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Dear Julia Child, We Need You!

09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes." -- Julia Child

There was a time not so long ago that cooking shows resembled today's reality TV, where mistakes were made and corrected right before your very eyes. No second takes. No editing. Just the real thing.

How times have changed.

Consider Mark Bittman's column earlier this year, titled "TV Cooking v. Real Cooking," that shone a bright light on the "charade" that is today's modern cooking shows. According to Bittman:

A charade because it's all taped, and therefore not only doesn't take place in real time but doesn't even give a sense of what "real time" might be. And I'm not talking about braising time or the like but the actual work involved. A further charade because when it's taped, all sorts of egregious mistakes can be magically made to disappear.

He goes on to say:

Baffling and intimidating because nearly every ingredient is usually prepared in advance, and what isn't is selected so that the chef can show off his (almost never "her") knife skills, which are bound to intimidate nearly all of us who can never aspire (and why would we, really?) to chopping an onion with our eyes closed; his ability to make food fly in the air while cooking it; and/or his skill at presentation, which has absolutely nothing to do with taste.

I wonder how the rising popularity of cooking networks and shows about cooking -- available 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- has contributed to the migration of eating away from the home, which is nearly on par with eating at home in terms of consumer food expenditures. Have we decided to live vicariously through TV's celebrity chefs? Are we truly baffled and intimidated by the process of cooking?

Mr. Bittman's column, while entertaining to read, also points out a serious challenge for people interested in developing a more sustainable food system. We need confident and flexible home cooks in order to move away from highly processed, unsustainable foods.

Consider a hypothetical case of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program "newbie." Let's call him Bill.

For those not familiar with CSA programs, they are characterized by a consumer's financial commitment before each growing season to purchase a share of what the farm produces. The consumer's return on his/her upfront investment comes in the form of a weekly food basket from the farm containing a mix of vegetables, fruit, flowers, etc. What is received depends on what the farmer grows and how well each crop produces.

Now back to Bill. He has been buying his food from a major supermarket chain for years. He shops there three to four times a week, stopping in to pick up a couple things, but walking out with more than expected every time (another victim of impulse buys and sophisticated in-store marketing). He often opts for prepared foods or frozen entrees, which he eats while watching back-to-back cooking shows on The Food Network.

At the urging of his friends, Bill joins a local CSA farm. He's excited about supporting a local organic farmer. He receives his first box, takes it home, unloads it on the counter, and scratches his head. What is all this? he wonders. More important, what am I supposed to do with it? He makes a great salad and stores the balance of the food in the fridge. The next night, he makes another great salad, but with less zeal, and considers making something with some of the radishes, beets and chard. No clue.

Within a couple weeks, he has become discouraged and ends up throwing away (hopefully Bill composts) much of the food from the farm. Expensive compost. He tries to opt out, but his money was given up front and the farm can't afford to give him his money back. Bill does not renew, and becomes an outspoken critic of CSA programs.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. He was supposed to "learn to eat seasonally" and to "enjoy experimenting with new foods." But, Bill was overwhelmed and The Food Network and its line up of celebrity chefs were of little help. This insecurity in being able to cook like Giada De Laurentiis, along with his "supermarket withdrawal" (common symptom associated with CSA newbies), caused Bill to yearn for the "any food, any time" offerings of the industrial food system.

Another missed opportunity.

It's time to awaken America's cooking instinct. The future of sustainable food may depend on doing so.