October 29, 2011

The Kitchen and the Good Life

It's two days before halloween and I'm sitting in my room at Wesleyan unsure if I should be carving a Jack-O-Lantern or stringing Christmas lights. It has been heavily snowing for four hours and is expected to continue through tomorrow morning. I'm bringing out my snow boots, scarf and hat about two months before I was hoping I would have to. There's a reason no one sings "I'm dreaming of a white Halloween."

But as long as the predicted 8-12 inches has me stuck in the house for the day, you can find me in the kitchen. I love spending long days in the kitchen, taking my time to make a batch of cookies or chopping up the vegetables for dinner.  I like to wait as a pot of soup simmers on the stove and find it relaxing to spend the evening in the kitchen slowly bringing a dinner together. 

But while I feel that way, I know not everyone does. I cannot tell you how many times people have come to me with the following:

I want to eat well and serve myself and my family good meals, but I can't stand being in the kitchen - I just don't like it. I dread the thought of having to cook every night. Cooking stresses me out, and that is that. What do I do? 

While I don't feel the same way about cooking, I sympathize with people who don't like to cook. There are plenty of things I know I should do that I just don't like doing. I know I should go to the gym on a regular basis (and I literally live across the street from my gym this year), but I still often dread the thought of lugging myself over there. I can't stand having to change into my gym clothes and spend an hour pedaling a stationary bicycle and lifting weights.  I get it: just like I don't like going to the gym, some people just don't like to cook. 

I have heard people say in response to this cooking dilemma that if you don't like to cook, don't. Cooking should be about pleasure, they say, and if you can't find pleasure in cooking, there's no point in laboring over a meal in the kitchen. In my opinion, that response falls short. At a time when the loss of home cooking has such serious consequences, saying "I don't like to cook" just doesn't cut it. Cooking at home is about a lot more than the time involved it takes to prepare a meal. 

First, it's about eating healthy food that comes from real ingredients, ingredients that haven't been overly processed, preserved or loaded with artificial ingredients. I'm not saying never to eat a potato chip again or never to pick up the phone and order in a pizza. We all do that. But if we say McDonald's or Pizza Hut is an acceptable dinner choice for families on most nights, we have big problems. We have kids getting sick - really sick - because of the food they eat. We have a few companies controlling our diets and poisoning our food system. We have people totally detached from the food they're eating and the story of how it got to their plate. (On this note, I saw Josh Viertel, the president of Slow Food USA, speak last week. He made the excellent point of noting that if most Americans were informed of the story of how their food got to their plate, they wouldn't be eating all this processed food. Virtually no one's values system lines up with the way we're raising our livestock and crops). And to top it off, we have a method of growing food that is totally and completely unsustainable for the environment in the long run. 

Second, cooking is about being with the people in your life. Home cooking allows people to come together, with your family and friends at home or college or wherever you live. It's about finding a way to connect with your community. We've got a culture where parents don't cook, were never taught to cook as a child, and therefore aren't teaching their children to cook, so they turn to fast food or prepared food for themselves and their families.  Cooking homemade food isn't just about physical health, it's about connecting with people. Learn how to cook and spend time in the kitchen and at the table with the people in your life. 

So if you don't take pleasure in cooking, take pleasure in knowing that you are feeding your children or your family or your friends healthy meals from real food. If you don't take pleasure in being in the kitchen, take pleasure in being with the people you love. To all you who dread the kitchen, I tell you that the kitchen is not a scary place. Cooking is not a special talent. Good food should never be intimidating to prepare. People, all people, should know how to cook. Until the past half century cooking at home from real ingredients was virtually the only way to eat. Because a few decades of prepared food have brought us regrettably far from the kitchen, that doesn't mean we should be ready to abandon it. If anything we need to realize how important it is to get back there.

Don't think of cooking as a chore, think of it as a necessity. If you can find pleasure in it, and I truly think most people can, all the better. If you don't know how to cook, ask someone you know to teach you. Find a simple recipe and try it out. Cooking is important to our lives more than you might think. Don't let Burger King or the frozen aisle take cooking and everything it means away from you. If you give cooking a little effort, it will give you a lot back. 

In the meantime, I'll try to make it to the gym more often. But as long as this snow keeps up, I'm sticking right here where I belong: in the kitchen.