In this article in this week-end's The New York Times magazine section, Michael Pollan asks this question that's essential to understanding the time in which we live: "How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?" He goes on to think about the evolution of cooking programs, from Julia Child to our current crop on the Food Network, and to wonder what it all means for us. He asks why we don't watch T.V. shows where people change the oil in a car, and he comes up with some interesting opinions. He asks what really made us evolve into being human, not just one more type of primate: the invention of language, the invention of fire? He makes a persuasive case for cooking.
He also addresses the question of meaningful work. He notes how many time-saving devices we have and asks, "So what are we doing with the time we save by outsourcing our food preparation to corporations and 16-year-old burger flippers? Working, commuting to work, surfing the Internet and, perhaps most curiously of all, watching other people cook on television." He talks about making a souffle and says, "How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow."
It's an interesting article, but I must confess to bias, since I've always loved Pollan's work; his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is one of my all-time favorites. I've also always loved to cook, and it's one of the few activities that I love that I still make time to do several times a week. In fact, cooking may be the only thing I love to do that I do more than once a week.
I've been feeling like a bit of a slacker because so many of our meals have been grilled lately, which takes so much less time and effort than a lot of the soups, breads, and casseroles that I make on a regular basis. I've really been enjoying the wild Alaskan salmon that we've had for the last several weeks.
Yesterday, I wanted something different to serve with our salmon, so I decided to experiment with sour cream. I love the taste of maple with salmon, so for one of the sauces, I put several gobs of fat free sour cream in a bowl, along with a swirl of real maple syrup. Yummmmm.
My spouse, on the other hand, is not as much of a sweet freak as I am, so I made a different sauce for him. I put several gobs of fat free sour cream in a bowl and several teaspoons of horseradish. Again, a yummy concoction.
These sauces couldn't have been more easy, but it's hard for me to count them as real cooking or recipe development. It's sobering to realize that many Americans couldn't do what I did yesterday: to think, hmm, how could I make something different to go along with this grilled salmon? In fact, many Americans couldn't figure out how to cook that slab of fish. As I waited at the fish counter, a man asked, "How do you cook that salmon, anyway?" Grill, poach, throw in the oven--how could you go wrong?
Well, there's one way--you could overcook it. The first time I cooked fish, I totally ruined it by leaving it in a hot oven for 45 minutes. I wanted to make sure I killed any bacteria, and I certainly did that! It was hard to even claim it as fish jerky.
Still, this is how we learn, and as one of the experts in the Pollan article asked, how many of us have learned these skills? Who will teach the next generation? Even a lot of the cooking shows rely on "foods" from the food-industrial complex.
Happily, just as earlier generations had monks that preserved learning, we will find that this kind of learning has been protected in pockets of people. Cookbooks can still be checked out from the library, and one can learn to cook by following instructions carefully--that's how I did it (and a generation and a half before me, that's how people learned to cook with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking). I predict that we're about to see an explosion of interest in good food and sustainable agriculture, much the way Julia Child ushered in a new era. We see some glimmerings of that coming explosion in the interest in farmer's markets and canning and cooking at home. Perhaps, in twenty years, we won't even recognize the grim situation that Pollan has documented in his books and articles. Perhaps the changes he's advocated will have come to fruition.
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