Off the Couch. Back to the Kitchen.
This past Sunday it was raining, my husband was out for most of the day, and I had been busy with tasks at home, working on the web site, and taking my time to read the Sunday New York Times. By 4:00 p.m. I was in my kitchen experimenting with making tomato paste from the first New Jersey tomatoes I had scored at the market the day before (more on this next week). On the stove was a small pan of tomato purée, simmering and reducing.
Also on the stove was a huge pot of water that I was bringing to a boil as I prepared to can two quarts and four pints of local apricots. In a couple of hours, when my husband came home, I'd make our simple dinner -- a broiled veal steak (a good value at less than $5.00 for the steak that we'd share) and a salad of baby arugula, mushrooms, red onions and lemon vinaigrette. I'd bought the red onions at the Saturday Greenmarket but the other ingredients were from my neighborhood supermarket's very good produce department.
But I was distracted. My mind was back reading the newspaper, specifically Michael Pollan's article, "No One Cooks Here Anymore." Its subtitle -- "Out of the Kitchen. Onto the Couch. How American Cooking Became A Spectator Sport, And What We Lost Along The Way." What for me was a rare conflict, I found myself disagreeing with much of Mr. Pollan's article, although I suspect it's mostly due to his using as his main source a pessimistic market researcher for the agribusiness and chain restaurant industries.
Moreover, the photography that accompanied the piece, styled to be a cross between Miss Haversham's table and a Dutch still life of a decaying and abandoned feast, made Mr. Pollan's findings seem even more grim.
So no one cooks anymore? "How can this be?" I think to myself as I stir my tomato paste, slice my apricots, and take the steak out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature.
I am optimistic about the future of home cooking. In part due to Mr. Pollan's own books, Americans are better educated about the food supply. We are demanding better ingredients and we are paying for them. Farm policy is starting to change. More food sources are becoming available. We are indeed cooking for ourselves -- and eating quite well, thank you very much. You can come to my dinner table next winter when those canned apricots get partnered with a pork roast.
While it's always dangerous to draw conclusions from your own life and anecdotal experience, here's what I know for sure: Across the country, enrollments are up at cooking schools, especially those with classes for amateurs and the home cook. Courses in such arcane topics as butchering your own pig regularly sell out. New cookware stores are opening, as are new butcher shops, cheese shops and full-service markets. I spend lots of time talking with food merchants in New York and other cities and every one of them I've asked has told me that business has never been better -- recession be damned! CSAs across the country are over-subscribed. Greenmarkets and farmers' markets are booming. New distribution systems are being established to enable small and medium-sized farmers to work directly with smaller grocery merchants, finally side-stepping the huge agribusiness model that Mr. Pollan has accurately credited with so many of our food, cooking and health problems.
Is this happening everywhere in America? Seemingly not. Do we still have food deserts in our cities? Sadly, yes. But is something changing? Absolutely.
In my own life, with rare exception, everyone I know cooks. And they cook often. It cuts across ages, professions, lifestyles, incomes, palates and cooking skills. It's not just people with children but households of one or two. Is some of this economic? Probably. But The City Cook was launched pre-recession because I looked around and saw nearly everyone around me was regularly cooking at home. We're living in a city with extraordinary restaurants and chefs, yet almost everyone I know prefers to entertain at home, cook at home, eat at home. Not everyone loves cooking as much as I do and not everyone will spend a Sunday afternoon making their own tomato paste. But being able to cook a nice meal and eat it at your own dinner table is once again a satisfying achievement. We share recipes and the best places to find ingredients as we used to swap tips about restaurants. My doctor volunteered to me during my last check-up that her three teenage kids always prefer to cook and eat at home to eating out. I hear stories like these all the time.
The City Cook is not the only place that reflects this reality. Websites like "Not Eating Out In New York" and "Last Night's Dinner" have for years documented real life, daily cooking and are more popular than ever.
So I wonder -- why did Mr. Pollan draw such a different conclusion than I would have? I've been saying for years that many of these food-based TV programs have turned cooking into a blood sport. But my watching an episode of "Iron Chef" doesn't stop me from spending a late Sunday afternoon putting up jars of summer fruit, or even just making a steak and salad for my husband's dinner.
Julia Child's television program has no more in common with "Top Chef" or "Chopped" or the other food porn programs on Food TV than Julia's beef bourguignon does with the stuff that TV host Sandra Lee "cooks." The Food Network and the food reality programs are entertainment with nothing to do with real cooking. One early sign came from Emeril's studio audiences moaning with pleasure as Emeril dumped excesses of garlic or hot sauce on anything in a pan. The sensory experience was totally in the audience's imagination because anything with that much garlic or hot sauce would in reality, well, not taste so good.
I was also disappointed in Mr. Pollan's buying into the view that because we're busy we don't cook, or only do it on weekends for company, treating it as recreation and not an everyday practice. With cooking as with anything else, we make time for what is important to us. And for many of us, that now includes making dinner. I do agree that the industrialized food industry had taken over, but when it comes to looking ahead, Mr. Pollan repeated researcher Harry Belzer's insights as gospel: "…we're basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook?" I think Mr. Belzer is reading yesterday's news, which is often the trap of those who try to predict the future by looking at the past.
Contrary to the bleak picture portrayed in Mr. Pollan's article, there is in fact a quiet revolution underway: we have headed back to our kitchens, many of them small ones in cities across the country. Despite the TV programs, agribusiness, busy lives, and growing up without a cook in the family, we are indeed cooking again. Like many revolutions, this one is starting at an urban grassroots level but it's taken hold and it's trickling up.
America is a big country and it's okay if only a minority of us are cooking every day. There's still a lot of us. Enough to be a community of cooks.