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June 22, 2007 / Tony

More sorry cooks?

I was reading Jeremy Steingarten’s excellent “The Man Who Ate Everything” and came across this rather intriguing passage:

“. . .Campell’s vast market surveys have discovered the attributes of the ideal recipe.  It must be prepared in thirty minutes or less (including any cooked ingredients within it).  It must be a main dish, because homemakers are less willing to try a new recipe for a side dish or a dessert.  And it must contain only readily available ingredients, which means that these should not merely be widely displayed on supermarket shelves but, preferably, already be stocked in most people’s homes.  I found this ideal in sharp and ironic contrast to the recipes I write.  Mine take between four hours and four days to prepare, are always for side dishes or desserts, and contain ingredients that you must either send away for or bring back from a trip to Alba or Kyoto.” 

My initial reaction (besides a smile due to Mr. Steingarten’s humor) is how very limiting these criteria of the ideal recipe are?  For example, just on the time limitation alone, a cook is precluded from prepping a wide variety of ingredients (especially if it includes knifework), using any large cuts of meat, employing long and slow (dry or moist) cooking methods, and using recipes that require a succession of cooking (in the sense of applying heat to food) steps (like a recipe that would ask a cook to sauté, sear, deglaze, simmer, and reduce).  On the other hand, the time limitation would surely be biased toward certain types of recipes-those with a small ingredient list, those using pre-assembled or prepped ingredients, those employing high heat methods, those using thin, quickly cooking cuts of meat, and those recipes that require no or little knifework (I’m sure there are other items that could be added in both of my lists). 

On top of this, “ideal American recipes” are also only main dishes and only use widely-available ingredients that Americans already know and, presumably, use.  If this self-imposed border from even mildly challenging cuisine is the norm in America, is it any wonder that Americans really don’t know how to cook anymore?  (For more of my thoughts on this issue, see my earlier post.  If this is all the average American cook is willing to do, is it any wonder that soon it becomes the only thing he or she is able to do? 

Furthermore, if the average American cook will only invest time in making a main dish, does that mean that cook will spend no time making the side dishes?  And if so, are those side dishes simply made from convenience foods like boxed mashed potatoes and canned vegetables?  And if that is true, then the culinary world of the average American cook is even more curtailed because he or she will refuse to engage in the making of one, two, or even three dishes (if you count a vegetable, starch, and dessert as viable options for a home cook to make). 

Let us look at an example of what kind of “homemade meal” this passage directs us to:  An entrée of chicken breasts briefly seared (hopefully) and then coated with and simmered in condensed soup.  A package of quick cooking Minute Rice (perhaps in a form where a microwave is employed).  A package of frozen peas, quickly reheated in the microwave.  And a few cookies from the grocery bakery. 

Sounds pretty wonderful, huh?  Maybe. . . everyone has their own taste.  However, the question I am interested in is this:  what actual cooking did the home cook do for this meal?  Not much, searing chicken breasts and executing a simmer is really it.  The rice is a convenience food.  The vegetable is a simple reheat.  And the dessert is already made.  The cook has put almost no effort into the meal and, not surprisingly, didn’t need much culinary skill at all to execute it. 

I do not mean to belittle those busy people out there who do not have the time to invest in a nice, homemade dinner every night.  But I do worry that we, as a society, are losing the battle against losing that basic survival skill of cooking.  (This could be said about a great many other skills as well.)  I worry that we will as a society come to a point where honest, from-scratch cooking is not something even contemplated.  I worry that once we do not understand cooking anymore, we will not understand what good cooking is anymore.  And if that happens, will we be at the culinary mercy of Kraft or Campbell’s?  God help us then. 



Leave a Comment
  1. sebastian / Jun 22 2007 5:09 pm

    Nice article. I can see what Steingarten is saying. After getting home from work at 7:00, I really only have time to spend about 30 minutes cooking before I am ready to die of starvation. Weekends are another thing, however, and I do enjoy spending 1/2 a day creating something delicious.

    The end of your post reminds me a little of what I saw in London when I was there. It was hard to find fresh vegetables and a lot of standard cooking ingredients. Many of the supermarkets I saw were filled with prepared food. It was pretty sad.

  2. Denise / Jun 26 2007 11:05 pm

    I can understand what Steingarten is saying but I don’t agree with his concept of what makes the ideal recipe. I do prefer to use ingredients I already have on hand rather than have to hunt high and low for an item but I’m not opposed to a few ‘unusual’ ingredients here and there. I don’t work outside the home, though, so time isn’t much of an issue to me. Oh well, to each his or her is what it is.


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