old that having had parents who cooked dinner every night for us, just dinner — spaghetti or pork chops or pot roast or our stepmother’s non-gourmet but delicious Chicken Divan — puts me in the “when I was a kid we walked ten miles to school” category?

I find this bewildering. I know I’m a weirdo who takes on food projects like making my own pancetta, or baking bread, or making yogurt — but I’m not talking about that kind of cooking. I’m just talking about regular, every day, feed ourselves and our kids kind of cooking.

6 thoughts on “Cooking “from Scratch”

  1. More nights than not, dinner means tossing something frozen in the microwave, here. Sometimes the spouse will make dinner, and he actually grills meat and puts together side dishes… but most of the time, if I need to eat? I find even making a sandwich too much work.

    In my case, it’s only partly laziness. The largest portion of it is that I live in apartments, and I have never yet lived in an apartment with a kitchen like I remember from my family’s houses when I was a child. Apartment kitchens are cramped, claustrophobic, dark, don’t have much counter space. I enjoy baking, sometimes, but I can’t make so much as a batch of cookies without spending the time to clean the entire kitchen first, because that’s the only way there’s space to make cookies. And as soon as I’ve finished cooking, well, the entire kitchen is in no shape to make anything else…

    I would love to have a kitchen large enough that I could make food comfortably, and not be moving the trash can so that I can open the pantry door (which can’t be open while the dishwasher is open to be loaded), then moving it again to open a cover… But until I buy a house, I’m unlikely to do a lot of cooking from scratch at home. It’s just not fun, in that lack of space.

  2. I’m in grad school, and have evening classes, and get weird looks from people when I pull out real, good looking food at break time that’s not a sandwich and not take-out. I find myself muttering explanations and half-apologies like “Some people run to relax; I cook.” My classmates think it’s just amazing that I actually cook real food regularly; I find it amazing that they eat out as much as they do on the money that most of us make (or don’t make, is more like it). So, you’re not the only bewildered one. 🙂

  3. I’m bewildered by it too, and have been for some time. I get the same response from most of my friends as the woman on Oprah got: “From scratch? Every night??” Yes! They all ask me where on earth I find the time. Like me, most of my friends do not have children. They work fairly low-pressure day jobs and get home at a reasonable hour. My question is, “What are they doing if they’re not cooking dinner?”. Watching TV would be my guess. Or killing themselves at the gym to work off all the junk they’re eating. I don’t get it.

  4. Having a crummy kitchen can be a real problem — I lived in a lot of funky rentals over the years — maybe part of it is just the ick factor — I’ve never been able to get over the gumminess of most frozen entrees (although I did rely on frozen mac and cheese, and frozen lasagne that winter after my brother died). I think some of it has to be related to whether you find cooking soothing and relaxing, or whether it’s a source of anxiety and stress as it seems to be for a lot of people. Even when I was living in NYC on poverty wages, I always cooked — but since I couldn’t even afford a movie — it was one of my only forms of entertainment. (And Joyce, I was also the person in night classes with real dinner in a tupperware.) Whether people cook or not is something I continue to find really interesting —

  5. I grew up in a family that cooked, and I guess that’s part of why I cook. I also grew up in a family that was hella organized, so I caught on to what I think is actually the harder part of choosing to cook: planning the meals in advance so that you don’t get home at the end of the day and get tempted by the Yellowstone Pizza flyer.

    However, among my friends–mostly parents of young children at this point–there seems to be a lot of cooking going on. I know that we cook “from scratch” most every night of the week, and we always make enough for lunchtime leftovers. However, I do have at least one friend who is a single mom and, self-admittedly, can’t even boil water to make mac and cheese. For her, the entire idea of cooking–from the planning to the shopping to the actual cooking process–are incredibly intimidating. I think sometimes that if you’ve never done it or if you’ve only done a little cooking that it just seems daunting.

    How to help people get from the idea that cooking has to be this incredibly complicated endeavor to actually doing it and seeing how easy it can be is the big question.

  6. Wow… and here, I just call it cooking from scratch when I don’t use a jar of pasta sauce, but instead go for the canned tomatoes! (Which, yes, the darling children cause me to do, since neither one can handle onions. You wouldn’t believe how many things onions are in. No store chicken stock, either!)

    Oh, and yea, I guess I’ll stop pretending I don’t lurk here. 😉 Since I quit, I don’t talk to you enough. 😀

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