Thursday, May 26, 2011

TV Cooking/Home Cooking

A while back I found this really great Michael Pollan essay about cooking shows. It's pretty long, but basically he makes a point about how incredibly odd it is that people are cooking less and less, yet they are watching more and more food and cooking shows. Pollan suggests that this infatuation stems from a conflict between a general fear of cooking (e.g., the unknown) and a general love of food. Cooking shows allow people to become familiar with cooking from a safe distance and zero chance of failure. A great analogy Pollan gave was that cooking shows are like sporting matches: A lot of people watch them, but few actually do it themselves.

I never really understood cooking shows. When I was little, before the Internet was as far-reaching as it is today, I didn't know how people could possibly keep up with the likes of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. Why would people watch these cooking shows if they can't make the food? Now, with the Internet, they can preview the show and pick out their favorite recipes online, so it makes a little more sense.

But then we get to cooking competition shows. I can't taste the foods they're making, so how do I know if it's any good?! This was the question I always asked with these shows. Other competition shows, like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and Project Runway have results that I can see and hear, so I know if the winner is actually good or not. And yes, presentation is important (and so I can get down with cake decorating and other art-based food competitions), but bottom line is that it can look horrible and actually be pretty tasty, or it can look beautiful and taste like plastic.

Last summer, a couple of my friends were really into Top Chef, so we got together each week to watch it and have dinner. I didn't really care that much about the show (Most of the good parts were the bits of "drama" between the contestants), but I liked that we'd each take turns cooking dinner and eating together before the show. Since then, our group shifted and merged into another group and now we do Movie Night instead. Each week we watch two movies that are related somehow and make a dinner that fits with the week's theme (i.e., The Hunt for Red October, Red Dawn, and Russian cuisine). It's pretty fun and forces us to get creative sometimes and try making new things, like syrniki.

However, Pollan fears that actual, legitimate cooking may be lost forever. With the far-reaching availability of pre-packaged, processed, and fully-cooked "food," who needs to cook anymore? Further, who even knows how to cook? Does heating up a can of soup or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich count? It shouldn't, but it does.

Young adults like me learned very little about cooking from their parents. I can work my way around the kitchen, but I can guarantee you that I was offered nowhere near the same expertise from my mother that she had from her mother. My mom gave me a few favorite family recipes and showed me the basics for cooking, but most of what I cook now I learned from the Internet, cookbooks, other cooks, or from having the courage to try something new.

My husband is the same way, though he doesn't have quite as much enthusiasm for trying new things as I do. His father doesn't know how to cook anything more than making a sandwich or heating up leftovers in the microwave. I've often wondered what he ate for the ten years that he lived alone before he met his wife, but I'm too shy to ask. Or I'm afraid to hear the answer. But anyway, as a result of my father-in-law's complete and utter lack of cooking knowledge, my mother-in-law forced my husband and his brother to learn how to cook, though I think his little brother may have gotten off a little easier because I'm not sure I've actually seen him cook real food on his own, but I could be wrong.

So I guess we're two people that give a sliver of hope to future cooks, but I know way too many people that rely heavily on pre-packaged, processed food that requires little more than water and heat. The sad thing is that their kids won't know the difference because no one's mom or dad will actually cook from scratch. Hell, they might even think boxed cake mix is cooking from scratch, rather than just buying a pre-made one from the store. What's even worse is the stigma associated with cooking from scratch. It seems to be fading somewhat, but there was definitely a time in my life where it was kind of uncool to have your parents cook from scratch. When you had a birthday, you wanted Pizza Hut and store-bought cake for your party, not a homemade three-course meal with Grandma's red velvet cake. You wanted to go to McDonald's for dinner, not Mom's goulash. Homemade food seemed so...simple. If you could afford the luxury of already prepared food, why should you bother cooking? You could have your food now, instead of having to go to the trouble of making it over the next hour.

Pollan's advice is simple: Cook more. Eat whatever you want, as long as you cook it yourself. When you do, it's fresher, healthier, and hopefully tastier (though who knows what your cooking capabilities are). It's also cheaper and, if you shop wisely, better for your local economy and the environment. So that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not perfect, but I'm getting better.

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