When my almost 20-year-old daughter was little, someone suggested that I not teach her how to cook, for the same reason that some people thought girls should not learn to type. If you have the skill you'll end up having to use it, was how the thinking went, so the best way to avoid being a full-time homemaker or an underappreciated secretary was not to be proficient at either.
As a cook and a speed typist, I was taken aback -- and because I was cooking at the time, I was focused on ingredients, not response. A male friend who happens to be a very good cook stepped in to disagree. The ability to make a meal was not a guarantee of domestic subservience; quite the contrary. The home cook has all the power, because he or she can execute a menu. Home cooks eat what they feel like making, and their family members come along for the gustatory ride.
Any generous cook -- which in the best cases is a redundancy -- extends her reach to master her family's favorites, and as said daughter's week-long visit approaches, I have lined up ingredients for the dishes she looks forward to when she comes home. My friend is right: The ability to cook gives me options that non-cooks don't have, and what is autonomy about, if not having options?
Which brings me to Michael Pollan's excellent article in the New York Times Magazine, "No One Cooks Here Anymore." It may seem at first to be chockablock with bad news -- the slow death of home-cooking, the ascendance of take-out and convenience foods, and the altering of the national mindset to embrace frozen peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in a child's lunchbox, as though slathering a homemade PB and J is too tricky and time-consuming. The food-industrial complex is, it seems, as powerful in its sphere as the military-industrial complex is in the world of tanks and ammunition; a lot of effort has gone into convincing us that cooking at home is a 1950s collectible along with shirtwaist dresses and cars with bench seats and big fins. The post-millennial citizen, the modern individual, would no sooner cook than wear a girdle or sock garters.
And yet here is Michael Pollan, journalist, studier of how and what we eat, passionate guy, suggesting that home-cooked food can cure everything from the obesity epidemic to social alienation. If eating were simply a matter of fuel intake, we could be squeezing purees out of pouches like astronauts in early outer-space movies. But it isn't, as anyone who has a favorite childhood food memory can attest. The ebullient chef Art Smith says that cooking is love, and he makes that pronouncement with a genuine spirit that makes it impossible to be embarrassed by the sentiment. We don't even need the obvious economic argument here: The fiscal benefits of home-cooking aside, it's just hard to contemplate a future that does not involve the wafting of wonderful aromas when you open the front door.
Yes, we are overextended, overstressed, and uncertain about whether, or when, or from where respite is coming. And yes, it seems that Julia Child was displeased by Julie Powell's blog, which she found lacking in seriousness, a sad note in an otherwise delightful bi-generational tale. Because Powell discovered what Michael Pollan would like all of us to consider -- that hidden behind the large-screen, HD production that is corporate easy-food lurks the individual, small-scale joy of food on a plate.
Decades ago, my husband vowed to give up sports television because it struck him that those weekend hours might profitably be spent on something more immediate and more productive. Pollan's comparison of food programming and sports programming feels about as right as a berry cobbler in high summer: What if we cut back a show a week and learned to make a great roast chicken? Honest, it takes 10 minutes to prep and throw into the oven, and you can do other things while it's cooking. You don't have to do what Julie did and cook a cookbook's worth of stuff every night for a year, but you can put a toe in the water and see how good it feels.