The High Cost of Restaurant Culture

Don't get me wrong, I like to eat out. And what parent of many doesn't like the idea of food they don't have to cook and dishes they don't have to wash. At times restaurants and bakeries even may provide more energy efficiency than home cooking, especially in small households - one industrial walk in cooler is more efficient than six fridges. .Of course, that's in principle, in practice, the cooler *and* all six fridges are running! Household appliance energy usage has risen over time, even though we are eating at home less - while the efficiency of any given appliance has improved, we have more of them.

At the same time, the fact that 1/3 or more of all calories are consumed at restaurants, that half of all meals involved someone else doing some of the cooking somewhere down the line and that one in every 3 Americans eats fast food on any given day all should give us pause. So is how our food dollars are being distributed - the vast majority of them go not to small bakeries and restaurants in our neighborhoods, but large supermarkets (where pre-made take out foods now constitute a major portion of sales), fast food restaurants and chains. We know that while energy intensity has been decreasing overall in most segments of the culture of the Global North, the energy intensity of the food system has been rising rapidly - which means that our food system is more vulnerable to energy constraints. That intensity runs in direct parallel to how much we are eating out and consuming pre-made and processed foods.

Harvard Magazine has an excellent article about restaurant culture and its full range of implications - including one that I think is very important, the ways that the "professionalization" of food and food culture transform our underlying assumptions about how food should be:

The danger as cooking becomes glamorized--producing rock-star chefs and glitzy television series--is that, just as with restaurant meals, cooking will be turned into another form of theatrical entertainment. Contemporary food television sets a different goal from its forebears. The earlier generation of cooking programs was instructional, attempting to teach viewers the skill, Willoughby says. Furthermore, "Julia Child is very unintimidating. She drops things, forgets things, she makes mistakes, and tells you it will all come out OK. But today, most of food television is not instructional. Viewers are just watching a talented chef cook, and getting a vicarious experience of cooking. It's like a celebrity reality show. These are professional chefs doing things in the kitchen that you cannot do--and that's not what home cooking is about."

Spectacularly entertaining gourmet shows can thus become an enemy of home cooking by implicitly suggesting that "everything has to be perfect," Willoughby declares. "Then people start feeling that they are unable to cook well--so they're not going to cook at all. People have become very intimidated by cooking, and they shouldn't be. If you publish a recipe with a mistake in it, you very rarely get letters saying, 'You screwed up this recipe.' What you get are letters saying, 'I made a mistake somehow when I made this--can you tell me what I did wrong?' Today there's a supposition on most people's part that they don't know how to cook, and therefore it's their mistake."

I think the cultures of watching food tv is bad for home cooks - it makes cooking more complex and intimidating, raises expectations and is about voyeurism, rather than eating. At the same time, I'm not convinced that the old ways were better - I like Julia Child a lot, but I don't think that the culture of food that she conveyed was all that great for us either. It was the women and men who discovered Julia who first left the kitchen - yes, they made stuffed breast of veal, but that's not what people eat on a regular basis.

Even Michael Pollan, who I admire a lot in many ways, is guilty of selling us the idea that food must be fancy and complex. Consider the last meal in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_ the one that he describes "fully paid for" - the one he produces himself. He ultimately concludes that the truly sustainable and homegrown meal isn't viable, it can't be done every day. But what was his meal? Roasted, hunted wild boar. Ummm.... On the other hand, you can make and eat a salad with a varying cast of greens and vegetables with some hardboiled eggs tossed in it with not a lot of effort. Yes, it takes some infrastructure work and attention - but the idea that the home produced meal must be complex, elaborate and ultimately a failure is part of a larger narrative that says that cooking and growing food are just too damned hard.

We should be incredibly suspicious of all the permutations of this story - the ones that say that Campbell's Soup is better than homemade and the ones that say that "real" cooking requires you to take out a second mortgage and buy books by a restaurant chef. Real cooking is ordinary, and often simple. It is done by ordinary and often simple people. Instead of elevating the artistes that transformed peasant cooking into an art form, perhaps we should elevate the ordinary people, mostly women, who actually created the art from the simple, constrained realities of their local farms and gardens.

This sounds like a screed, and maybe it is a little. I love restaurants, I really do. I love to cook, I love to eat new things, and I don't believe everyone has to cook everything themselves - I'm a huge fan, for example, of the street food cultures of Asia, which often provide fast food that is healthier, tastier and also brings a decent living to men and women directly. I just worry that the culture that worships restaurant food is forgetting what real, daily food is like.

My son Isaiah has loved to cook since he was tiny, and collects children's cookbooks. Once, several years ago, he had some birthday money to spend and we were at the local bookstore, searching the shelves for a new kid's cookbook. Isaiah, then 5, looked at a book by Emerill Lagasse for kids and opened it up. After a moment he turned to me and annouced firmly "There are too many pictures of him and not enough pictures of food in this one." Not only did I crack up, but so did several adults looking at other books nearby. I don't know if I could have said it better.


More like this

Real cooking is ordinary, and often simple.

This cannot be stressed enough. Most people in most places cannot afford to eat out all of the time (or take home meals from restaurants and grocery stores), so being able to cook--even if it's just a few simple dishes--is an essential skill. I enjoy an occasional restaurant meal myself, but usually I eat at home, and it's something I have cooked myself. For the price of burger + fries + soda for one at McDonald's I can cook a pizza with good quality cheese and toppings, and get two to three meals out of that pizza. And because I cook multiple meals at one time, the net time investment isn't that much more than what it would take to drive to a fast food chain (of which there are none in my town). I'm not expecting Guide Michelin type meals of myself, just something warm.

The really insidious thing is that real cooking also involves a bit of experimentation and improvisation. If I happen to be out of ingredient X (or forgot to buy it the last time I was at the grocery store), can I omit it, or can I substitute ingredient Y which I do have on hand? The only way to find out is to try it, which celebrity chef worshippers are apt not to do. (For the record, it's possible to make delicious pizza without using tomato sauce.)

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

Having worked in restaurants for many years I find I can't watch most TV chefs. The elitist disconnect between 'foodie' culture and the grunge of real kitchen work is hilarious. That being said cooking in a professional kitchen shows how simple good cooking can be requiring only a stove, and some good pans and knives. I think anyone self-describing as a 'foodie' should have to work a weekend rush at a real restaurant before talking about their chef dreams in public.

By Treespeed (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

My wife is a fantastic cook, and more than that she usually likes to do it. On the days when it's a burden she'll remind me of my own theoretical responsibility for feeding us as well. As often as not I'll whip out the dried fruits and nuts, chop up some fresh fruit and cheese put out some toothpicks, maybe olives or whatever I have on hand. Maybe garlic bread. I just keep shoveling it out there until the boys are full and then I clean up the remainder myself. Today it's too hot to eat, much less cook, so I had some fresh bread and a couple of carrots for lunch. And my wife always looks perplexed, like, why didn't she think of that. But it's hard to get out of the mindset that a good meal always has to be a big production.

I'm so glad you said that Treespeed. My biggest problem with food on television is the foodie movement! I.DO.NOT.WANT.THAT. if I am hungry. If I am hungry, I do not go to a museum or a ballet, I go to a kitchen! If I want something sweet, I don't go to a chemistry lab, I go to an ordinary bakery! I see no reason that (and think that possibly the quoted article from Harvard Magazine doesn't give people enough credit in this regard) we all need to learn to cook sous vide, or we each need to roast our own coffee beans, or that everything needs to be served after being oh-so-preciously shaped on an oh-so-precious plain white (coupe-style you heathens!) 12" dinner plate via ring mold. As you can guess, the foodies really bother me. I'm not sure the foodie movement is actually about good food (anymore, if it ever in fact was,) it seems more and more a movement that's only about "look at me, I'm more sophisticated than you are!"

By Kate from Iowa (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

I couldn't agree with you more. My family really got sucked into that Restaurant Culture several years ago. At the time, it seemed that we were just too busy with work and school to be bothered with shopping and cooking at home. And that is what everyone else we knew (with kids) was doing too. Of course, we all got fat and broke.

Now, my family is making drastic dietary/cooking changes. It has surprised me how difficult it is to break that "going out to eat" habit. One of the biggest hurdles is that we all have to re-learn that food does not have to entertain us. A second biggy is that not everyone can have what the feel like eating at the moment.

Some cooking TV shows are as you say they are. That's because they're TV shows and they are designed for entertainment. There are still a lot of good TV shows that help people realise that they can cook themselves. And for those of us that already cook at home, some of the shows that involve the elite professionals are inspiring in helping us try new ingredients, flavours and techniques. I think the culprit for warping our perspective of home cooking is these food magazines which are all about whipping up some simple snacks for entertaining your friends, but then they require a ton of exotic, expensive ingredients. Or, as Andy says, they push this idea that *every* meal has to be a major event.

cooking is fun. If your T.V. cooking show isn't inspiring you to cook at home, you're watching the wrong show. Even if what is cooked on the show is something you will *never* make, it can remind you that cooking and eating are some of the great pleasures in life. It reminds us that cooking a meal, one that looks good, smells good, tastes good, and is healthy is something that we can all have. I don't equate restaurant culture at all with T.V. chefs. However I am still inspired to cook when I have something fabulous at a restaurant.
Good cooking and taking the time to consider both the process and the product not as *fuel*, but as something with just a *smidge* of art in it are things we should be embracing. And seeing it promoted and valued as it has been in recent times is something I'm very happy about. American food, fast food, and fatty uninspired casseroles were with us well before the explosion of cooking shows and foodies. If you think it's offputting to see it elevated to high art sometimes, then look for more accessible shows. People really do watch them to be inspired in their own cooking, not to become passive spectators.

I love restaurants too...eating wonderful, creative food, carefully prepared...yum! I've also worked in restaurants, seen quantities of food wasted in preparation, or left, un-eaten, at the table.

Centuries ago, only royalty could afford to have someone cook for them. Then the Gentry, then the Bourgeosoie, finally (thanks to Ray Krok & his friends), the Proleteriat. At least, that's (more or less) how it went in Western culture.

But food and cooking isn't the only thing we have professionalized. How many families sit around after dinner and make music together? Or tell stories? Does anyone make their own clothes anymore (much less darn their socks) or knit (except for fun...using fancy yarns made from fibers nobody has ever heard of)?

The history of the fossil-fuel age is a progression of the professionalization and/or commodification of everything.

So, perhaps we should eat food prepared by chefs, drink beverages produced by conglomerates, and be merrily entertained by writers, actors & musicians, for tomorrow the fossil fuel age dies.

Three shows that are not about "foody" or glamourous foods:
Ten Dollar Dinners (4 people, 10 bucks, infinite possibilities)
Mexican Made Easy
Good Eats

I should explain my last comment further. These three shows have lowered the number of times I have gone out for supper, as my wife and I used to order in pizza on fridays and go out for supper one evening on the weekend, plus one or the other of us would buy lunch almost every day. They are an inspiration to my cooking skills. I like to watch Iron Chef for it's entertainment value but I have no desire to cook that way.

Now we go out for supper once a week as a social occasion with friends, eat bag lunchs (today was pulled pork sandwiches with a strawberry salad) and just eat from home more often. Since it is summer I grill every day I can and when we have friends over, I will use a smoker to cook with. I now try to make straight forward simple foods and have discovered the "style" I like to cook.

My wife makes breakfast weekdays while I walk the dogs so she is very much in favour of this arrangement.

Home cooking is simple? Tell that to Comrade RisottoProf!

By El Picador (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

Nothing wrong with eating wild boar or deer you hunted yourself.

Let me rephrase that: there's a lot of good in getting rid of feral pigs. I've eaten them, too. Sort of like pork flavored tires, with the sauce of moral satisfaction. I'd seen the damage they caused before I ate the meat, you see.

There's a lot of good in killing deer, too. It saves forests.

Here's the problem: in areas where we've eliminated the predators on deer and pigs, recreational hunters are somehow expected to take up the slack. They don't.

I did my PhD research in an area where that was the policy. In my final summer of work, no flowers bloomed, because the deer had eaten all the flowers off the plants by early June. Too many deer, too few hunters, no baby plants. That was a sad year.

Since the US Congress and various states seem hell-bent on re-introducing environmental policies from the 1890s, all I can say is that I need to learn how to hunt. See the current rider on the Interior Dept. budget--it guts environmental protections.

I recommend everyone else learns to hunt, too. Especially if you consider yourself liberal and pro-environment.

It's not that hunting is efficient, or pretty, or clean, or easy. It's none of these. It's just that there are too many feral pigs and deer, and too many human idiots who think this is a good thing, without realizing that there are fewer flowers and seedlings in the woods, thanks to all those hungry mouths. It's not the animals' fault, it's ours, and we need to take responsibility for our actions.

That's all.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

I agree about the unfortunate trend in cooking turned into spectator sport on reality TV - and I also agree that there are still many good cooking shows out there for those who want to actually learn. Me, I don't have a TV anymore, so I use an old fashioned thing called a "cookbook."

I have three daughters. One is a teenager on the verge of moving out, and the other two are little girls. All three of them love to cook with me, and in fact it is one of the major ways we connect on a daily basis.

I feel very strongly that everyone should have a basic foundation in cooking and nutrition. I'm not talking fancy - not everyone needs to be able to make a wedding cake, or a souffle, even. But everyone needs to be able to feed themselves and their family good, healthy food. Mastery of the basics in my mind includes being able to:

bake a loaf of bread
roast a chicken
make a decent pot of soup out of whatever you can scrounge
cook rice, beans, and all the major grains correctly
make a few basic sauces like vinaigrette, marinara, or white sauce
have a small working knowledge of nutritional requirements - fats, proteins, carbs, and the major vitamins and minerals. How much do we need? Where do we get them?
Some idea of how to preserve foods

Cooking is not a simple thing to learn - like other complex skills such as reading or playing an instrument, it takes both time and practice. But it is nowhere near as complicated as many people fear it is; and anyone can (and should!) learn a hardworking repertoire of twenty or so healthy meals.

@heteromeles #12--I agree on the feral hog point, there are plenty of them around here, and they don't seem to fear people. lol at the pork flavored tires comment-they are better if they are slow roasted (and fairly young).

I was addicted to Food Network when I was pregnant with my son. Something about not being able to keep anything down for 5 son is 9 and I haven't watched a whole lot of food tv since, but recently I went on a binge while cleaning house, and I noticed that the foods have changed-everyone was cooking weird things I had never heard of (and that my finicky family would never try, i.e. stuffed baked endive with raspberry sauce)
My favorite and most used cookbooks are my depression-era books-they usually give you substitutions and use simple and inexpensive ingredients.

Gotta say, I rather enjoy food porn occasionally. And I'd agree that it actually made me think about cooking in a different and better way. I can't use the fancy stuff on Top Chef all the time, but you don't need to.

On the other hand shows like that did sometimes open my eyes to techniques and "tricks" that were pretty useful. I may not ever cook for 200 people but learning that there is a faster or more efficient way to do something in the kitchen never hurts. And I learned that honey has a lot more uses than I thought.

Now, granted, I cook at home almost every night. And I married someone who wasn't raised on American cooking, so I had to learn to make Adobo. (She likes pork fat a lot more than I do). In a neighborhood full of immigrants many ingredients seen as 'exotic' become actually fairly mundane. (My rule: if I can't find i on a first pass through a Korean bodega I can use something else).

On Michael Pollan's wild boar as example of local food: a local dinner around here is a home-grown lettuce salad and home-grown and solar-dried popcorn. OK, so we did cook the popcorn in purchased oil. But I have been saving my own popcorn seeds and growing our popcorn from them for quite a few years. I use homemade compost in the veggie garden plus a little home-mixed organic fertilizer. It isn't perfectly sustainable, but it's perhaps something that can be done many more days than a wild boar feast. But it's probably too simple, too boring even, to include in a book - which I think is part of what you are getting at.

My DH enjoys watching the cake shows when he's at his mom's house, for the same reason he likes the web site Cake Wrecks - the cakes are pretty amazing. But he also really enjoyed the carrot cake I made from homegrown carrots for his birthday last year. I made it as a sheet cake rather than a layer cake. Boring shape, yes, but really easy to make it come out well. And I don't think I could have bought a better-tasting cake.

@Gordon #8 -- My mother had the skills to make her own and her kids clothes and so did my wife. But the bottom line was that everyday clothes from a medium priced store are significantly cheaper than making them at home. An that does not include the time required. For professional clothing they are just as expensive and getting the quality as good is difficult. Both my wife and mother only made special occasion clothes (my wife made her wedding dress) because that was all that made sense. On the other hand fast food is at least a little more expensive than home made and significantly less tasty, while expensive restaurants may taste a little better but are much more expensive. There is no comparison between homemade clothes and homemade food.

I use America's Test Kitchen a lot; they base their recipes on a mix of pre-prepared ingredients, fresh stuff and a whole mess o' empiricism and science. There's a heavy emphasis on taste and idiot-proofing. Because of ATK, whose kool-aid I have drunk deeply of, my wife and I have cut our restauranting down to perhaps once a month rather than perhaps twice a week and I take a lot of joy in my cooking now that each recipe isn't a crap-shoot due to imprecise instructions and my own limited skills.

But their marketing scheme is both cunning and evil, I've got several different copies of many recipes because they've produced so many 'theme' cookbooks and resources with overlapping contents.

But I just can't stop buying them.

Evil. Delicious evil.

'Interesting discussion here.

It's interesting how cooking and attitudes about it have changed in the US over the past century or so.

I have a cookbook - a three ring binder actually - that is nothing more than a collection of recipes from a locally produced cooking show on Boston television from the late 1950s called Boston Edison Television Show - Electric Living Recipes.

My grandmother had it - I supposed she sent away for it and got the mimeographed, typewritten (wow, how quaint these pages look now!) sheets every week as the show progressed.

What's interesting is that the recipes by and large, aspire to be so sophisticated and complex. For example, selections include Lamb Chop Mixed Grill, Pear Waldorf Salad, Oyster Loaf A La New Orleans, Blueberry Dreams, Yuletide Dessert Flambe - Many of the recipe names conjure up images of fancy dining experiences. I get the idea that common, ordinary housewives of the time, who by and large were undoubtedly quite capable and accomplished, aspired to something much more for their families. When one actually reads the recipes, however, one sees that the selections are actually quite down to earth and delicious-sounding.

Lastly, as much as I sometimes like to cook up something ritzy and special for kids at my place of employment, I often think of what Helen and Scott Nearing often wrote in Living the Good Life. Helen in particular cautioned readers that food and cooking needn't be complex. Why go to all the bother of grinding wheat down to flours for fancy bread baking when there were so many ways of eating the wheat berries directly? Ditto for simply putting out some nuts, fruit and veggies on the table for dinner as Andy Brown (post #3) suggested. Of course, Helen railed against "flesh eaters" too, and perhaps cooking meat is a bit more complex in that one *has* to cook it as opposed to the often raw foods the Nearings advocated, but of course raw and simple can be good too.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 07 Jul 2011 #permalink

My parents were Limeys, and I grew up with the British cooking method of "bake, boil or broil". The idea of flavourings didn't exist.

I grew up accustomed to eating food as it is, enjoying the taste of the raw ingredients and their natural flavours. Most restaurant cooking seems intent on presentation, both visible and in flavour, and hiding the actual ingredients so you can't see what's in it.

Maybe it's just me, but I really don't see the appeal of a 24 ingredient "nouvelle cuisine" or other fancy thing. I love the natural sheen on steamed vegetables, the taste of meat cooked in its own juices.

But most of all, I enjoy cooking as both a way to relax, and as personal pampering. Cooking a good and flavourful meal for myself or for a guest(s) becomes a pleasure or reward in and of itself. Any idiot can whip out a credit card, but my friends are (sadly) impressed by a stew that I can easily make in a couple of hours.


OK, here I sit over a supper of a bowl with a package or ramen noodles with a short can of beans and weiners, and a large glass of peach flavored ice tea -- all bought from Wal-Mart.

I enjoy watching Rachel Ray cook.

But when you mentioned energy and food, the first image that popped in my mind -- was the windowless produce aisle (or entire store, for that matter). No windows means that they don't operate if the lights go out. That doesn't seem to be a really resilient choice. I am sure that the tradeoff of security, temperature control in the store, and limiting outside distractions from causing the impulse shopper to reconsider. But it is another aspect of cheap energy influence.

Well, that, and demanding customers travel up to fifty (50) or sixty (60) miles. That poses a significant travel energy burden on the community. That is almost as bad as letting the school district consolidate schools, or school buildings draw students from more than a mile away.

I did plant a garden this year. I ate a hand full of new potatoes, scavenged after the bugs stripped most of the plants bare one afternoon. And I have one tomato ripening (fascinating to watch, since the bugs that stripped the potatoes also got that tomato plant, and stripped it clean).

the anti-foodie-ism here is... fascinating.

Amanda Marcotte is a foodie and has been doing "CSA Week" posts for... I think two years now. And she gets shit from non-foodies and/or non-vegetarians about how ugly her food is and how "hipster ironic" it all is because it's so gross-looking... and here people are saying foodies are exactly the opposite of that.

From which I conclude that "foodie" is a swearword against people who like food differently than you do.

ANYway, the actual point I was trying to make is about the people who scoff at Marcotte for saying that once you have the basics down, cooking is actually fairly easy (I was once scoffed at for saying that experimentation with food is mostly harmless, since theoretically, every food goes with every spice/herb; the scoffing included shock and horror at the possibility of mixing rosemary and pumpkin, which sounds tasty to me, but what do I know, I'm a hipster foodie :-p). A lot of her posts are "I threw this-and-that together in a pot, steamed/fried it, spiced it up, and ate it", and people were unhappy because she rarely if ever posted step-by-step instructions and recipes.

Well, I think foodie means several things. My MIL and step-FIL take the "foodie" designation quite seriously, which means msotly eating in every expensive restaurant they can, and buying expensive ingredients without any awareness of where they came from. I don't think that foodie is just a derogatory term. I like good food and good restaurants, and I think both can be had while eating seasonally and locally, but most cookbooks and cooking shows I've seen show one seasonal local ingredient and 15 that came from the store. I do think that the transformation of food as something to look at and perhaps purchase rather than eat is part of the problem, not the solution. I don't see most of the comments as terribly derogatory, personally. Foodie means different things to different people - lots of people would say a woman who writes books on food and cooks three meals a day from scratch was a foodie ;-).

Cookbooks are part of this problem too - and like WLU, that's a place where I done drunk the koolaid - I love cookbook. At the same time, sorting through 90 recipes that not only I but almost no other human being will ever cook to get to the four that one would is sort of silly. Moreover, if you aren't an experienced and good cook (and I am), how do you recognize "recipes really made for the restaurant, not an actual home" from the other ones - if anything, the "triple double layered chocolate pudding cake with peach-raspberry coulis' is way more enticing than the "seeded rye bread." The problem, of course is that you don't need even a plain chocolate pudding cake more than a few times a year, whereas bread comes up right often.

There are good cookbooks and probably good cooking shows (I don't have a tv, so my knowledge is limited to hotel rooms when I travel and what my sisters tell me ;-)), and good cooking magazines - but ultimately the idea that food is a visual, rather than hands-on experience is, I think changing us.


Freud may have been right that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I think food is never just fuel for our bodies. Everyone invests it with meaning. It marks one group from another. People draw firm but arbitrary lines around what is "good and proper to eat", and then tie it all up with ideas of propriety and pollution, attachment and transgression. Whether you will or not, it can help define your class, your religion, your politics. Food and meal-sharing is the fundamental human exchange or rejection of it. So eat up people.

I caught an episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution that was filmed in LA. A single dad with 2 sons wanted to get off the 3 meal a day fast food habit that he had fallen into. He thought he didn't have time to cook, and was sad that he hadn't paid more attention to his grandmother and mother's good cooking. Jamie set out to show them how to plan a meal, shop for ingredients and prepare a fairly fast meal. While the dad went to pick up fast food dinner, the boys stayed home and prepared a scratch cooked dinner. They timed themselves and tracked the cost. The boys prepared the meal in less time than it took to drive to the burger joint and it cost less too.

What brought tears to my eyes was that the older boy did not have the skills to turn a cooking chicken breast with tongs without knocking the hot pan off of the stove, and when they sat down to eat, the boys did not know how to handle their silverware comfortably. It looked so hard for them, I never realized until that time, if you eat with your hands your entire life, (pizza, burritos, burgers) you wouldn't be comfortable with eating with a fork, or even know what to do.

Cooking shows can help if the message is right, most though are too out of reach for beginning cooks.

Jamie Oliver's shows are fascinating to me, he shows people that don't understand cooking how to cook. I watched School Dinners and was surprised at how many people don't understand how to cook.

Real cooking is ordinary, and often simple.

This is a narrow view. To deny that fancy, out-of-the-ordinary food you don't want to cook is not "real cooking" is merely to assert that your taste in cooking is supreme. I'm a free-style cook, what can we make out of what's in the refrigerator and pantry? I frequently make things I've never imagined before but that still taste good.

Anyone here making the "source locally" argument ever read Just Food by James McWilliams? Local sourcing and hundred-mile diets are fantastic provided you like the food and manage to get everything you need to eat in a manner you can tolerate year-round. Less so if you live in Canada and have a recipe for steamed broccoli in December (or, for that matter, you don't feel like eating root vegetables for six months of the year). I'm not saying we should eat whatever we want year-round, but it's certainly a complicated question. Particularly if you want to enjoy rather than endure eating.

Food has always been very visual as well as tactile, tastefull, aromafull and with with advent of cooking, auditory as well. Food should engage all of our senses. Eating is the 2nd most pleasurable experience that people routinely engage in.

To dispute the point that food had not been visual in the past, all one needs to do is look at the coloration of many fruits and vegetables. They are brightly colored to attract animals (including humans) to eat them so that the seeds would be spread far away.

Mike, but food was never *only* visual, except in the occasional still life. For most of human history you didn't see the rich reds of a pepper or the creamy orange of an apricot without actually also touching, tasting and otherwise having contact with the plant.

WLU, I think there are enough people at this point who have done local eating successfully, deliciously, sustainably that I think setting it up as an either eat badly or buy distant is pretty false. My family eats local year round in upstate NY, and doesn't live entirely on parsnips all winter, I promise. As for the steamed broccoli - why not just use the recipe on brussels sprouts, cabbage or kale, all of which can be available easily in December and are just as delicious.

Anandine, I think we're talking past each other - creative cooking with what you've got is simple - very simple. That doesn't mean it is skill-less, though. But you are describing precisely what I'm talking about.

Jolo and Throwback, the fundamental reality that most people don't know even the basics of cooking is a huge issue - I suspect cooking shows could help with that, but I'm not sure the data suggests that they do - more and more cooking shows have proliferated, with larger and larger audiences even as cooking skills have declined. While Jamie Oliver or others may help individuals, it seems to be increasingly evident that the ability to cook is something taught hands-on and directly for most people. In the home ideally, and at school ideally (home ec), and in every other possible venue.


If you want a cookbook and you want real good cool food that satisfies and is fun to cook with family and friends, go ask grandma and grandpa. My bet is that grandma and grandpa will have the old Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks - look for the plaid cover - stuffed with hand written recipes. Mostly what we see on the TV is either "cuisine" or Bar Food with limited exceptions.
The thing I have noticed is that when I watch these shows it is about the two extremes:
"This place makes pancakes the size of a bike tire!"
"This restaurant makes wonderful 1 oz. filets of squab. Look how there is at least 5 inches of empty space around the edge of this plate."
Neither are cooking nor are they food. They are restaurant entertainment or restaurainment - I call copyright!

I'm oldish, 63, and Julia and Jacques taught me to cook. But my family cooked; my mother, father, both grandmothers, aunts, etc. Everybody cooked; nobody went to restaurants. Mostly it was pretty good but fairly basic southern (Texan) cooking. Jacques Pepin especially introduced me to the idea that once you knew basic techniques, you could do anything you wanted to do- he stressed flexibility and using whatever was easily (and cheaply- he's French, you know) available. From the two of them I learned basic, homestyle French cooking, and that's what I still do, about five meals out of seven. Most of the TV cooking shows are good for a couple of ideas and a dozen or more belly laughs- thirty-five ditsy, fiddly ingredients, of which half come in fractions of teaspoonsful, another six or eight technique switches, recomendations for saucepans that cost several hundreds of dollars each- and there you've got America's Test Kitchen. I'd rather watch Rachel Ray any day- unpretentious and pretty realistic. Or Rick Bayless in Mexico. Or Tony, munching down barbecued pig in every country in Asia and street food in every corner of every hemisphere. (Somewhere in Malaysia, a lizard hidden in the thatch lays a turd on his canape...) I forget my point. I'm old, I said.

By nancy brownlee (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

I love watching food TV (I actually go to the effort of streaming the TV shows online, as I don't have a television), but I agree that it's become an unhealthy vision of what food should be. The recipes are complicated, time-consuming, and use ingredients which either have very limited availability, or are very expensive to produce and purchase (often both -- it's expensive and hard to get, making it simply unsustainable and totally out of reach for most people). The competition-based reality shows are the worst (I don't actually watch those ones, but I've seen enough of them in the past to have formed a lasting impression). Chefs are competing in totally unrealistic scenarios to create over-the-top, utterly ridiculous creations, and *that* is what people are coming to think that cooking is all about. But it's not. Cooking is (or at least, it used to be) an everyday practice meant to provide what we need -- both nutrition-wise and taste/comfort-wise -- without completely overwhelming our lives.

I completely agree with your assessment that one of the central issues is a simple "not knowing" about cooking. I'm in my mid-20s, and many of my friends were never taught the most basic things about cooking. Even if they came from homes where one parent or another would regularly prepare meals from scratch, the kids just weren't encouraged to be in the kitchen observing and learning -- they were probably off at some after-school activity, or plunked down in front of the TV to keep them quiet and out of the way. All they had to do was show up at the table when the food was ready, and the process of how it ended up on the table in the first place was never examined.

I've introduced many of my friends to the art of simple, everyday cooking (including one friend who always swore he hated cooking and refused to do anything involving more than 3 steps -- he's now very proud of the meals he prepares, and has become a wizard with a slow-cooker), and they always seem amazed at just how little it costs and how small an investment of time and effort is required. Obviously there are more heavily-invested days (oh, canning -- I have so many pickles to make right now!) But generally a delicious, balanced meal can be whipped up in just a few minutes of prep time, and then we'll hang out and do other things while it all cooks.

A lot of my friends have said on numerous occasions that visiting my house is like visiting their grandmother, because the social life in my apartment revolves entirely around the kitchen and the food that comes out of it, and I think that's very telling. It's not their *parents* who do this. It's an older relative, someone they didn't necessarily see often enough to learn from. Somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s, parents just stopped teaching their kids to cook.

" I just worry that the culture that worships restaurant food is forgetting what real, daily food is like."

Of course there is a real hazard there, and one not restricted to food. The glamorization of everything that happens via all mass media blinds the masses consistently. And it's a nice positive feedback loop too; the masses demand more glamor, and wander further and further from anything we could call reality. Not going to end well, any of that.

I'd also point out though, that any attempt to define "food" as this, or that, is guaranteed to fail. "Food" is about as multiferogenous a thing as exists in the universe. Culture by culture, day by day, it's a ultramultifaceted a thing as it can be.

"Our daily bread" - is quite a proper thing. So is a "feast", when a feast is called for.

The whole 'you must cook like a chef' thing has taken off in the UK as well (although British cooking is better than it was, trust me), but what you notice is that while more TV programmes/cookbooks get sold, fewer meals are actually prepared at home.

I suspect that many of these shows (and there are honourable exceptions) respond to our ideas of entertainment, as do the TV chefs themselves. In reality though, we want a solution which doesn't involve 32 ingredients and 2 hours cooking. Rather than do that, we either just go somewhere to eat (or order it in), or indulge in what the food industry calls a 'meal solution'.

I'm a stay-at-home dad, so I do the bulk of the cooking. I learnt to cook fairly young, and grew up in a household where you lived to eat, unlike so many of my school friends, where the opposite was true. My mother is from central America, so we ate not just British food (in the 1970's!), but also Mexican/Caribian, and well as many other food cultures, so I'm fairly untypical for a Brit of my age. I love cookbooks, I like trying new things, and I'm a fan of great blogs like Smitten Kitchen.

Much as I enjoy cooking,faced with a four and a seven year old who decide that at least one of them wont like what your going to cook, and a wife who's work might make her late for dinner, I can see why a 'meal solution' or going out might make sense. And I have time to cook...

If we want to change our food culture (which is vastly better than even 20 years ago in the UK), then we need to start with our kids actually cooking food which they have a vague notion of where it came from (Jamie Olivers School Dinners being exhibit 1), but not taking their only cues from Gordon Ramsey or Masterchief.

I don't need to eat something new every day (although I'll do my best), and neither do my kids, but they do need to eat something as simple as it needs to be, as good as it can be, and as interesting and engaging as I can make it. Good food shouldn't have to be hard, even though the 'restaurant culture' possibly wants you to think it is.

BTW - Thanks are due to the person who mentioned 'Cake Wrecks' - made my night, and gave me an idea for my mothers Christmas gift!

But ... here is the problem, as I see it. Who will prepare this "real food"? Restaurant culture, and the professionalization of food, liberates women to pursue real and meaningful careers. The professionalization of food is not an inherently *bad* thing; as consumers we need to be aware of what constitutes tasty, nutritious, (and yes often simple) food, and we as a consumer base need to demand that from grocers and restauranteurs, rather than set unrealistic goals for preparing meals at home. We need to embrace the fact that in two-career equal partnerships, there is no time for this; we need to focus on making the professionalization of food work, in terms of both health and economy, rather than on trying to shame people into cooking for themselves.

We need to embrace the fact that in two-career equal partnerships, there is no time for this; we need to focus on making the professionalization of food work

My wife and I and countless other people have learned that this is simply not true. Typically dinner takes well under 30 minutes of prep time. It does require learning a skill and a small amount of effort. And if you have a lot of time you certainly can spend a lot of time on an elaborate meal. But sorry, if in a hurry, it is very easy to prepare a delicious, nutritious varied meal in less time than it takes to eat out.

just to be clear, I wasn't really disputing what you said, Sharon, nor disagreeing with the tragedy that is the loss of cooking skills. I was just highly amused to see the word "foodie" used so differently here than on other blogs and in my social group, where the "foodies" generally cook with stuff from their backyard/CSA/farmers' market, and declare their pride in their ability to minimize non-local food (though admittedly, none of us is capable of ditching the caffeine habit; coffee and tea will pretty much stay irreplaceable, and are the reason I'm thinking I might have to move to Hawaii for my post-peak life :-p )

And the only cook-book the "foodies" I'm familiar with can't stop talking about are Mark Bitmann's two cookbooks (How To Cook Everything, and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian), which look a lot more like the 1940's cookbook my mom has (minus the advice on how to de-feather a chicken), than like the fancy, glossy books you guys are talking aobut.

We need to embrace the fact that in two-career equal partnerships, there is no time for this; we need to focus on making the professionalization of food work

one word: crockpot

my boyfriend made chili yesterday, by dumping the ingredients into the crockpot 20 minutes before he had to leave for work. the rest pretty much took care of itself, and when he came back dinner was ready.

oh, and another thing: from the BIG perspective, in an energy-rich, highly automated society, 40-hour-work-weeks as the requirement for living are antiquated at best, and are part of the escalation of consumption; basically, most of the work creates specifically to give as many people as possible something to do for 40 hours every week is one half of out overconsuming society (the other half is the actual overconsuming of all the crap we just produced for no reason, and don't you dare be so unpatriotic as to not consume; your economy depends on it!)

if it weren't for rampant over-consumerist capitalism, most people here could have careers by working 20-hour-weeks (or at least, like the French, 32-hour-weeks), thus leaving more time for non-career stuff without going back to single-income households with strictly enforced gender-roles

It seems to me that the problem is as much that people don't know how or what to eat, let alone how to cook. Younger people especially, prefer over-seasoned, over-salted, deep-fried, corn-syrup drenched meals because that is all they have ever eaten. The chemists in the food labs tweak the food products to be hyper-palatable. At the same time, they are kind of disgusting, these foods, cheapness and shelf life are the primary considerations.

There are plenty of people who are so used to this overly-processed rubbish that they don't like REAL food. I had stepchildren who turned their nose up at brownies and puddings made from real fresh ingredients, because the taste of actual chocolate and fresh cream and butter was alien to them. They preferred syntho-pudding in little plastic tubs and brownies from boxed mixes that tasted more like brown crayon than chocolate and that left a horrid aftertaste.

Skills or no skills, I don't think the problem is the TV chefs. I think the problem is the car-based suburban consumer lifestyle. But chin up folks, we won't be able to afford to live like this for very much longer.

Of course, nice fresh REAL food is going to be even harder to come by too.

You certainly have some interesting points about our food culture and we could definitely do with more Jamie Oliver's in the world helping us to make better choices of which foods to eat. But I don't know if I agree that we each individually should cook more ourselves. Specialization is the key to making us all richer.

I'm curious what your thoughts are on Matt Ridley's most recent book "The Rational Optimist?"

Specialization is the key to making us all richer.

specialization has high transportation costs, and kills essential redundancies that provide system stability. "richer" is not the goal; sustainable, resilient, and "well-enough" are.

Thank you, Jadehawk, I was biting my tongue about the anti-foodie rants because I couldn't find such a polite way to draw the line between the one definition and the fact that most of the readers of this blog are, at a minimum, a bit obsessive about their food.

I do wonder how long it will be before Purina formulates Bachelor Chow. It would save some people all those trips to McDonalds. No need to even reheat!

In my opinion there are two especially important problems:
1) Too many people don't really grok cooking/ingredients/nutrition.
2) There is a lack of collective responsibility taken for a collective problem.

I have to also praise the tv show Good Eats, it is _not_ a recipe cooking show, it's a methology and science show with recipes. Knowing hundreds of recipies by heart is near worthless if you do not understand the why behind them well enough to confidently alter, mix & match, or even improvise from scratch.
I am ridiculously lucky in terms of food. My FIL grew up with a cook preparing his family's meals, and after that he spent most of his life working hard and eating out at decent/good restaurants. He too damn pessimistic when it comes to cooking and vastly overestimates the amount of effort it takes to make tasty and healthy meals.
I was lucky, in spite of being a city brat, not only did both my parents cook when I was a kid, but that involved not only advanced festive special occasion meals from both their different cultures, but also more importantly basic, easy, delicious daily meals. We also visited my farmer grandparents almost anually, and I have on many occasions seen my grandmother rear e.g. cute ducklings/lambs from eggs/birth to adults, and then slaughter, clean and cook them. My grandparents had lots of hens & ducks, a few sheeps & pigs, crops, tons of misc fruit and nut trees, (organic freerange farming, not that they nor we would have known wtf that meant back then) which gave me a better understanding of food and its origins than the other city kids. I was freakisly lucky, I had not only grown up with eating & helping cooking delicious yet easy food, but I had also seen and helped with how and what is done to get the ingredients in the first place.
Which brings me to my second point. If there is a big problem on a national scale, it's horribly irresponsible not to solve it on a national scale. IIRC, when I was in 8th and 9th grade, possibly 7th too, we had "home ec." twice a week in a weekly total of 2-3 h, not only theory but also practice. It was about home finances, consumer rights, home care, ergonomy, nutrition, cooking and cleaning. One class was just theory, and the second one was theory and cooking, where we cooked, plated, eat, and washed the dishes. This was a mandatory course all boys and girls had to take.
People need to be taught to take care of themselves, I don't know how to help the adult part of the population, but it is pretty clear how to help the young ones.
IIRC, some kindergardens or schools even grow some of their own produce, and have the kids help with every step of the way; from planting, to taking care of the plants, to harvesting and even preparing the harvest for cooking. Gives the kids a sense of accomplishment and pride. We need more of this sort of thing in these corners of the earth, especially as it encourages these people later to grow some of the things they consume, themselves. Even if it's just herbs and the like in small flats.

Err... I apologise for the disgusting amount of typos in my previous post. I hope it is understandable in spite of being so garbled.

When I was working full time and DH was a full plus time grad student, we did a lot of weekend cooking. We (mostly he) would cook up a batch of something Sat and Sun and we would eat leftovers most of the week. Even now when I am at home full time, I plan on multiple meals. Grill chicken one night - have breasts once, burritos once and gyros once as an example.

I'm also insisting that my boys learn to cook. They have home ec in middle school, but they cook at most once a week for 9 weeks each year. They cook a couple times a month at least in summer and once each break. It's not a lot, but they each have a few dishes they can make. I told one that when he cooks this week, it must be different than what he cooked last time.

DH learned to cook off cooking shows and the newspaper food section 20 some years ago. I'm sure the shows were somewhat different then, but as a grad student he couldn't afford to eat out much and it was cook or starve.

By Katherine (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

Like Jadehawk, Katherine and others, there are plenty of ways to overcome the problem of time to cook. Crockpots, sun ovens, weekend cooking, eating leftovers, etc... are really easy. Moreover, the average American with two careers still spends large chunks of time shopping and watching tv - pretty easy to take the time out of that.

There are people who genuinely don't have time to cook - mostly very low income single parents and households working more than two jobs to make ends meet - but not the two career middle class folk you are talking about. There are others who don't have the capacity to cook - young kids taking care of younger siblings while parents work, people in subsidized motel rooms with no cooking facilities, etc... Again, not the folks who "don't have time to cook." And unfortunately, the people who can least afford to eat out.


As eating is something we need to do about 4 times a day, I put learning to cook as a necessity close to being able to read.

If someone went to a clothes shop to help get dressed every morning we would think they were mad. Especially if the clothes they could afford were so damn shoddy.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 14 Jul 2011 #permalink