Recession Specials 4c — Tuesday

Earlier this week I decided to embark on an experiment where I’d clean out my fridge and cook dinner each night using only the ingredients I had on hand. Click here for the ingredient list, here for Sunday’s dinner and here for last night’s meal.

I do these experiments from time to time because it forces me to be creative in ways that I normally might not be. There are times when I fall into what I call “a cooking rut”, where I just rely on things inside my comfort zone so this is a good way for me to think out of the box for a change.

Before I get to Tuesday’s dinner, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about something that’s been bothering me for a while.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Pollan wrote a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine on the decline and fall of cooking in America. (Go read it if you haven’t already and then when you’re done, come back to this post and write something in the comment section if you like.) One of the figures in Pollan’s think-piece is Harry Balzer, a food-marketing researcher who compares “cooking” — not the term as you or I know it as practiced on this blog — to the act of spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread and calling it a day. But don’t take it from me, here’s a quote from the article:

I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.” Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the NPD Group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by Balzer’s none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

Depressing, isn’t it?

I’m fortunate enough to surround myself with people who are interested about food — how we think about food, how to prepare food and what we eat from day to day. When the Internet first came onto the scene, there weren’t that many online food fora where like-minded people could interact. Now there are literally hundreds of sites, from foodblogs to fora such as eGullet and Serious Eats, to e-lists such as the Community Food Security Coalition, a mailing list based in Portland, Oregon. This plethora of food sites gives me hope that cooking is alive and well, that even though obesity and related health issues are on the rise in America, the conventional wisdom holds that society will not soon forget this most essential of life skills.

So you can imagine my dismay when I talk to people who I occasionally come across who think I’m crazy when I tell them that cooking dinner is easy. It could be breakfast or lunch, the actual meal is irrelevant. That making chicken stock from scratch is a relaxing activity. They can’t imagine why I would schlep 60 blocks to a farmer’s market downtown when it’s more convenient to go to a corner store across the street. How do you find the time?, they ask. It’s inconceivable as far as they’re concerned.

It makes me wonder sometimes which planet I’m living on.


Mujadarra

Click here for a bigger version of this picture.

A Middle-Eastern specialty, mujadarra is a pilaf composed of rice, lentils and caramelized onion. It’s a perfect vegetarian/vegan and gluten-free meal, served with a chopped vegetable salad and yogurt. This version includes a salad made with chopped cucumber, heirloom tomatoes, parsley, shallot, lemon juice and olive oil; minced pitted oil-cured olives; and caramelized onion.

5 onions, sliced thinly
1 c. lentils, soaked and drained
1 c. long-grain white rice
3 c. water
olive oil
salt, to taste
ground cumin, to taste
chopped parsley

Saute onions and cumin in olive oil until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Adjust seasoning. Divide in half.

Cook lentils and rice together, along with half of the fried onions. Add water as needed. Cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally, or until water is absorbed.

Serve with remaining fried onions and parsley for garnish.

7 comments

  1. I read that article as well, and I thought it was really depressing. It’s easy to forget the realities of American diet when you are surrounded by people with similar interests and dietary concerns. And yet, when I thought about it, my mother rarely “cooks” anything that doesn’t come out of a box. She scoffs at my “waste” of money on fresh produce, especially at farmer’s markets. Needless to say, I don’t often eat with her even when I am visiting. Putting together a simple, healthy meal (from scratch) can be so rewarding and quick. 10 minutes can get dinner on the table. It’s a shame, isn’t it?

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  2. localkitchen

    I thought it was a great article, overall, although, yes, the Balzer stuff was depressing. But I look at it differently. There ARE cooks out there, the farmer’s markets are packed, the food blogs innumerable… someone’s out there making all this stuff. And everything pendulums – for all the Rachel Ray’s out there, obsessed with ‘dinner in 30 minutes’ there will be a Mario Batali, taking food back to it’s roots.

    Last weekend I was up in the Catskills, where 13 of my girlfriends converged on a rental house in the mountains to throw me a bacheolette party. These are women from all areas of my life, from my freshman college roommate to pharmaceutical scientist/rock climbers. Some of them cook, some of them.. not so much. But they all know me and know how I cook and eat, so the food at this weekend! My god. There was homemade roasted red pepper hummus and grilled eggplant baba ganoush. There were glorious farmer’s market cheeses, cranberry-walnut and fig-hazlenut breads. Granted, there were a few bags of Tostitos, storebought California strawberries, and frozen shrimp cocktail… but also tons of cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and sweet corn that had never seen the inside of a supermarket.

    I’ve had many friends tell me in the past that I inspire them – inspire them to try recipes that they normally wouldn’t, or to sign up for a CSA, or to search out a farmer’s market near home. Over the weekend I had a couple of friends tell me proudly that the tomates were from the farmer’s market, or the cucumbers from their garden. These are ordinary suburband housewives, whose shopping & cooking relies heavily on the standard packaged fare available at our supermarkets, but just leading by example, I can open up their cooking and eating to a whole new possibility. The main point of the Pollan article, in my opinion, was that Julia Child inspired people: a whole generation of home cooks were convinced to try new things because Julia made it accessible and fun. So the people like us, who do cook, who do know the pleasures of fresh, seasonal food, well it is our job to inspire others, to pay it forward, as it were, to give back a little of what the Julia Childs, the Michael Pollans, and all the farmers, bakers and cheesemakers out there give to us.

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  3. Arnie — Mujadara is one of my mainstays whenever I have a lean cupboard. It’s very forgiving. Fried onions are what make the dish.

    Haley — My mother can’t be bothered with cooking these days (and that’s a shame because I remember growing up in her house and having dinner at the table 7 days a week). Ok so maybe part of that was one-pot meals made in advance on Sunday but at least she took the time to cook dinner from scratch. These days it’s half convenience and half real food. And when I tell her that I like making dinner from scratch (or breakfast or lunch or whatever), she thinks I’m crazy. But it’s not just her, I recall having a conversation on a food board recently and being told that “I have too much time on my hands” — and this from people who are self-described foodies. They go to places like Le Bernardin and Daniel all the time and like cooking at home, so to hear a criticism coming from them is a bit jarring. I can’t imagine not cooking, or perhaps a more accurate statement is, I can’t imagine “fake” cooking. I don’t even own a microwave or toaster. That’s not what I believe in.

    LK — I *have* to believe that there is a silver lining in Pollan’s article because the future described by Harry Balzer is too bleak to be contemplated.

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  4. Julien

    aha, now I know why you turned your nose up when I told you that I was happy to own a toaster oven.

    Well, I’ll have you know that the reason I like is that I can season and marinate meat in smaller sizes (like 2-3 steaks for example). Then pop them in there for 15 minutes and they are done. During that time, I have time to throw together some rice, cous-cous or other starchie food (which I admit half the time is boxed, but I usually don’t use their spice packets as I prefer my own mixes I make myself at SpiceWorld in Seattle). My veggies are usually always fresh too; but as only a “half-foodie;” and an American who is obsessed with convenience–I wish produce would simply last longer than it does so I dont have to go to the store EVERY week to eat right.

    I am thinking of getting a FoodSaver

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  5. Hi Julien and thanks for visiting the blog.

    Besides the issues brought up in Pollan’s think-piece (which are substantial and worth thinking about), there’s also the issue of space.

    My kitchen is extremely small. It’s roughly the size of a bathroom in your standard Manhattan apartment. Accordingly I have to maximize as much of it as possible, hence why I don’t own a microwave or a toaster oven.

    Even if I had the space, I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t buy one — but that’s a separate issue altogether.

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  6. Julien

    My friends praise my “cooking” when I know I dind’t really cook. Preparing anything with instructions or that comes in a box doesn’t count as “cooking” to me.

    I am usually most proud of my cooking when I have a reason to do it. My thanksgivings or usually a success but I admit to going to marthastewart.com and just picking my own favorite recipes and making them all 😀

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anna brones

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