Who's cooking?

Tuesday February 5, 2013

About 10 years ago - in the midst of a conversation about my lunch - an envious colleague announced that she wished she could have such a tasty meal, but she didn't cook. I raised an eyebrow, revealing my incredulity, but she was insistent: "I don't eat anything I can't make in the microwave." I was both amused and baffled at her pronouncement, but it also saddened me. I thought it was an isolated incident, but now I see she's part of a bona fide subgroup of our population. Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, I rarely ate dinner at friends' homes. Whatever I was offered was usually a pathetic substitute for anything my parents had on the menu. My friends' exotic Spaghetti-O's, canned ravioli and Swanson Dinners had their allure, sure, but attraction is sometimes curiously coupled with revulsion. We weren't a family of foodies, but we did eat real food. And we all learned to cook. We once begged my mom to buy us TV dinners. She, who put soy nuts and assorted seeds in our lunches, long before it was fashionable (try trading those for a Ring Ding), wasn't keen on the idea. She eventually relented; we took one bite and never asked again. It's not true that enough salt, sugar and fat can make anything palatable.

My family missed the wave of processed food that heralded the end of American cooking and positioned Julia Child as the early champion of the real food revival. She was an unlikely food goddess. Raised in affluent Pasadena in the 1920s, Child (then Julia McWilliams) didn't need to learn to cook; her family employed a cook. In Bob Spitz's lively new biography, "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child," he describes the practical joking, cigar smoking, dangerously rambunctious child who would eventually become the icon Child. This privileged gal - who curiously would have been right at home in the scrappy Our Gang - didn't seem destined for greatness in the kitchen. As one of her nieces told Spitz, the family joked that Child could burn water.

I used to imagine Child like a cooking version of Athena - sprung fully formed from the head of famed French food writer, Curnonsky ("The Prince of Gastronomy"). Or perhaps like Venus, emerging from an oyster shell, to whip up some exquisitely simple oyster dish bathed in the best French butter. But even Julia Child - who always loved to eat foods of all kinds - had to sort out why food was important before she could embrace food preparation. Living in Paris - for her husband's Foreign Service job - Child discovered the tremendous value in cooking excellent food and in sharing that food with others. Food preparation and consumption became her raison d'etre; it connected her with the people, the history, and the culture she immediately loved.

And therein is the rub. Many of us have become disconnected from the cultural importance of sharing food and the familial value of preparing food together. Important beliefs, ideals, history and creativity are passed along to our children across the counter and over the stove. Food - and family stories about food - connect me to my past and serves as a guidepost for me and my family.

There are so many compelling reasons why our food preparation and consumption rituals have fallen away. We are all so very busy now. The two income parent trap means there is less time for food preparation. Single parents have the additional, almost insurmountable, challenge of having no help wrestling the children away from the hot stove. And those parents who are partnered often feel like the cooking falls disproportionately to one person. (There's a good reason Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique" resonated with so many American women.) The cook becomes resentful and exasperated, and toddler mayhem just adds to the lunacy. I think each night, "It's a small miracle that I've managed to cook this dinner." With two small children underfoot and my own work I want to get done, it would be far easier to rip open a package, pop it in the microwave, and call it dinner. But for me the cost would be too high.

There is overwhelming evidence that children greatly benefit from the ritual of family dinners. The Purdue University Center for Families' Promoting Family Meals project has aggregated this information. Children who dine regularly with family tend to have better language acquisition, higher test scores, greater academic achievement and are less likely to do drugs or consume alcohol. Other studies indicate that these children have healthier relationships to food, are less likely to have eating disorders and eat more wholesome food. And - despite the ubiquitous, stale conversation starter, "How was school today?" - they feel more positively connected to their families.

Many of us have disconnected from ritual of all sorts - not just food preparation. And we've become unmoored from those aspects of our lives that give each day genuine meaning. I take a stand each night when I prepare food and teach my children how to do it. Ritual is important. Family history is important. Sharing that time together, creating sustenance and meaning, enriches our lives and feeds us physically and spiritually. And although my adorable but irate toddler daughter threw a carrot at me last night during food preparation (bon appetit!), I'm still committed to keeping that time sacred.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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