November 1, 2009, 6:15 pm

So, about half a month ago, when I started writing this post, Yglesias argued that the way celebrity chefs should be helping people eat healthier food is by aiding the production of pre-packaged meals that are better for you.   Why?

If over time people were getting poorer, but the number of hours in the day was getting longer, and gender norms were shifting toward the idea that women should get married young and drop out of the workforce in order to do unpaid domestic work, then obviously people would start cooking more. But that’s not what’s happening. Compared to people in 1959, people in 2009 have more money, less time, and less ability to call on socially sanctioned unpaid domestic labor. So obviously they’re going to cook less. Or to look at it another way, there are lots of things you can do in 2009 that you couldn’t do in 1959—read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand. There are also a lot of things you can do in 2009 that were prohibitively expensively in 1959—fly cross-country, make a long-distance phone call to your sister. But there’s no more time in the day. Which implies that people need to spend less time doing the things that you could do in 1959. Sometimes we can get out of this box by finding technological innovations that let us do things more quickly, but you can’t really speed up cooking from scratch.

The good news is that there’s no real reason to think that food you prepare yourself is for some reason intrinsically healthier than food someone else prepares for you.

Eh.  I’m not convinced.  Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good story about what he learned when he first baked blueberry muffins.  Baking treats yourself ensures you know what goes into them.

To that I’d add a couple of points.  Portion size is much easier to control when you cook your own food, as is the addition of salt, spices, and fats.  It also strikes me as unlikely that the best organic hippie-dippie free-range pre-packaged food imaginable will be free of stabilizers and preservatives.  While I don’t want to return to 1959 (though I think the argument that we have less time is somewhat undercut by the idea that blogging and Netflix are these new things we do), I think there’s no way around the idea that home cooking is better for you, especially if you’re in an area where your take-out options are limited to unhealthy fast food.

It’s not a metaphysical certainty, but I know which way I’d bet, and it’s not on Auguste Gusteau’s Frozen Dinners becoming common (or, for that matter, affordable.)

I think the problem here is conceptual.  (Shut up, Neddy.)  Says Yglesias, “I like to cook. Sometimes. I think it’s fun. And I’m certainly glad I know a few recipes. I hope to learn more. And everyone should know a few, “  but there’s a difference between recipes and techniques, and its the latter that gets the cook through every day.

So let’s have some fun. Not to pick on Yglesias, because I don’t know him, and more to the point I can’t find the follow-up post where he describes cooking as a “hobby”, but the way he describes cooking reminds me of a number of my guy friends and boyfriends, especially during and right after college.

The typical guy in my cohort would have a few recipes at hand that fell into four categories.

The Impressive Dinner: Stuffed manicotti, chicken kiev, lasagna, osso buco, risotto with peas and proscuitto.   This is special occasion food. It is time intensive.  It probably has some ingredients one doesn’t normally keep on hand. The purpose is to impress girls and to get laid.

The Buddy Meal: Chili, burgers, marinated grilled meats, hot wings, homemade pizza, homemade General Tso’s chicken.  This is less time intensive than the first category, but still requires some effort.  The purpose is to feed your friends while hanging out and drinking beer.

The Dessert: Any dessert that takes effort and some skill.  This is mostly to impress girls. A friend of mine made a cheesecake that he called “Lucky Cheesecake”, for obvious reasons.  It was delicious with Riesling. (He didn’t.)

The Specialty:  The purpose of this dish is to be “X’s famous Y”.  It can be something as simple as a pico de gallo or a great breakfast burrito or crepes with berries and cream or chocolate chip pancakes or a spicy marinara sauce, but the point is for it to be a signature.

These categories may overlap somewhat, but in the words of Aristotle, whose don’t?

Now, when the young guys in my cohort would cook, they would be undertaking a project.  They’d have to make a special trip to the grocery store, maybe more than one, to get all the things they needed.  They’d be concerned with the timing.  Since they were working from a recipe and didn’t cook all that often, until they mastered the dish it would be an event, and even then, they’d not have the skills to get it done efficiently.

Now, if this what home cooking required every night, of course no one would have time to do it.  The mistake is thinking that cooking every day is about cooking from a recipe, or something elaborate.  I don’t know what the chefs on these shows have planned, but I hope it’s basic techniques, because that’s what turns cooking from a three-hour adventure into something you do when you’re hungry and you need to eat.

Don’t get me wrong — I find Pollan’s food nostalgia as cloying as the next girl with a career — but there is something strange about the development of a certain food subculture where the ideal gourmand is one who can identify seventeen different kinds of humanely sourced peppercorn but who couldn’t make a hardboiled egg without consulting the Internet.

Home cooking won’t be a substitute for sensible public health policy, of course, given the impact of poverty on eating options and habits, something which Pollan continually seems to overlook.   Learning to cook also means eating lots of mistakes while you figure it out.  But day to day cooking’s not about whipping up five-star cuisine in a casual setting, and I think that realizing that might make people more inclined to try to cook for themselves.

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