True confession: Sometimes I hate making dinner.
I know, I know. You do too.
It takes too much time and you don’t have everything the recipe calls for and you get distracted by your dryer beeping then you burn something. Or maybe you put a beautiful, healthy dinner on your table and someone says in a loud, ungrateful voice: That looks disgusting!
Of course that’s no fun.
It’s a love-hate relationship for me. And that must be true for many of us. Or we wouldn’t eat out as much as we do. We wouldn’t buy frozen dinners and dinners-in-a-box. We wouldn’t need to be told in study after study that folks who make from-scratch dinners and sit at the table and eat them together experience all kinds of payoffs in physical and emotional well-being.
So let me quiet my inner naysayer who keeps repeating the mantra that cooking-and-washing-dishes-for-hours-only-to-have-the-meal-gobbled-up-in-20-minutes-is-for-losers.
Let me tell you why I love to cook dinner.
It’s been a busy few months in my house. As I emerge from the cocoon of stress I had woven around myself, I can see all the shortcuts I’ve been relying on in the kitchen.
I’ve been serving quick pasta dinners two and three nights in a week, handing out store-bought granola bars instead of baking my own snacks, shaking spinach straight from the pre-washed plastic container rather than taking the time to create a more interesting, home-grown salad.
At a time and in a place where so much of our lives is virtual, cooking is still real. It engages our senses and requires force, movement, muscle. We must bodily mix and pour and sample and see. First and foremost, I love to cook dinner because it shifts me away from my screen. Cooking is doing.
Cooking is also creating. It’s transforming a few items — in the summer they are often plants dug or snapped or clipped from outside my door — into something else entirely: a meal.
The choosing of what to make and how to make it, the thrill of fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together, the trial and error of tasting and correcting, making dinner can be like composing a score or painting a canvas … or writing an essay. We choose what to fashion from what we have, using our heads and our hearts. I love that about cooking, too.
Cooking is a skill, learned over years, taught by experts through books and articles, in classes, in demonstrations and through word of mouth. I love the idea of perfecting aspects of this skill and the challenge of knowing there is always more to know.
As in all art, we must first master the basics, have a foundation from which to grow. I love how in cooking, each dinner can be a lesson learned, each recipe can work a new technique, every dish can teach us which flavors and textures complement one other. Every meal we make, we become better cooks.
Cooking is ancient. Humans have been finding ways to gather, store, grow, enhance and showcase our food since we evolved into humans. Cooking ties us to our ancestors. By seeking out interesting ingredients and learning age-old techniques, we can discover our history, our roots. Recipes are a way to pass along family lore and share fond memories. Cooking can be a living book, opening up both new and familiar worlds to us as we enter into it.
Cooking is essential. We have to eat and therefore, we have to cook. And we as a nation and a culture are facing the consequences of denying this fact for too long. Asking someone else to do the cooking, asking cooking to be easier, faster, cleaner, more convenient, these requests are leading to disastrous consequences. Obesity. Disease. Water shortages. Environmental degradation. I truly believe that if we don’t cook, we are done for.
I could go on and on. I cook — and read and write and think about food — not because cooking is trendy (though it is) or gardens and green living are “in” (though they are) but because I believe that food is foundational. Without growing and making and understanding food, we are missing an essential part of life.
This blog post is the first in what I hope will become a conversation exploring ideas … of food, yes, and of other topics as they emerge. I hope this can be a place where we sometimes (not all the time) ask some of the big, important questions. Why do we cook? What is America’s food culture? How can local food become more a part of everyone’s kitchen?
I’ve talked with some of you as we’ve bump into one another in real life or exchanged Facebook comments or emails during my year as the Food Writer for The Roanoke Times. I know that many of you are avid and wonderful cooks, others (like me) are somewhere in the middle and yet others are not fans of the kitchen at all.
I want to say: I hear you. Cooking can be a grind. But it’s vital. And maybe with a change of attitude, a new way of looking at dinner, it can become less of a chore and more of a challenge, a contest to be won.
So tell me, what are your thoughts on cooking dinner? Boon or bane? A time to shine or an hour to dread? And what keeps you cooking when there’s too much else going on?
Share your thoughts here in comments or in an email. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.