Too Busy to Cook: The Dismantling of a Culture

What is it that keeps the averagefrom getting into the kitchen and cooking with some degree of care and thoughtfulness whenever we choose to eat at home?
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I didn't make it to the 2010 IACP Conference this year, although I really did want to go. For one thing, the International Association of Culinary Professionals was holding their annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, a city I've never visited. On the other hand, I wanted to attend because the shallow end of my personality loves a good culinary smackdown, and the annual IACP meeting is notoriously filthy with them.

As my colleagues and friends started to drift back to their homes and computers, I began hearing the tales: This food star seemed a little bit tipsy. That food star seemed a little bit angry. The editors in attendance -- who are invariably set upon like flypaper in a room full of moths (I know; I've been in that position) -- were cranky. Maybe there was just too much coffee involved. After all, we are talking about Portland.

But one of my friends said "you really should have seen the Michael Ruhlman/Karen Page fight" which, apparently, was good enough to be immediately dumped onto YouTube, mostly because Ruhlman, who has the best hair in the food business, told his co-panelist that being too busy to cook was simply b**s**t. And that caught my attention, as did Ruhlman's earlier comments on the panel:

"Food editors, food tv programmers...have gone way overboard [in that everything] has to be fast, that it's got to be quick, that it's got to use only three ingredients...and that's the wrong message to send...We've got to let people know that it's okay to spend an hour in the kitchen...It may be fundamental to our humanity that we take an hour and spend it with our family, cooking a meal..."

Extreme? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that that fateful day more than half a century ago, when rice became instant, macaroni showed up in a box along with an envelope containing a weird, powdery, unidentifiable orange industrial dreck, and fried chicken came frozen in a little foil tray and served with something that for years has been known as "that apple thing," our culture started to go downhill with a bullet. This is not rocket science.

By the time I come home every night, it's nearly 8:00 pm. This is not ideal, I am in no way proud of it, it exhausts me to the bone, but it is what it is. My weeknight meals have included tarragon-stuffed roast chicken (preheat oven to 425, salt and pepper the bird, slip garlic under the skin, fill cavity with tarragon; that takes maybe five minutes. Pop bird in oven, twenty minutes breast side up, twenty minutes breast side down, twenty minutes breast side up, remove from oven, let stand for five minutes, and then eat. What do I do while it's roasting? Laundry. Go through mail. Walk the dog. Call my mother. Pour myself a glass of wine.); mussels cooked in white wine, garlic, a little tomato, and a handful of herbs (10 minutes, start to finish); roasted tofu with soba noodles and vegetables (again, 10 minutes; the tofu roasts while the soba water boils and the vegetables cook). Am I and the way I live an anomaly? Possibly.

What is it, then, that keeps the average Us from getting into the kitchen and cooking with some degree of care and thoughtfulness whenever we choose to eat at home? What is it that causes us to want it faster, quicker, easier, and in three steps or less? Is it our ingrained cultural tendency towards competition, speed, and shortcut? Or is it just misplaced energy? After all, how many of us spend hours every evening watching television when at least one of them can be used for preparing a simple meal from scratch?

Michael Ruhlman's comment at IACP that cooking is fundamental to our humanity was neither hyperbole nor extremist. Because the minute that a culture stops cooking for itself and ceases the basic act of nurturing, it starves. And every time we choose the quick-n-simple, pre-fabricated, synthetic, just-add-water route, we're one step closer to hunger, regardless of how much food comes out of the oven.