What is “Real” Cooking?

What is “Real” Cooking?

It’s that time of the month when I write my Bookslut review (will post link when it’s up) and the topic of why we cook, and what constitutes “real” cooking, and what we go to cookbooks and food websites and food blogs looking for has once again bubbled up to the top of my head.

I love my cookbook review gig, in no small part due to the stream of cookbooks that is flowing toward my house these days. I love cookbooks. As a teenager I used to read them like novels, and my very first professional job out of college was working as an editorial assistant on the Best of Gourmet series, and the encyclopedic Gourmet’s Best Desserts. And yet, so many of the cookbooks that come across my threshhold seem merely to be collections of recipes. There are a lot of interesting recipes, and often I find a combination of ingredients I wouldn’t have thought of (beets and grapefruit this winter, much to the horror of the Sweetheart). But too often, I’m left feeling that that’s all there is, a collection of recipes; that despite the gorgeous photos and all the rest, these cookbooks are more about individual dishes than they are about cooking.

As I was mulling over this issue, I came across this terrific post over at A Life of Spice, about how some readers of cookbooks, and cooking blogs, see a complicated recipe as a sign of authenticity. A Life of Spice is written by Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen. In this post, she tells the story of a reader, who accosted her at an event, claiming her book was “too simplistic”. Bhide was shocked, she’d tried to write a cookbook for busy modern cooks. What did this woman mean?

I probed her a little, and her response surprised me even more. She loved the dish, and so did everyone who ate it. But it did not fulfill her cooking aspirations. “Indian cooking is supposed to be hard,” she said. “And this book made it seem easy. That isn’t real Indian cooking, right?”

“Real” cooking. It begs the question, what kinds of cooking do we consider “real”? Is cooking an everyday skill that we use to feed our friends and family, or is it some arcane hobby that we pull out to impress dinner guests or to prove to ourselves that we can master something difficult?

I guess I’d argue that it’s both, although my inclination is always to avoid the “hard” cooking — I have less than no interest in learning how to use any of the techniques of molecular gastronomy; I don’t want to cook food that gets stacked in a tower; I avoid recipes with long lists of ingredients; and in general, I gravitate toward home cooking rather than restaurant cooking.

But on a social level, I’m less concerned about cooking enthusiasts who want to play around with “hard” recipes than I am by the steady erosion of basic cooking skills in the general population. I’ve written before about how I’d love to see mandatory (and interesting) home economics courses taught in schools, courses that include not just basic cooking and sewing, but budgets and checkbooks and credit as well. Our local food bank recently ran a promotion where they gave people slow cookers, so they could begin to learn how to feed themselves and their families real food, despite their busy schedules.

And yet, even in this terrific profile the Sacramento Bee wrote about Elise Bauer, of Simply Recipes, she mentions that she started the blog because:

“I didn’t know how to make a roast,” she recalls. “I knew how to make quesadillas.”
Her education began by watching her parents cook and using their recipes. Bauer’s blog – originally at elise.com – incorporated that learning and used short, homey stories to introduce carefully described, workable recipes.”

Even after building one of the most successful recipe sites on the web, Bauer tells the Bee that: “I don’t claim to be a cook,” she said. “My mom knows how to cook a meal. I know how to cook one thing at a time.”

Which begs the question, what are we trying to learn here? How to cook recipes, or how to cook for our families? What’s the point of all these blogs and TV shows and magazines and cookbooks if people still don’t have the basic skills necessary to look around the house, count heads, and pull basic ingredients out of the fridge and the pantry to make a meal for them? A meal, nothing fancy, just dinner.

One thought on “What is “Real” Cooking?

  1. I would guess that if it’s only marginally more time-intensive or labor-intensive to “cook from scratch” than it is to cook a dinner picked up at Trader Joe’s, then people don’t feel it’s “real” cooking. I might also guess that if people discovered that cooking was easy, they’d wonder why they spent so much money at Trader Joe’s. Or restaurants, or wherever.

    Funny: what’s hard (or at least time-intensive) isn’t the cooking; what’s hard is the clean-up!

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