THE BLOG
01/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Complicated Psychology of Putting Good Food On the Table

(cross-post from La Marguerite)

Every night, the same question comes up, of what to make for dinner? Tonight's no different. No leftover in the fridge to give me a hint. Instead an odd assortment of vegetables, not even enough to make a soup with. And no help to be had from family members. All four have different ideas, and I do not have the time nor the desire to accommodate all. I shall make an executive decision. Of course, it would be nice to be 'creative' and step out of the usual repertoire, for a change. But tonight's not the night. I am going for the safest bet. Roasted chicken with potatoes, and a green salad. I can zip over to Whole Foods, buy their organic fryer, organic potatoes, and organic lettuce, and while I am at it, a few extra vegetables so I can make a soup out of the leftovers tomorrow. Preparation time, 15′ total, and I can go back to my work, while the creature's cooking in the oven. Done.

There is a lot to be said for that roasted chicken dinner. Most importantly, it meets all four criteria in my good food book:

1. Cost: a whole chicken can be stretched over two meals for four people, easily, with roasted chicken first day, and chicken soup with rice the day after
2. Health: no worries to be had with natural, organic ingredients
3. Convenience: both meals are easy and quick to make, less than 15′, my usual limit on week days
4. Taste: it's hard to mess up roasted chicken, plus who doesn't like chicken?

In a perfect world, I would have a hundred 'roasted chicken' recipes to pick from. The reality is closer to five or six meals, that I keep repeating, from week to week. The children have noticed. Oh! we're having crepes again . . . How about a different dressing for the salad? I have fallen into a rut. I wish I could be more creative and fancy myself as one of my French friends, for whom cooking is still very much a daily practice in effortless imagination. Once in a while, I decide to shake things up a bit, and invest in a new cookbook. Last time, was The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, by Alice Waters. I remember being quite excited, and thinking this was going to be THE book, unlike the thirty previous volumes, that have been gathering dust on my kitchen shelf. Of course, my interest in THE book was short-lived. I found it hard to make Alice's recipes mine. An interesting observation, given that, objectively, her recipes embody all I want in food.

I am left with the question of why? How come is it that I keep going back to these few 'comfort recipes'? When I could so easily whip myself into shape, and start meal planning the heck out of Alice's cookbook, gathering hundreds of perfect recipes in the process. The answer is in the smell coming out of my oven right now. The aroma from the roasted chicken, and the potatoes brings me right back to my mother, and also my grandmother's kitchen, to my French peasant roots of uncomplicated, good food. From the many more dishes that I watched, and sometimes helped them make, only le poulet roti, les pommes de terre au four, la salade verte toute bete, la soupe de legumes, les crepes, la tarte aux pommes, and le pudding au chocolat have remained in my primal core . . .

Of course, I am fortunate, to have been wired early on to only appreciate really good, natural food. That I am a boring cook with a limited repertoire is a small problem, compared to what happens for the majority of people in America, who have been brought up to love not natural food, but fast food instead. To them, a visit to McDonald's may bring up the same positive emotional onslaught as the one I feel when cooking my grandmother's vegetable soup. And cooking naturally, or even cooking period, may be a lot harder for them to get into. Although hugely popular, cookbooks, recipe websites, and TV cooking shows, often cannot compete with the aroma of a Big Mac with French fries, on the side.