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.
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
salt, to taste
ground cumin, to taste
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.