How to Cook, Not How to Eat

In Michael Pollan’s recent NYT magazine cover story, “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” he writes about the TV/food continuum that started with Julia Child and now includes at least one network devoted to Food and a slew of other food and cooking shows.

Pollan makes the distinction that Julia Child was about taking the fear out of cooking and teaching people HOW to cook, where today’s shows like Top Chef are less about day-to-day cooking skills and more about a high level of technical skill. Today’s TV chefs are fun to watch, but Pollan claims they may actually discourage people from cooking, as what they’re doing is impractical or impossible for a home cook (molecular gastronomy, anyone?)

Pollan acknowledges that the shows do seem to give audiences a familiarity with ingredients formerly reserved for chefs and specialty stores. He claims this makes people better restaurant patrons. I feel instead it makes me a more educated cook. I also think he overstates the case about how disparate the shows are from reality, too.

But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen – or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth.

Really, Mr. Pollan? How long has it been since you’ve cooked for children, especially small ones? Almost every day, I start to prepare the family supper, my kids wander in, telling me how hungry they are in plaintive voices. I offer several suggestions; most are rejected. My preparation is usually interrupted for a negotiation while I try to figure out what will placate them, not spoil their dinner and is reasonably healthful. Even if I get initial buy in, what I produce is often rejected. So yes, I am quite familiar with having to prepare small plates, sometimes involving string cheese, for sadistic consumers while trying to do other cooking activities in a short amount of time.

In fact, here’s a Top Chef Quickfire challenge idea, Bravo: have the chefs prepare a family dinner while also feeding a hungry, whiny 3yo, while also keeping the kid safe in the kitchen.

Back to Pollan’s article, though. He finds that cooking and weight are inversely related. The more one cooks, the less one weighs and vice versa. He acknowledges that different households have different families–single parent and double working parent homes are going to have less time, energy and inclination to cook. He doesn’t, though, offer good solutions for this.

There’s where Mark Bittman is a busy person’s friend. Bittman offers great ideas for seasonal food cooked simply on his blog, Bitten, as well as in his book, Food Matters. His recent article of “101 Salads for the Season” contains very little actual cooking, but still uses whole ingredients in the manner Pollan recommends.

Pollan’s ideas are good, but they’re more ideal than practical. For that, visit Bittman and check out his books. And watch food TV if you want, as inspiration or entertainment. I’ve found good recipes for the family, gotten good ideas like mixing rice into green salads, and learned the lesson that Pollan states, too:

the key to victory on any of these shows comes down to one factor: bacon. Whichever contestant puts bacon in the dish invariably seems to win.

2 Responses to “How to Cook, Not How to Eat”

  1. Steph Says:

    Great post! I generally do like to cook, but I don’t actually find Top Chef a deterrent to me trying to improve my moves in the kitchen. Yes it makes me want to go out and experience food prepared by those who are top in their trade, but it also makes me more excited to try things out, and I think I’ve become more adventurous in terms of what I do attempt in the kitchen. I think there are plenty of great cooking shows out there that are “how to” guides that help us see that cooking is do-able, but I think Top Chef is great because it helps show how cooking can be more than just getting food onto a plate and how cooking can actually be fun and exciting!

    If you’re looking for another great recipe book that’s focused at busy real-life cooks, I highly recommend Great Food Fast, which is a product of Martha Stewart’s Everyday Living, I believe. I bought it a few weeks ago and it has REALLY spruced up my meals, and I’ve found it quite inspiring. It’s given me tons of ideas for food that looks pretty up-scale, but is actually really easy to pull together, and most of the recipes call for a small number of ingredients, which you will likely have on hand already. Two other big pluses: 1) The recipes are divided into sections based on season, so that you’re able to plan your meals around products that are in season at the time; 2) EVERY recipe has a gorgeous picture to accompany it, which is a must in my book!

  2. Kate Says:

    Wow. That was a perfect description of dinner time, no matter how early I start. And hysterical–”sometimes involving string cheese, for sadistic consumers.”

    Last night, however, the little guy danced and sang songs for the baby so I could at least get the beets in foil on the grill before I started negotiating/nursing. Add that to the challenge, I think–your cooking may be interrupted at anytime, for any length of time. Keep the food from burning/undercooking/developing bacteria during the interruption.

    And a reverse Simpons quote–you ALWAYS make friends with bacon.