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Friday Food Blogging August 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Professor of Journalism and Food writer Michael Pollan’s recent article and review of the film Julia & Julia (which is in part about Julia Child who brought French cooking to millions on the TV in the 1960″s) raises an interesting question about contemporary life.

The Food Network can now be seen in nearly 100 million American homes and on most nights commands more viewers than any of the cable news channels. Millions of Americans, including my 16-year-old son, can tell you months after the finale which contestant emerged victorious in Season 5 of “Top Chef” (Hosea Rosenberg, followed by Stefan Richter, his favorite, and Carla Hall). […]

But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

Many of these shows are more like sports entertainment. (Top Chef, Iron Chef, etc.) They are  more about consuming and learning about contemporary taste than they are about cooking. (True confessions: These are the only shows I watch regularly on TV) And as Pollen points out, the ones that are about cooking don’t really teach you how to cook.

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. […]Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself.

And what we call cooking today, according to market researcher Harry Balzer,

means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.

Buying, not making, is what cooking shows are mostly now about — that and, increasingly, cooking shows themselves: the whole self-perpetuating spectacle of competition, success and celebrity that, with “The Next Food Network Star,” appears to have entered its baroque phase. The Food Network has figured out that we care much less about what’s cooking than who’s cooking.

I think it is clear why we watch these shows. As Pollen points out:

Yet even the most ordinary dish follows a similar arc of transformation, magically becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. Every dish contains not just culinary ingredients but also the ingredients of narrative: a beginning, a middle and an end.

Cooking produces a fascinating transformation of plants and animals into something fully human, attractive, and pleasurable—the transformation of nature into culture as Levi-Strauss said.

So why don’t we cook instead of watch?

Pollen mentions the obvious. We don’t have much time. However, food preparation among women who don’t work is still dropping. And marketing by the food industry has convinced us that the sugary, salty “stuff” they produce really tastes good. Supply drives demand.

So perhaps our interest in the Food Network is nostalgia for a lost world:

If cooking is as central to human identity and culture as Wrangham believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life. At the very least, you would expect that its rapid disappearance from everyday life might leave us feeling nostalgic for the sights and smells and the sociality of the cook-fire. Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray may be pushing precisely that emotional button.

So we might prefer to watch rather than do simply because the food industry makes it available to us and we are just lazy.

But I think there is a mistake in judgment that explains the decline of cooking as well. I think we often are mistaken about the sources of value in modern life. In our consumer society, we think that value resides in things. And it does. But things are instruments that enable activities. And we ought to value our activities more than things. It is our activities that reflect who we are, not the objects we buy.

The experience of using your skills to make the world different in a palpable way that you can touch, smell, and taste is an experience you cannot get from opening a can or package (or eating in a restaurant) regardless of its taste. The time you spend cooking (or the time spent practicing a musical instrument, gardening, making jewelry, etc.) is not just a cost that you subtract from the pleasure of enjoying the final product. The activity itself is an intrinsic good.

My wife cannot understand how I can spend 3 hours in the kitchen making something that I will consume in 10 minutes. Truth be told, the finished product is an afterthought. I hope it is good for the sake of the people who eat it. But the satisfaction has already been acquired.

If people find modern life boring, without challenge, an endless flow of information that never quite satisfies, they might try getting back to cooking.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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