I recently read — and mostly enjoyed — Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked. It’s more in the mold of The Omnivore’s Dilemma than his preachy Food Rules, and involves actual storytelling and research. He divides food transformations into four categories: fire, water, air, and earth — which in more recognizable terms, involves grilling, pot cooking, baking, and fermenting. For each, he studies with experts, from the pit masters cooking whole hogs in North Carolina to a nun obstinately making raw milk cheese (whatever the health inspector might have wanted).
While Cooked is about many things, some of the press has focused, inevitably, on Pollan’s urging people to spend more time cooking. He’s sensitive about saying this as a man, since women continue to do the lion’s share of every day family cooking, and so he writes multiple times in Cooked that he’s not saying women need to get back into the kitchen. He’s saying men and children need to pick up the slack. “By now it should be possible to make a case for the importance of cooking without defending the traditional division of domestic labor.” He notes that prepared meals don’t always save time. One night he cooks three dinners from the freezer case, and finds it takes almost an hour to get everyone’s meal on the table when you only have one microwave.
I agree that most people have time to cook — in many cases, they just don’t want to do it as Pollan describes it. Why is that?
Pollan seems to think the food industry has sold women a load of goods about how busy they are and the industry’s ability to solve this problem. At one point he writes of the ridiculousness of people eating cereal bars with fake frosted milk for breakfast. “Tell me: Why can’t these hassled families set their alarm clocks, like, ten minutes earlier?!”
That’s part of it, though I think there is lots of room for debate in this area. Driving to a fast food restaurant and ordering food is not quicker than cooking simple meals. It takes very little time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so it’s kind of funny that anyone thinks they can save time with frozen, pre-made versions of such things. I’ve been feeling this way, lately, about smoothies, too. It’s one thing to buy one in the mall when you don’t have a blender. It’s another thing to buy a packaged smoothie in a store that still requires you to use your own blender when all that’s in there is frozen yogurt and frozen fruit, which you have to keep in the freezer until you use. Presumably, you could just keep yogurt and fruit in that freezer, too, for far less mark-up, and no change in consumption of time.
On the other hand, I assume many home cooks do what I do — incorporating some prepared elements into meals that we mostly cook ourselves. Last night my husband and I had lamb chops, some leftover corn-on-the-cob, and pasta with a bit of tomato sauce. The sauce was out of a jar. In a mostly home-cooked meal, it was a big time savings not to have to make sauce which, I’ll add, was virtuously composed of no unpronounceable ingredients. The whole dinner was on the table in less than 30 minutes.
But what’s so wrong with that? Pollan muddles his thoughts on this. During his microwave experiment, he points out that you could have cooked a great home meal in the time it took to heat up three entrees. On the other hand, he’s been dismissive of the whole 20-minute meal concept (see here for one example). Cooking, he says, is best done with presence and patience. But why? What virtue is there in the consumption of time that is separate from the health or freshness of the ingredients? I can cook a piece of salmon and some green beans and boil-in-a-bag rice in 20 minutes. There are lots of great dishes that take 30 minutes or less. Why would it be better to chop onions and carrots very very fine — sweating the onions for 20 minutes or so — as he waxes on about? I’m sure it’s tasty, but that’s a preference. There is a world of space between buying every meal at McDonald’s and making everything from scratch, and it is quite possible to enjoy cooking and eating and care about your health and inhabit a wide range of that space. He states that this is possible, that we might “sort of” cook, but then goes on, often at great length, on the virtues of doing things slowly.
I, for one, am willing to spend some time cooking, but it’s not a priority for me, at this stage in life, to spend vast hours cooking. This is why I kept getting annoyed as Pollan described how relaxing it was for him to spend his weekends cooking and baking– activities we might all enjoy in our overworked, computer-screen-centric lives! Pollan has one son who’s now a grown-up. I could spend hours on a Saturday baking, but that would be hours spent with a 1-year-old tugging on my leg and creating a safety hazard as I moved dishes around. Perhaps my husband could take her — but then I wouldn’t be hanging out with her. Perhaps I could take her while my husband commandeered the kitchen — but then he wouldn’t be hanging out with her. I suppose either of us could cook and bake while she slept instead of other pursuits, but for Pollan such activities aren’t true leisure either. This is his work. He writes about food. He spent hours chopping and sweating onions with a chef friend so he could write about it. While I certainly believe he enjoyed baking bread and brewing beer, that’s part of his professional life. I sometimes like to work on weekends too. I just do it differently. Maybe other people do too.
Anyway, despite all that, Cooked brings up interesting topics, from exactly how salting meat changes its flavor to what we are just now learning about the bacteria living inside us, and how they establish an eco-system we disrupt at our peril. If you like food writing, it’s definitely worth a read as long as you keep everything in perspective.
Have you read Pollan’s works? What do you think?
Photo courtesy flickr user surlygirl