I grew up helping my mom cook. For holidays, for parties, for simple weeknight dinners, there was hardly an occasion when I wasn't by her side, stirring, sifting, chopping, peeling. Whenever anyone would comment, "This is delicious," or, "I can't believe this is from scratch," she never left me out. "Emma was my sous chef," she'd say.
For a while, it was from her that I cultivated all that I knew. But then something began to change. Different forms of technology presented themselves as the all-knowing experts in a way my mom (or even the cookbooks and food magazines that filled our shelves) couldn't.
Through television came the Food Network, and with it my introduction to food as something more than simply what you eat and the process that leads you to that. Incidentally, it's been around for less time than I have. The competitions caught my attention first, and then the more instructional daily programs did. I watched constantly.
Initially I didn't understand exactly why it was so satisfying. I had been used to the ultimate satisfaction coming from actually tasting what I had made. Somehow, with a screen in between, it still caught me. Ina Garten and Giada De Laurentiis stirred, sifted, chopped and peeled, and I was captivated. Seeing the ingredients come together so perfectly was inspiring. Hearing professional chefs talk about why certain flavors go well together was interesting.
The computer proved to be downright useful as I began to make things on my own. Indeed, when I'm in the kitchen, there are often situations where I'll run into a problem. Let's say I'm making pancakes and there's no buttermilk. I'll grab my laptop, type "buttermilk substitute" into the search bar, click on a few sites, and I've got it. Just mix about a cup of milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice. What would I have done without that? Not make pancakes, probably.
In recent years, there have been hundreds of Smartphone apps designed that are related to food. Many, like UrbanSpoon, find restaurants in your neighborhood. FoodGawker allows you to simply look at photographs of succulent dishes. Martha Stewart created videos that break down the steps of preparing a meal so you can follow along right from your cell. Pair It! gives you advice on what wine to drink with what dish. There are an endless amount that display comments and reviews of every imaginable recipe.
What's more, this abundance of information has allowed for a political movement to begin growing around the issue of food. It wasn't always the case that people looked for a way to eat organically and locally. It wasn't always the case that they cared about what went into their breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course, this is a generalization: There are still plenty who don't care or can't afford to care. But in general, over the past couple of decades, an awareness has been developed.
Intelligentsia has it's own application to tell you where the coffee they make is sourced from. You can learn about the areas where their coffee beans grow, be it in South America or Africa, and read the stories of the farmers who work the land. There's an application called Harvest to Hand that helps you find locally harvested food, food festivals and farmers markets anywhere in the United States.
Specialty Produce lists the history, nutrition, cultivation and seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables. Breadcrumbs will physically scan certain products you find at the grocery store and give you an instant summary of ingredients as well as the details of where and when the particular item was made. Trust me, the list goes on. And on.
When I think about how technology has become hand-in-hand with the way we experience food and cooking, my initial reaction is to be upset, to believe that it's killing the authenticity it was once grounded in. It's the same as the internet taking over newspapers and the kindle taking over books. One of the most basic human instincts is to nourish ourselves. To develop that instinct through something so completely unnatural feels wrong and disconnected.
And yet maybe that's it. Maybe the way we access our natural world is simply different from how it used to be. Maybe the Food Network and the computer and Smartphone apps are this generation's basis for that experience. Maybe they are, in fact, how we become engaged and connected. Suddenly the art of cooking isn't quite as daunting or mysterious as it once was. Knowing about, thinking about, caring about food is something done by the majority instead of the minority. It's accessible. It's approachable. It's interactive.
There remain few things I enjoy more than looking through my mom's old recipes, often ones that go as far back generations. I recognize the value in the way cookbooks and magazines are designed. When you buy one, you're not getting a whole bunch of individual recipes, but rather a complete set that was put together in that particular way for a reason. They tell stories about food, yes. But also about cultures and traditions and families.
It makes me happy when pages stick together because sauces have gotten in-between them or flip open automatically because they've been crusted with dough. By no means am I discounting any of that. The key now is a balance -- to appreciate it alongside how the digital world brings food not only to our mouths, but also to our fingertips.