We’re Cookin’ Now…and Most of the Time, Actually

Thoughtful food journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books, is out with a new one called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it, he admits with typical modesty that he doesn’t really know what he’s about — but he dives in anyway, examining the basic techniques people use to convert raw food into meals that are safe, palatable, enticing, and/or comforting. (Here’s a brief and revealing interview with Mr. Pollan. Click on the media player and listen to the whole 6:19.)

To tackle such a huge subject, Mr. Pollan uses the ancient scientific framework of the four elements: fire (broiling, grilling), water (boiling, etc.), air (baking) and yes, earth (fermentation, fungi, and such — think sauerkraut and kimchi).

This method of breaking down the breaking down of food’s molecules intrigues me because, against all odds, I love to cook. It approaches a need.

Me in one of my favorite roles. That's my bride in the foreground, sampling some appetizer we made.

Me in one of my favorite roles. That’s my bride in the foreground, sampling some appetizer we made.

I say against all odds because not many people do this anymore, at least not according to the social data-gatherers. In one interview, Mr. Pollan cites a survey that says home cooking — something more than microwaving a frozen meal — is down something like 77 percent over the last two decades. But foodie-outlier that I am, I choose to buck the trend. Here’s why:

  • I like good food. So does my family. The industrial food movement (of which Mr. Pollan has fomented a healthy suspicion over the years) has mastered a couple key functions, shelf stability perhaps being the chief success. But for freshness, taste, and very often prime nutritional value, nothing beats a homemade meal.
  • Cooking is a perfect wind-down. Chopping onions and browning chicken breasts isn’t mindless. But it’s different enough from promoting premium golf clubs to draw a nice dividing line between the work day and the evening. And if, because of grander culinary plans, I have to get going in the kitchen earlier and tack on some evening work time afterwards, it’s always worth it. Playing music and drinking a little wine while assembling shish-ka-babs and seasoning rice pilaf simply enrich the experience.
  • I’m good at it. I make the occasional mistake, and an experiment falls on its doughy face from time to time. But most of the time, I rock in the kitchen. Years of experience have made me pretty confident. I like the fact that I can survey an open refrigerator, pluck out what’s available, and manufacture a tasty, nutritious three-course meal (protein, starch, vegetable) without too much trouble or delay. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh fruit for dessert too.
  • The rapid rewards of accomplishment. Daily work in a business corporation –even a small one — involves moving things to their successful conclusion in steps. Projects require cooperation, and time. I push several boulders up several hills. The results may be invisible beyond any number of ridges. Similarly, as a parent, seeds that I plant by declaration or demonstration may take years to bear fruit. But with cooking, laudable results (and gratification) come the same day, sometimes in the same hour in which I began. Yet the effort is a recent enough memory to make me feel as if I’ve earned something.
  • It’s a daily way to show my family how much I love them. I very much want to do a good job for them. They deserve it. The repay me with appreciation and constructive criticism, which I definitely employ the next time. I set the table (or ask one of them to do it); I pay attention to presentation and how it increases enjoyment; I encourage them to try new things and comment. I promote the enjoyment of eating together.
  • Corollary to the daily way above: Academic breakfast. I firmly believe that if I make Joseph a satisfying, nutritious breakfast, he will do better at school. I have a repertoire of simple but subtsantial dishes I can whip up for him in minutes. Each exceeds the bald, just-pour-it barrenness of cereal and juice. Example: scrambled eggs and shredded cheese wrapped with tomatoes in a warmed flour tortilla, served with a cup of salsa and side of sliced strawberries. Yogurt too, or chocolate milk made with Ovaltine.
  • It gets us all together. I have heard all about the death of the family dinner. Not in my house. I refuse. My memory of family dinners with my parents and brothers and grandmother is too valuable. I’ll never be in so much of a hurry that I can’t make that happen — with the occasional exception for school play rehearsals, etc. Even when Joseph has honors band rehearsal Wednesdays at 6, I just back up the schedule so we can eat at 5.
  • Going out back and cutting fresh basil from our own plant makes me feel like a badass chef. Uh-huh. Sage, stevia, chives and mint, too.
  • I love this exchange. TERESA [coming in from garage after a client visit]: Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Fresh rosemary, garlic, your mother’s canned tomatoes, and ground veal. JOSEPH: [coming in from school]; Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Everyone just be ready by 6.

I could go on and on, but I have something simmering in the slow cooker….♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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