The Joy of Cooking

I canned my own tomatoes last summer.

I had been thinking about doing it for a while, partly because of my worry over the use of toxic BPA in can linings, and partly because of my greediness looking at the piles of tomatoes I saw at the farm stands around my house. One day I went to one of them to buy some corn and saw the farmer was selling bushel baskets of canning tomatoes for $12. I couldn't resist.

I brought the tomatoes home, set up a pot of boiling water, and dunked them in for a minute to peel them. I took the peeled tomatoes and stuffed them into clean pint-sized glass jars that I'd sterilized in the dishwasher. I put on those wax-seal lids and screwed on the metal rings and sat them in a big pot of boiling water to "process" them. I took them out and let them rest on a kitchen towel and heard the "ping" as the seals contracted and the jars became airtight. They glowed, like rubies. So pretty.

It was the best thing I'd ever done in the kitchen, really. I ate those tomatoes all winter, opening up the jars and swooning with amazement each time at how tomato-ey they seemed, fresh and bright and sunny. They were beautiful to look at, stacked up on the shelf. I felt like I had accomplished something.

I also knew how ridiculous it was, on another level, that a single mother with books to write and classes to teach and a house to clean and a kid to be raised and bills to be paid and a life to be lived was spending her time doing something that women like me (women whose primary occupation was something other than household management) had long turned over to other people or companies to do, and reasonably so: there are so many hours in a day, and we all make those trade offs. Wouldn't my energy be better spent banging out a page or two of manuscript? Shouldn't I be going on a bike ride with my child?

It was rewarding, and I'll totally do it again, but part of my ambivalence was knowing that I was participating (willingly, happily) in a trend about which I have some real reservations: whether you call it the new domesticity, urban homesteading, hipstartisanalism (okay I just made that one up), or some sort of amped-up locavore, grow-your-own, everything-from-scratch, eat-like-your-grandmother food culture à la Michael Pollan, it's a trend that wants us to place food at the center of our world. It wants us to *return*, in some sense, to a mythical past when we were connected to our bodies, and when our bodies were connected to the earth, in some more vital way than they are now. It wants us to get to know -- and love -- our pigs before we butcher them, it wants us to grow vegetables instead of grass, it wants us at the very least to make sure that everything we eat is a product of our own efforts and not something we buy off the shelves for the profit of Big Food.

There is much of this discourse that I embrace: food is political, especially in the age of uneven distribution of resources. When half the world goes hungry because the other half is letting food rot in their refrigerator crispers and when the rain forests are being cut down to make room for our next hamburgers, how could it not be so? Progressives have been saying this for generations: the Whole Earth Catalogue and Adele Davis and Diet for a Small Planet were the logical culinary consequences of countercultural activism in the 1960s, which saw economic justice and environmental concerns and feminism and political emancipation as part of a network of interdependent concerns that all ended up on our plates.

But while that moment in the 1960s produced a whole interlocking set of ideas about how to free ourselves from the weight of a culture, an economic system, and a political framework which kept us bound -- not just canning our own tomatoes but living collectively, not just growing our own food but sharing in a meaningful way the responsibilities of raising citizens, not just eating locally but investing in our communities, not just eating well but making sure that everyone, everywhere can eat well -- our new moment in foodie culture seems to place responsibility on the individual at the expense of (at worst) or without regard to (at best) the collective. The problem has been framed by Pollan et. al as a matter of choice: choose better foods, choose to eat cleanly, choose to re-forge social connections that have been lost in our abandonment of the kitchen table and you will be rewarded with a healthier self and a healthier planet. He's not wrong, of course.

But the idea that our choices as consumers and preparers of food are a matter of personal responsibility places a heavy burden, especially, on women, who still do most of the food purchasing and preparation in American homes, and as some commentators have shown recently, Pollan is especially problematic here: the blame he places on women in general, and feminists in particular, for our current food "crisis" (a broken food system, obesity and type 2 diabetes, environmental consequences of poor land husbandry, etc.) is breathtaking at times. "[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen," he writes in An Omnivore's Dilemma, as if it were the feminists who were advocating Hungry Man TV dinners instead of kick-starting the natural foods movements back in the day. Did feminists imagine cooking as drudgery? Well, they imagined it as work, unacknowledged and unpaid work that women were expected to do as part of their duties as caretakers of the nuclear family. Feminists weren't anti-cooking, they were anti-unpaid labor; when Pollan and his sort say they want us to experience cooking as pure joy again, as pleasure, as part of the social fabric of our lives, do we risk forgetting that it's work, and forgetting who, for the most part, is doing that work?

When I read in this week's New York Times a feature on Michael Pollan and Michael Moss (the latter is a NYT contributor and Pulitzer-prize winning author of Salt Sugar Fat, on the workings of the corporate food industries), it was this call to joy that stuck in my craw. The two were asked by the newspaper to go to a supermarket near Moss's home in Brooklyn and shop for ingredients for a lunch they would prepare together. No fancy, organic, artisanal, or otherwise hard-to-find items, they were told. Just regular stuff found on your average grocery store shelf. They shopped, they cooked, they talked. They mocked the idea that cooking is a hardship: "'By the way, what are we engaged in now?' Mr. Pollan deadpanned, as he tended to the pot. 'This supposedly impossible drudgery that is just soul-crushing?'" They explained that the biggest factor in the way Americans eat is that they just don't have the right attitude, that cooking hasn't been "sold" to them in the right way: "'The problem with cooking is that we’ve denigrated it,' Mr. Pollan said. 'There’s just a cultural problem of persuading people it’s a valuable way to spend their time.' Mr. Moss agreed. 'Just imagine what Madison Avenue could do if they wanted to sell home cooking,' he said." The meal took over an hour to prepare, and the Times did not note the total cost of ingredients.

I take joy in cooking. I love to shop for food and go to grocery stores when I travel just for fun, I love to grow things in my garden, I love to page through cookbooks, I love to putter in the kitchen, I love to chop onions, I love the smell of heating olive oil in the pan and the sizzle as the mirepoix goes in, I love my box of spices and my canisters of grains and beans and rices, I love playing a game with myself of seeing what I have on hand and coming up with something inventive to make with it, I love figuring out how to add vegetables to my daughter's favorite things, I love my pots and pans, I love the smells and feels of things, I love everything about it. I even love the cleaning. (Okay, not really.) And I want everyone to experience the pleasure I feel; that's at least part of the reason I write this blog. But I've never had to struggle to buy food. I've never had to make do with what I found at a poorly-stocked inner city supermarket, or worse lived in a neighborhood where supermarkets are few and far between. I've never had to go from a day shift to a night shift and get food on the table for my family in between. Hell, I've never even had to juggle multiple children's soccer, piano, lacrosse, Chinese language, and playdate schedules. So beyond the fact that I grew up with parents who cooked, beyond the fact that I've been able to eat at restaurants who treated food with reverence, beyond the fact that I've actively participated in food culture since I was a kid, the main reason cooking is a joy for me is because I haven't had to struggle to do it. And those days or weeks or months where I do -- well, guess what. Not so joyful.

A Facebook friend put it succinctly, in a delicious rant worth reproducing here: "Listen, I'm a trained chef and I know my way around the most local of local grocery stores that carry junky mass-produced 'foods' that are the default for working people everywhere. I am an inveterate label-reader and I am somewhat of a food-nazi when all is said and done. I think we should all cook at home and do it with pleasure, but to be told I am somehow at fault for having days (and even years when I was raising my family while working two jobs) when I don't give a fuck about the desire to feed my family according to some pre-ordained ritual of cooking as haven? SRSLY? They can stick their chopped onion meditations and yeast-raised pizza dough up their white knight asses."

My feelings exactly.

That Cream of Mushroom Soup Casserole That Your Mom Probably Made At Least Once in Your Childhood
Serves 4

A slightly souped-up version. (See what I did there?)

1. In a deep skillet with a lid, heat 2 tsp olive oil over medium-high heat. Sprinkle 1-1/4 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts with paprika, black pepper, and salt. Brown chicken breasts in the oil, a couple of minutes each side. Remove to a plate.

2. To the pan, add 1/2 large onion, 2 large celery stalks, and 2 carrots, chopped into a medium dice. When slightly softened, add 1 c long-grain white rice and stir to coat. To the pan, add 1 can Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup mixed with 1-1/2 c water. Stir.

3. Place chicken breasts on top of rice, turn heat to medium-low, and cover. Allow mixture to simmer lazily for about 30-35 minutes, until rice is tender and chicken is cooked through.


Sheila Cameron said…
Love this post. Living where I do, I have the added pressure of people telling me how easy it is to grow a vegetable garden and LOVE it. I love vegetable gardens. I love fresh vegetables. I am not a farmer. It is hard labor and I would rather spend my money supporting people who really do like it. Glad I found your blog and met you btw!
Anonymous said…
Hooray. You echo my sentiments exactly. Thank you for this rant.
-Ellen (Friend of Steven)
Sheila: Glad you found me, too! I love gardening, but the fact is I'm not very good at it -- I get 5 beautiful tomatoes, and they're genuinely beautiful, but c'mon -- only 5?! I'm lucky to live in the country with lots of small organic farms, and I'm happy to support them.

Ellen: you're welcome! Nice to meet you -- somehow I feel the world is only a few degrees of separation from Steven. ;-)
Unknown said…
OMG, this is a fancier version of meals my mom (and usually dad when she was too sick to cook) made for us growing up! We didn't brown the chicken, and we didn't add fresh veggies. Just the Campbell's Soup, Uncle Ben's rice, and some (usually frozen) chicken thighs... Amazing how far and wide such a dish can travel... Thanks for your post--lots to think about here!
Pamela, it's basically a slightly embellished version of the one Campbell's puts on their soup cans. My mom always used to add onions, and I added the carrots and celery just because I always do.
Minu Mathew said…
I love this post.Just what I wanted to shout aloud! Agree with your sentiments. I have always wondered about the need to grow turf grass at the cost of creating biological deserts.
chawla said…
Thanks for writing this. I am quite sick and tired of this food movement. I just saw Michael Pollon on Charlie Rose and his romanticization of cooking--"we must cook"--seemed so bizzare to me. I think of my mother who has spent most of her life cooking in then house (with or without help) and if I showed her Pollon's interview she would laugh. She'd rather not cook anymore. This food movement is repressive.
nandia said…
I simply loved your post - I had recently read Emily Matchar's text which found me in complete agreement, too. It's shocking to contemplate how many times I have felt guilty for not preparing an imaginative, different course every day for my family, or how I sometimes make omelettes and toasts for my son (and then feel guilty about it). I tried to buy organic ever since he was a baby, but since I had to go to a specific supermarket not very close by, this determination deteriorated after the first or second year of his life. Again, thank you very much for this and for trying to raise awareness about the political dimension of food.
Thank you, Minu and Chawla. And Nandia -- yes, it really is a question of guilt, isn't it? We scare ourselves into thinking that we're bad parents if xyz doesn't happen, instead of questioning the system itself.
Orli Eidi said…
Well said, thank you!
Anonymous said…
Thank you writing this! It seems to me that the status of cooking within the framework of foodie-ism is raised only because some men made cooking important. How ridiculous it is that Pollan and Moss turn around and say, "You silly people (women mainly), how can you NOT see how wonderful this is?!". When men cook, they're usually paid (as chefs) or their domestic cooking is exalted (they cook for special occasions where everyone in the family MUST sit at the dinner table to eat and say how wonderful dad's cooking is). BTW, the latter case is from my own experience - my dad cooks only on Sunday mornings when he has the "time". My stepmother, on the other hand, does the cooking on other days but whenever she cooks, it's not treated as anything too special. She works full-time too of course.