Photo by Donna

Photo by Donna

When she said it to me, it rang in my head clear as a bell.  I’ve repeated it a hundred times.  I was talking with Carol Blymire last spring about Ratio, and how to promote it.  I was biting my knuckles over this, terrified no one would understand it or even care—it used weights, required a scale, looked like math might be involved, was incredibly presumptuous, etc.  Carol was behind me all the way and said, “No, you’re right.  The book is good.  Americans are being taught we’re too stupid to cook and it’s simply not true.”

That one sentence crystallized the issue for me, turned my frustration from a wall into a lens.  Americans are being taught that we’re too stupid to cook.  That cooking is so hard we need to let other people do it for us.  The messages are everywhere.  Boxed cake mix.  Why is it there?  Because a real cake is too hard!  You can’t bake a cake!  Takes too long, you can’t do it, you’re gonna fail!

Look at all those rotisserie chickens stacked in the warming bin at the grocery store.  Why?  Because roasting a chicken is too hard, takes FOREVER.  An hour.  I don’t have an hour to watch a chicken cook!

Companies that make microwaveable dinners have spent countless R&D dollars to transform dishes that used to take 7 minutes in the microwave into ones that take 3 minutes.  “Hey, Marge, that’s four minutes of extra TEEvee we can watch!”

In practically every single cookbook produced today, the message is, buy this book because we show you easy things to make fast.  Only takes a second.  Whether it’s Rachael’s 30-minute meals or the quick-and-easy columns in the food magazines.  That’s all we hear.  Real cooking is hard and difficult so here are the nifty shortcuts and tips to make all that hard stuff quickly and easily.

It’s the wrong message to broadcast (unless you’re a prepared foods exec, in which case you want people to go on believing cooking is difficult—they want your money!).  We’re not too stupid and lazy to cook.  Of the top five books on the NYTimes advice and how-to bestseller list, half are about cooking—not about losing weight, not about finding god, how to be as rich as your neighbor or how to find love in 30 minutes.  Book sales generally are stagnant but cookbooks keep selling.  People want to cook but they’re told at every click of the television remote, in every cookbook, in all the magazines, this is HARD people, so here are the shortcuts!

Next cookbook I’m going to write?  It’s going to be called, Recipes That Take a Really Long Time and Are Too Hard For People To Do. (The only problem would be coming up with enough recipes where that was actually true.)

I don’t cook every day.  Last night, we wanted wanted to squeeze in an extra game of pool, kids at home were getting hungry, the intended stir fry was going to take 45 minutes to get on the table.  Decision?  Chipotle, beef and chicken burritos, chips and guac.  Sometimes work goes on too long and we don’t even have 30 minutes to cook—fine, fry a burger and mic some frozen peas.  Order take out.

I’m not an idiot.  I know people are busy.  I don’t always feel like making dinner.  And I know a lot of people who simply don’t like to cook.  If I had to knit my own clothes I’d be really bummed.  But the notion that cooking is hard and that it takes a long time and we’re just too stupid to cook is wrong.  And I want people to recognize the truth from the bill of goods they’re being sold.

The World’s Most Difficult Roasted Chicken Recipe

Turn your oven on high (450 if you have ventilation, 425 if not).  Coat a 3- or 4-pound chicken with coarse kosher salt so that you have an appealing crust of salt (a tablespoon or so).  Put the chicken in a pan, stick a lemon or some onion or any fruit or vegetable you have on hand into the cavity.  Put the chicken in the oven.  Go away for an hour.  Watch some TV, play with the kids, read, have a cocktail, have sex.  When an hour has passed, take the chicken out of the oven and put it on the stove top or on a trivet for 15 more minutes.  Finito.

(But be careful, you might find this so boring that you’ll start thinking about making stock next.  Don’t. Too hard.  Takes too long.  You’ll have to clean the pot.  I’m telling you now.  Don’t risk it.  Consider yourself warned.  Don’t blame me if you wind up with something delicious on your hands.)

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210 Wonderful responses to “America: Too Stupid To Cook”

  • Susan

    I don’t agree that “Americans are being told we’re too stupid to cook.” I believe that all the pre-mades and shortcuts are about time management. That “Americans are too busy (or maybe too lazy?) to take the time to make a good meal” I think of them as “option” foods and techniques for those who are busy and tired and lazy! They’re for those times when you don’t feel like cooking (lazy?) or have 3 places to go to pick up kids, drop them off or go workout yourself. What I do resent about those foods are the heavy salting and/or seasoning that those preparing them assume we want. Americans are being told by Chefs (on TV, through printed publications, the internet) and the Food Service Industry that we don’t know how to season food. That food isn’t good without a fistful of salt or layers of cream and butter or bacon fat or sauces made with all of the above. That we’re just unsophisticated home cooks if we don’t keep pine nuts, truffle oil, capers. wild mushrooms and fresh herbs on hand to prepare a weeknight dinner. We’re being bullied from both sides! And the asumption that our taste choices in the foods we prepare are “too rich, too sweet, too bland, too boring” are too much! We have a culture as varied and valid as any other country in the world and the resources to make it anything we want! In fact, we aren’t proud enough of what we do prepare with the ingredients available only here in this country. It’s about time we started getting as proud of our cuisine as the rest of the world is about theirs. So..there!

  • Shannon

    I think you have hit the nail on the head. I’m tired of the message that I’m too stupid to do anything (cook, parent, garden, whatever) without buying a bunch of books and other products from so-called experts.

    What makes me angriest about this attitude is that it’s being foisted on the poorest in our society. I read some comments to a recent article by Michael Pollan on his Food Rules book that effectively boiled down to: poor people can’t eat healthy because they don’t know how to cook beans, fresh vegetables and whole grains. Yet all of our grandmothers did it without thinking twice. I feel like it is a way to excuse addressing the real problems of poverty, which is access to reasonably priced, healthy foods.

  • Jarrett

    if i have to do all of that within an hour of waiting, then it IS the most difficult roast chicken recipe

    -gastronaut jones-

  • oilandgarlic

    As someone from an Asian culture who grew up in the U.S., I think cooking is a “lost art” among many Americans. While my mom was making delicious home-cooked meals (and working by the way) my American friends seemed to eat a lot of fast food, frozen meals or not very good home-cooked meals.

    Well, now these same kids are trying to make up for their lack of good home cooking by watching cooking shows and turning into self-proclaimed foodies, i.e. making cooking look like an elitist and difficult endeavor. A whole generation seems to have missed the idea that cooking and eating well is just a part of life, whether you’re rich, poor or middle-class.

    Cooking is not rocket science but it does take considerable skill and patience to learn. Most of the best cooks I know learned from watching their parents. If you didn’t have that, you start off at a disadvantage. From my observation, those who learn from recipes and cooking shows seem to have a less freeform approach to cooking, and that also contributes to making cooking seem difficult.

  • Laura

    Thomas Keller recommends cooking the chicken sans lemons, onions, or anything else in the chicken as it will cause moisture to form and he’s looking for a crispy chicken!

  • brandonb

    I like the the new edgy, testy michael,,,new years resolution from dealing with people that are to stupid to cook?

  • Rico

    Buy a smoker. They’re real easy. Light fire, put meat on, come back tomorrow. But I do have a question about this article. If I have sex too fast, will I get Salmonella?

    Honestly, people, the last thing I want to rush is my food. Turn off the TV and get some good food in ya. Buy a crock pot. Re-work your schedule to get things done while things cook. Make a cream of broccoli soup. Bake some bread. Sheesh, you might find it’s fun.

  • Emily

    Amen! Whatever you tastes or schedules there are ways to include some healthy, homemade food in our diets. Our hearts need it as much as our bodies!

  • Paulo

    I am an international student currently living in NY, and I just wanted to add my two cents. I am not a chef or anything like that, but i know how to cook soups, meat, fish whatever and they usually turn out quite good. My american friends love my dishes. I don’t agree at all that Americans can’t cook. Everybody can cook people just have to put time and effort into it. I am not going to focus on the hectic life that everybody has in here along with the little time left to cook. I am going to focus more on different perspectives. America is a country with a great standard of living and is more developed than many other countries, economics of scale made food cheaper, accessible, and convenient. If instead of paying 30 bucks for some delivered pizzas for the family you had to pay $100 I think we would see people cooking more often. In some other countries the ratio income/order food is much bigger than in the US. Sometimes it is just cheaper, easier and just as satisfying to call and order food. Also in less developed countries you tend to have a scarce choice of ingredients. That scarcity leads the people to season more their foods to change a bit their taste. No one would eat potatoes cooked the same way 6 days a week. Another aspect is the incredibly vast and diverse number of cultures in this country. If I had this “melting pot’ of foods in my country i would love to try them all as well. And all this also that leads to cook less and less. Practice makes perfect. I Also think “oliveandgarlic” has a point there. Learning from watching your parents cooking gives you for sure an advantage! And don’t say american food sucks, american gastronomy is the most diverse in the whole world dishes from other countries get incorporated in your cuisine just like people. Maybe I got a little excited… Oh by the way, try some Portuguese food, you won’t regret (I never met anyone who did) Oh and also put something more in your chicken than just salt.

  • Kate at Serendipity

    You know, I agree with you. People are told that it’s too hard, and then they see cooking shows with things that are either stupidly easy or waaay too cheffy. As Nigel Slater says, “you’re just making something to eat”. I moved to Europe about 9 years ago and bought my first kitchen scale. What freedom! I think it should be standard equipment in all kitchens.

    I also agree with you that it doesn’t have to take a long time to prepare real food. Almost all of my favorite pasta dishes can be prepared in the time it takes the pasta to cook. Add a salad and and some fruit for dessert and you’re good to go. It’s not hard, it doesn’t take a lot of time. It just takes a commitment to eat REAL food instead of the (xxx) we’re sold by the giant food companies.

    Ok, I’m finished now. Except to say that I love “Ratio”. It’s as important in my kitchen as my scale. Thank you.

  • Aaron Strich

    Roasted a chicken for my ‘rents for dinner tonight. Halfway through the roasting time I harvested some chicken fat to toss the root veg in, and an hour, total, later dinner was on the table. So difficult a ten year could do it, with minimal supervision. Stock simmering on the stove as I type, and pot pie for dinner tomorrow.

  • Nicole

    Give Rachel a bit of a break. I just flipped through one of her cookbooks and the most offensive ingredient I can find is canned broth. Good ingredients, prepped in advance, so a family can have a dinner on the table at a reasonable hour is not such a bad thing.

  • Lauren

    I absolutely agree with this blog entry. With this teeming culture of “Easy Bake Foodstuff” and “Insta-Dinner” it seems as if America has indeed been brainwashed into thinking it is extremely complicated to cook something “fancy” or that requires ::gasp::! Over 30 minutes.
    I think a lot of it is, when faced with say a Beef Burgundy recipe, the steps and time it takes to cook might initially daunt some.
    It’s not that it’s hard (I’m borderline ADD-riddled and was able to quite easily make this dish), it just takes a few steps and then just let it sit in the oven for about 2 hours.
    Even crunched for time, something like carbonara is quick to make (and oh so delicious) or even a Lemon Parmesean Pasta.
    I think it takes getting a handle of basics like sauteeing, baking, braising, etc. and then you can experiment.
    I’ve been playing around with the basic ideals of making Beef Burgundy (brown meat, set meat aside, cook vegetables until slightly tender with stock/wine/add back in meat/ pop in oven for about 2 hours) with other things and it’s been pretty successful.
    Unfortunately, this is also a day and age of longer work hours and less time and such. But again, many a delicious thing can be made in relatively no time, especially if it has to sit in the oven for an hour or so anyway.

  • Asma Chabbi

    Very Funny but so true!
    Thank you for a great entry.
    I grew up helping my mother cook (Moroccan tajines, mostly made in a pressure cooker made in less than 30 minutes) and now 20 + years latter do the same.
    Mom worked as a teacher 5 days a week and still always managed to make 3 meals (or 4 in our case if you count after school snack) all made from scratch. When I move to the US I carried on with this because it was less expensive to do so but now I cook (and bake) from scratch because I feel it is an investment in my health and well being (besides it tastes better). It make me feel good to know where the ingredients I put in my body come from and can also tailor my diet accordingly.

  • Sara

    Wonderful entry! Laughed out loud in the middle of a public library. And yet you made quite a point- looks like I’ll have chicken the next night i dont feel like cooking.

  • slee172

    While I agree that Americans have become lax in developing their culinary skills, I believe one major cause is not laziness nor ineptitude, but simply a lack of funds. This especially holds true now, when the nation has sunk into the worst recession since the Great, and 10% of the population are unemployed. Why spend over $5 to buy the products to make a cheeseburger when one can go to McDonald’s and buy one for less than $1? With value meals, frozen dinners, and the horrifying yet cheap instant noodle lunches, is it really a surprise that many Americans don’t spend the extra money to buy produce and cook?

  • other side of the river

    I make your difficult chicken all the time. What I’m ready for is your world’s most difficult brisket recipe.

  • Gilma Timas

    First off excellent blog. Im not sure if it has been addressed, however when using Opera I can never get the entire post to load without refreshing alot of times. Could just be my computer. Appreciate your work

  • Dave Kaye

    This is a fantastic idea. I don’t know if it’s that we’re being told we’re too stupid or not, but I do recall that the last time I bought a pancake mix it contained a chart with the useful information of: “1 serving, 1 tablespoon oil. 2 servings, 2 tablespoons oil. 3 servings, 3 tablespoons oil.” Really? What if I want 4 servings? Oh tell me wise box!

    Looking at cookbooks from earlier times, it seemed that maybe we took the idea of “convenience” a bit too far. Ok, you don’t have to hunt it, kill it, cut it up, cure it, grow it, mill it, raise it, brew it, store it for a long period of time. It’s not going to quickly spoil if you don’t eat it. You can heat it up fast. You can even do the dishes without too much effort. All great ideas. But then this science was applied to the meal itself — and let’s face it, we all wanted that Jetsons gun that you just fired at the table and it created whatever you want. So there was maybe a little more than half a generation that grew up with this idea of “cooking,” and frankly it wasn’t all bad. (Who doesn’t love Kraft Mac and Cheese?)

    But yes, absolutely, let’s get back to more basics. I grew up thinking you had to have Bisquick to make pancakes. Getting more into cooking in mid-life I’m amazed to find that pancakes from scratch are not too much harder!

  • Cheferia

    Fortunately here in Italy almost everyone is able to cook as we have really simple and fast recipes (but good) for everyday meals (look pasta, in example) Food is a big topic here, everyone it’s always talking about eating. Maybe it’s too much!

  • Trig

    “Recipes That Take a Really Long Time and Are Too Hard For People To Do” has already been published. It’s called “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook” and it seems that plenty of people in Britain are losing the will to live after trying to emulate Heston Blumenthal in their home kitchens. I mustn’t laugh.

  • BJ Corpening

    One of the comments included “Learning from watching your parents cook.” Americans are not too stupid to cook, they have not been trained to cook. With the onset of fast food restaurants, home cooking never made the priority list. Hungry? go through the drive through. Too busy? go through the drive through. Too tired? go through the drive through!

    A little time, salt and pepper goes along way.

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