A recent story by Michael Pollan in the New York Times magazine implied that the problem with Americans is that we actually don't cook anymore -- we just watch it on TV. He blamed it on the usual suspects, including our disconnection from where our food comes from, the corrupting influence of television, and a food industry that conspires to make us dependent on their processed products.
But then I thought about my own life and cooking arc, and can't I help but wonder if there is a different cause for this trend -- and, frankly, whether it's even true that people don't cook.
I grew up eating the yummy foods my mother cooked -- although more often or not she was angry about something by the time we all got to the table. But who can blame her, since she had to have dinner on the table every night for a minimum of seven people (my father usually didn't call in advance if he brought guests home for dinner) at 5:30 sharp.
When I grew up and moved out and started cooking on my own, I'll never forget when my father said: "Of all three of my daughters' cooking, I would rank yours the last." It didn't matter that I was the youngest of them by 7 years; that comment stuck with me (as you can clearly see).
So at the same time I was learning to cook, and trying to feed one of the pickiest-eating children on earth (no cheese, no tomatoes, no peanut butter, no bananas, no cooked fruit of any kind, and definitely no sandwiches), I started to look for outside help in books, magazines, and newspapers.
What struck me most back then was how inadequate I felt. Martha Stewart constantly shamed me with perfection that I could never achieve. The New York Times always made me feel like the foods I enjoyed weren't exotic, elite, or expensive enough. And every source I searched out made my local food specialties, cooked with love by big-armed ladies at church festivals (pierogies, haluski, and shoefly pie) seem like an embarrassment to humanity.
As a result, cooking for me became a private joy -- an underground pleasure. I was afraid to share it with anyone other than my family and expose myself to their judgment. Slowly but surely, I learned to cook things that my family and I loved to eat, and to enjoy sharing it with them. I learned the old ways of cooking from my Italian in-laws. I studied food and went to local markets wherever I traveled -- deconstructing tastes from my senses alone. I learned all on my own that simply prepared, fresh, local, and organic foods taste best.
Today, just looking at the popularity of recipe websites (including our own Rodale Recipe Finder), and even other people's shopping carts at the local supermarket -- and the consistently big crowds at my local farmers market -- I have to disagree with Michael Pollan. People in America do still cook. They just do it below your radar, because they don't want to feel judged. They do it for their families, for picnics, for Super Bowl parties and holidays. They do it for love, not prestige. They may not do it all from scratch, and it may not be perfect -- but why squelch our tender souls with criticism when we are all just constantly learning and trying to improve?
If my Dad were still alive, I know he would love my food. He would definitely be angry about the lard issue, but I wouldn't have a problem disagreeing with him. At the end of the day, my kids and husband love my cooking and that's really all that matters to me.
Do you think Americans still cook? Leave a comment below.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to Maria's Farm Country Kitchen.