I do not think it outrageous, every now and then, to despair for the future of cooking in this country. Not all the time, no, for there are still encouraging signs that many people are willing to undertake the task of preparing most of their own meals. There are discouraging signs as well, indications that home cooking may at some point become a subversive act done more as a protest than as part of a domestic routine. Few things could be as deleterious to our health and well-being.
Earlier this month, Bill Saporito, an assistant managing editor of Time Magazine, published an essay which argued “the case against cooking.” The title is an outrageous misnomer, of course, because Mr. Saporito is not arguing against cooking, but against home cooking. He is making the case not for abandoning the act of cooking but for transferring it to third parties entirely. “The reason my wife and I don’t cook our food,” he claims,
“is the same reason that we don’t hunt our food. These skills are no longer required to sidestep starvation. Cooking now ranks right up there with vacuuming—except that vacuuming removes a mess while cooking creates one. We have more efficient uses of our time and energy.”
No, you really do not have “more efficient uses of your time and energy,” but I will come to that in a minute. Instead, focus on Mr. Saporito’s criticism of cooking itself: it “creates a mess.” This is the most direct criticism of cooking that Mr. Saporito makes in the entire article, and it suggests that messiness is the chief reason he avoids cookery. If so, the prissiness of his “case against cooking” is rather striking: he disdains the act because he may have to clean some dishes and a stovetop afterwards. The saints preserve us.
It is the author’s use of “efficiency” that is somewhat more concerning, however, and it is usually the first argument that “anti-cookers” make when they are defending their worldview. As is the case with every other justification for every other industry, we are led to believe that we should hand off our cooking to people who “specialize” in cooking, who are better at cooking than we are, and who can subsequently cook better for us than we could cook for ourselves.
There are a great many flaws with this argument, chiefly because it treats cooking and food as just another profession and commodity. Cooking and food cannot be dismissed in this way. We do not, after all, know that the people preparing our food are better at cooking than we are or could be, nor do we know that they have our best interests or our optimal health in mind when they are cooking for us. In fact it is doubtful that the average employee in a restaurant or a corporate food factory is a better cook than the average consumer could be. To be sure, it takes a lot of work to become a great cook, but it does not take a lot of work to become a wholly passable cook or even a fairly good one.
As for our health, why should the average food service employee or “home meal replacement” specialist care about whether the product makes us healthy? So long as the prepared, boxed, or frozen meal does not kill or sicken customers, the producer is probably uninterested in whether the food nourishes consumers or makes them healthy. Why would producers be concerned with such matters? They have received their paychecks.
Those who prepare meals at home, on the other hand, have the opportunity to take a direct and active interest in how pure and how healthful their meals are. I can say that my own cooking habits are not motivated by concerns of “efficiency.” My cooking is not reduced to “transforming comestibiles into combustibles through the application of heat,” as Mr. Saporito puts it. Rather, I ask myself if this meal that I am preparing will make me healthier and, by dint of its taste and quality, happier? Will it do the same for Caroline? One day not too far into the future, will it do the same for our children? Am I maximizing both the bounty of nutrients and the panoply of flavors from every ingredient? Am I using ingredients carefully so that I waste as little as possible of an inestimable gift from both God and those who have grown and produced these foods? Am I learning from my mistakes, and am I developing a valuable skill that will bring health and pleasure to my loved ones and me for years to come? Are any of these concerns relevant to those who simply place an order over the phone and then sit around waiting for dinner to be made somewhere else? What can a consumer know about pre-made food purchased from a grocery store or gas station?
If you have ceded these questions to whomever is making your food somewhere else, how can you assume that they care about you? I do not mean to imply that my family and I never eat out. We do. And we enjoy it when we do. But most of our meals are eaten at home, and most of them are made from ingredients that are carefully selected and carefully prepared. We have foregone some luxuries (cable television, expensive cell phone plans, pricey vacations) so that we can afford better food, and we have found ways to have better food at less expense. We make our own chicken and beef stock, we ferment and preserve some of our own vegetables, we go for less-popular but still tasty meats, and we set aside time to prepare and enjoy these things.
I make these points because Mr. Saporito claims that for many families, “the act of acquiring and cooking food is a time consuming luxury.” As he puts it, “many Americans are too poor to cook at home; they’re way too busy trying to scratch out a living.” The argument that anyone is too poor to cook at home is just silly from the get-go. Assuredly there are more than a few families that have difficulty preparing meals due to a hectic schedule, but this is no argument against cooking for yourself if you can. Even if you’re not the richest family on the block—and Caroline and I will probably never make the 1% list—with a little planning and shopping it is ridiculously easy to eat well on a budget. Even if you’ve got a busy schedule perhaps you can cut out some of the time spent watching television if you are one of the average Americans who has the TV on three hours per day.
There really is not a good case “against cooking.” There is rarely a financial incentive for not preparing your own meals, and there are no health-based reasons for not doing your own cooking. There is a case to be made for cooking, on the other hand. Why not invest your time and your mental energy into finding and preparing good things for yourself and those you love? Why not take take pride in a good skill well-crafted? Food is vital to our daily survive. Shouldn’t it be treated with as much care and concern as anything else of such importance? Mr. Saporito calls cooking your own food “a relic of another age.” It is not. I would love to elaborate even more on why that’s the case, but I must start preparing dinner.