Thursday, June 3, 2010

How hard is cooking?

There was an interesting discussion started over at Yglesias's place by guest blogger Jamelle Bouie, and continued by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon... regarding a study showing that the more expensive the grocery store is, the skinnier the shopper (Whole Foods 4% obesity vs. Albertsons 38% obesity). And while it's important to note that this is only a study of Seattle area stores, and that Washington State's obesity rate is 24.5% when interpreting those findings... I'm not as concerned about the specifics of the study as I am about one particular idea advanced in these bloggers commentary on it. That is, that one of the reasons access to fresh produce and good ingredients (that every grocery store has) doesn't seem to be enough to combat obesity... is that "cooking is hard."

I think there are two aspects to the question of whether cooking is hard... 1) technical proficiency and learned knowledge required, and 2) the time and/or money commitment necessary to serve a dish. Many people want to make a big deal about the first point... that if you don't grow up in a household that cooks, and never learn how to use anything in the kitchen other than a microwave, it's very hard to know where to start... and thus getting in there and cooking can be very intimidating. As someone who has started to learn to cook, later in life, from virtually no kitchen knowledge... I know this to be true. There's a lot to learn... and, in fact, even though I've been working pretty hard at this for like 5 years now, I still find that I'm always learning new things that cookbook authors and experienced cooks just take for granted. I made some pretty egregious errors in a dish just this past weekend, so I'm not likely to underestimate how difficult cooking can be. Selecting the wrong cut of meat, or substituting the wrong ingredient can lead to a pretty disappointing meal... and knowing when you can and can't worry about such things takes a lot of cooking experience and knowledge. Knowledge that I, even after trying pretty hard these last few years, haven't really developed.

However... and this is a big however... we're not talking about the technical skills and repetition it takes to be able to fix a broken hollandaise while you're in the weeds as a line cook on a Friday night... we're not even talking about the technical skills of an excellent home cook who can amaze their friends at every dinner party and make going out to eat seem a waste of money... we're just talking about cooking food good enough to beat out McDonald's or a microwave dinner. I just don't believe this is very hard in any technical sense. People like Mark Bittman and Rachel Ray have careers oriented around simple and easy ways to make good meals... and there are things like slow cooker recipes that are not very far from just dumping things in and then turning it on. I'm pretty sure even I could have handled that in my burrito filled twenties.

Cooking is hard, though, in the time it takes to pick out recipes for a week of meals, and the time it takes in a crowded grocery store to get everything you need... and what if they don't have something? Do you substitute an item unsure of how it will effect the dish, or go to another store, or do you have another recipe for backup? Even a "thirty minute recipe" with only rough chopping of ingredients is going to take fifteen minutes more (at least) of prep time if you don't know your way around the kitchen... and that's thirty minutes more than it takes to stop at a fast food joint on the way home from work.

In addition, from a dollars/calorie perspective, you'd be quite hard pressed to put together a meal on the fly that was less expensive than your standard fast food Combo Meal. Certainly it can be done, and the more people you're feeding the easier it is, but it still requires significantly more time (looking through supermarket circulars for sales) and cooking expertise (being able to look at items on sale and figure out how to feed your family with those disparate parts). Indeed, as a person who first chooses what they want to make, and then gets everything they need with little regard to price... I've often found myself shocked, when the groceries are rung up, at how expensive cooking can be... and not in just a foodie or gourmet sense, but simply that meat and cheese are expensive... certainly more expensive per serving than some microwave dinner with FSM knows how much actual real food in it. In addition, things you buy will go bad and be wasted, since recipes seldom call for the same quantities sold at the store... so somebody on a budget has to figure out how to use those leftover items well... which is not something that comes naturally to me, and I suspect to many others.

So I guess what it all comes down to is that cooking has to be something that you enjoy for it to be worth all that time and effort. Just saying "it's better for you" is never going to be enough to convince somebody to cook. It's why I think things like getting kids in gardens and having them help cook the bounty, is more important than most people realize... you've got to get them to see cooking as a fun social activity that is more enriching than simply putting good tasting food on the table.