Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cooking Semantics

Kevin Drum, in response to the Pollan article (mentioned below), wonders whether what he does to feed himself when his wife is away counts as cooking:
1. Place a piece of salmon in a baking ban.

2. Put the baking pan in the oven.

3. Take it out after a while and eat it.

It certainly doesn't sound like the most exciting meal to me... baked plain salmon... not even a little lemon or dill, Kevin? But I would call it cooking.

The food marketing researcher in the article, however, would not:
Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.


“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

While he doesn't say so, Slow Fooders like Pollan do know people who kill and clean chickens they've raised... but however much the rage urban poultry farming may be in hip Brooklyn neighborhoods, it's clearly not causing too many average American families to put a chicken coop in their backyard. And that's sort of the point... while chicken raising isn't for many people, we'd be in a much better place if it wasn't considered "crazy". Moving from all day chicken preparation to a five minute microwaved chicken patty has not been a particularly healthy development for our society.

That, however, is a bit of a strawman. It's pretty easy to bash microwave dinners, as I'm not aware of too many people who especially love them... but it seems to me that his criticism goes significantly deeper than that. Knowing his other work, he's not interested in the nutritional merits of Lean Cuisine vs. Trader Joes or McDonald's vs. Wagamama but is instead indicting the whole enterprise of convenient food. In my interpretation, that's everything from a McDonald's Extra Value Meal to a frozen pizza to a $100 dinner at a chichi restaurant made from grass fed beef and locally grown vegetables. Obviously it's fast food that's linked most strongly to obesity, and you're probably not getting a 2000 calorie appetizer with that $100 dinner... but the case against quick food is a fairly strong one in my opinion. The general idea being that the food that is the worst for us would be difficult or impossible for a home cook to prepare... or at least be such a PITA that it would rarely be done. Industrialized food has done the opposite, in making terrible food both cheap and quick to make. Thus, in a purely economic sense, fancy restaurant eating is going to be better for you... regardless of nutrition... since it's so much more expensive to outsource the food growing, preparation, and cooking in this instance, it seems it will be a rare event for most... like a gut busting holiday feast. However, the safest thing to do to ensure a healthy diet is to involve yourself in as much of the the food cycle as possible. It's worked pretty well that way for thousands of years... up to the last 50 at any rate.

So, to get back to Kevin's question, the "realest" cooking is taking it from seed to plate... with the Barbara Kingsolver method as the platonic ideal. That's not a workable lifestyle for many people other than Barbara Kingsolver and her family, but anybody with a backyard(not me) can grow vegetables. And yes, I'd consider growing all the parts of a salad and throwing them together with a homemade vinaigrette to be very real cooking, even if it's not complex at the preparation stage.

photo by flickr user xmascarol used under a Creative Commons license