Monday, October 4, 2010

"Most people don't cook"

The title of this blog post was taken from a response to a comment I made to Ken Albala,  the author of "The Lost Art of Real Cooking" and numerous other food and cooking related books. I'd told Ken that I was initially taken aback by the title. I've been cooking since I was a teenager. Most of my closest friends cook all the time, and I spend my days immersed in thinking about and practicing cooking. How can anyone assert that real or -I assume he means- scratch cooking is a lost art?

Well duh, if you want to get sense of how quickly scratch cooking is disappearing from industrial and post-industrial society enter "home meal replacement" into a search engine and you will be quickly disabused of any notion that anything more complicated than thawing and button pushing is happening in most kitchens.

Of course, the title over-reaches: real cooking is not a lost art -not yet anyway. However, reason tells me that unless the world economy and infrastructure collapse, the population of home cooks will continue to shrink while the amount of precooked food consumed will grow apace. The question is, what happens to the hold outs?

Are we looking at a future where job security is taken for granted? Everyone needs to eat, and if most people don't want to cook, well then we will do it for them (for a fee, of course!). But what happens if the processed food industry continues to refine its practices and products to the point where a potential customer for handmade food cannot tell the difference between something that was spit out of a machine and "slow food?"

I preemptively reject the notion that food technologists will never be capable of creating manufactured foods that match the visual and flavor profiles of handmade food. If the market is there, they will eventually find a ways to mimic hand crafted meals. I have no doubt about that.

And if that happens and the market for hand made food shrivels to the point where there is little reason to cook at home and no hope of cooks finding cooking jobs, what happens then?

I suppose what I'm asking has an answer that depends on whether or not "cooking" is an activity that is an expression of a set of autonomous genes that do not require epigenetic, cultural or environmental "triggers" to express cooking "behavior," or if cooking is an activity that is learned, and therefore "erasable" from memory.
I suspect that the answer is an affirmation of the latter and as machine-made food increases in quality and availability, after a couple of generations the practice of cooking will become extinct and the art will exist as data.

Note: I have not read Ken Albala's book yet. So this post should not in any way be construed as a review or criticism of its content. However, if his earlier work is any indication of the quality of future effort, I'll bet it's worth a read through. 


Ken Albala said...

Can't you also imagine a future wherein the taste of such artisinal products is lost? When people mistake industrial rubbery cheese for funky farmhouse, think wonder bread tastes better than a mishappen rustic loaf? Or prefer bud to a hoppy ale? It's not just the memory of cooking and preparing food that is in danger of disappearing, but appreciating foods made by hand that do taste different season to season, place to place. I think industrial standardization and predictability is as much to blame as people not cooking.

Jessika said...

Looking at it from the perspective of having friends that are becoming specialists in charcuterie, breads, jams & jellies, and making new careers out of it; I'm not sure what is lost. At the one end fast food has been winning terrain, on the other side there's a counter reaction and a return to making foods from scratch, and the whole nose-to-tail thing.

I watched a tv-show where the participants were "living" in the UK of the 1940s. Talk about making food from scratch. Not a single shortcut to make when cooking. In so far, women saw the arrival of canned and deep frozen pre-prepared foods as a gift.

Books, and news paper articles, seem to return to nostalgia. Things are easier with the availability of "short cuts". I wonder how the thought of lost vs. won is tabulated. I'm not a fan of fast foods (as in McDonalds or whatever). I enjoy cooking, I take pleasure in it. A close relative of mine doesn't, can't see the value of it. I'm not going to judge, we prioritise differently.

We also live in a time where access to (good) food is dependant on money. Why cook if ingredients are more expensive then fast food?

Bob del Grosso said...

I agree. If people forget or are conditioned to not appreciate what "real" food tastes like they are not likely to seek it. I see this all the time. Someone I know prefers Breakstone cottage cheese to the butterfat laden stuff I get from an Amish farmer. The two products are so different, one bland, sour and pallid, the other crisp, sweet, in every measure superior, but this person does not like it. I would cite numerous examples of the same sort of thing if I knew it would not result in my kicking a hole in the side of my desk.

Bob del Grosso said...

I think I inhabit the same cultural space as you and your friends and I like it. I like it a lot. But I don't see that space getting much bigger than it already is. Rather, I see it taking on the appearance of a subculture that will never become mainstream. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I'm sure it's true.

Zalbar said...

While I do not doubt that the conglomerate food industry could produce food that tastes the same as slow food, I do not think that they can possibly do it because of their own greed. There is simply no way that they can do it for the price point and profit margin they are seeking.

I would challenge anyone to try and find a commercial bacon that would rival my own home cured pork belly.

I also disagree that cooking is an art. While there are some things that can be construed as artistic, cooking as a whole is a something anyone can learn to do, and do well.

I also think it is the duty of all of us that can and do cook to pass on our knowledge as frequently as possible to those that are receptive to it.

Are we, the people that cook their own food, becoming a sub-culture instead of the norm? That's quite an interesting notion, and something worth thinking about, especially given how fast it has gone from home made pot pie to Con-Agra IQF microwaveable chicken pie.

Tags said...

We live in a time when many people feel comfortable making a box cake for a bake sale and labeling it "homemade." The conglomerati leverage this mentality and monitor the artisan community for trends and buzzwords to commandeer.

Just as a mad scientist would observe living humans before building a zombie, so these profiteers keep tabs on the vibrant food populace and usurp their vocabulary in order to apply a veneer of spectacle to the soulless corpse of their "cuisine."

Scotty said...

I don't disagree with your basic thesis, but there are glimmers of hope. Wegman's, based in my birthplace (I believe there are some near you), has expanded its offerings of imported cheeses, local (to here)charcuterie. They have rearranged there store to massively expand their beer selections. Wegman's doesn't do things without major market research.

The Sausage Maker, which you know of I'm sure, is doubling its showroom, expanding into cheesemaking, winemaking and pickling supplies.

There must be interest in doing things the right way.

Scotty said...

That was their, not there. My bad.

irene said...

i find getting the ingredients to cook from scratch becoming increasing rare - thereby making it hard to make one's own "real" food even if one wants to. case in hand, yesterday i fancied turkey mole.....i have the mole ingredients at hand in pantry and garden, but was simply unable to find turkey that did not have an added "solution" - if defined (not always) turkey stock, salt and sugar. now that sounds like brining which i do, but i want to control the salt and sugar myself and who knows what went into the so called stock. it is discouraging

Bob del Grosso said...

I appreciate your optimism, but when Wegmans sells charcuterie (local or not) they are not exactly doing anything to encourage their customers to cook. Likewise, selling beer does little to promote home brewing. BYW, I like Wegman's a lot and I am THRILLED by their beer department.

Bob del Grosso said...

Those injected turkeys are definitely brined with brines that taste horrible. If the manufacturers used a simple salt, sugar and water brine, they'd be all right but apparently that's not good enough for them.

Scotty said...

Not optimism, Bob, but a glimmer of hope. I find it hard to think of people who buy these things, let alone choose to make their own stuff, not thinking about cooking too.

I was in a pickle-off last night, and most of the questions were to those of us who naturally fermented (though my winner was the one that wasn't). There are people who are thinking of cooking and not on the advice of our likely future First Lady in New York.

It's about education I think.

Bob del Grosso said...

After the Singularity, this conversation will be moot. Food will be something completely different from what we think it is. Enjoy it while it lasts because, it s not going to be around after 2045!

Scotty said...

And the snozzberries on the wallpaper will taste like snozzberries!

Gravity said...

I guess I hang with a significantly different crowd than you. Most of my friends are either dual income households or single parents who work long hours and have to deal with their children's extracurricular activities (and their own) AND feed them. Further complicating things, many of them come from families that were in the same boat, so they never learned anything else.

My mother hated cooking, so we ate a lot of convenience foods and inexpensive takeout. We were also fairly broke, so we used grocery store generic ingredients when she did cook (and grocery generic convenience foods when she didn't.) This is what I grew up knowing how to do.

My paradigm got shifted when I met my husband. He introduced me to higher-quality ingredients and fresh vegetables instead of frozen or canned. It took me time to adjust to them...peas tasted strange, green beans stranger, and spinach... fresh spinach is a far different creature than canned. I didn't have to drown veggies in butter or vinegar to make them palatable. And I learned how to prepare them.

I love to cook, we belong to a community-sponsored agriculture program, and I'm a big label-reader (thanks in part to my cow's milk allergy.) This was learned behavior from living with a knowledgeable and patient cook, and made possible by a higher household income than I grew up with. One home ec class that a kid might or might not take in school (and will likely half-ass) does not substitute for this, and a lot of people from ALL income groups have learned the convenience food route instead of the slow food route.

Jeff said...

I do not think we are in danger of loosing the craft of real cooking. It is not that hard and it is very well documented. If we all dropped dead today the space aliens could teach themselves to cook very easily by reading our books and web sites and watching food network.

My concern is for the availability of real ingredients. As more and more of us go the way of Sandra Lee, or worse Micky D's, the grocery stores have less incentive to stock real food.

I made two stops last night looking for mung bean sprouts. At stop number two I decided to decline the offered cup and a half of wilted sprouts in a clam shell box for $3!

Once they where unavailable, then they where ubiquitous and cheep now they seem to becoming a specialty item again. If there is no market for stuff it just goes away.