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Alerted about an article on Slate that runs counter to my own convictions, I was inclined to regard it as misguided, inelegant and leave it at that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The home cooked dinner is “expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food,” the journalist Amanda Marcotte concludes, using a study by three NC State University sociologists as her springboard, a study that argues something even more ridiculous: “The idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint.”

What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the author’s conviction that home-cooked meals shared by the family is a romantic notion, not to mention harmful to those who consider it a burden on any mother living in poverty.

I was disheartened to learn, after some additional mouse clicks, that the author was so upset by the response on Twitter that she avoids her mentions now. People were a bit strident, perhaps, but they were hardly anonymous trolls.

I certainly can’t fault her claims that single mothers at the poverty level (16% of America is impoverished, according to Wikipedia), or those who are holding down multiple jobs, are lucky just to get the kids fed in any way possible. True.

But to claim that for most American families, regular home-cooked meals are romanticized is wrong and harmful. (I won’t even get into the claim that it’s an “elite foodie” construct.)

There are, of course, too many studies to count finding benefits of eating together on a regular basis. What all the authors seem to be saying, though, is that whatever its benefits cooking for your family is so much of a burden that the burden cancels out the benefits. Well, yes, cooking takes some work. Taking out the trash and mowing the lawn and paying bills are burdens as well. Cooking is especially a burden if you simply don’t like to cook even if you know how. It’s a burden sometimes for me, and I love to cook. (The other claim, that it’s expensive, is nonsense, as Mark Bittman write about here. Grocery stores are packed with incredibly cheap raw food.)

Burden though it is, it’s worth encouraging and valuing, and home-cooked meals shared by the people you live with, shared by friends, is important enough that we ought to embrace this particular burden and share it to make it easier in our busy lives.

I’ve said it before: cooking arguably was the mechanism that made us the most successful species on the planet, most importantly in that it changed how we acted toward one another. Not cooking has contributed to, if not caused, a national health crisis now considered out of control.

It seems fairly clear that when we cook for ourselves and the people we care about, our bodies are healthier, our families are healthier, our communities are healthier, and the environment is healthier.

To claim that a home-cooked meal with family is romanticized, and therefore a harmful burden to those who make it, is itself wrong and harmful.

But Marcotte’s article did do one good thing: it made me think. It asked me to question whether or not the “Leave It to Beaver”-style family meal is, in fact, a romantic ideal.

I hope to God not, because if it is, then it’s all too easy to dismiss. Far more than a romantic ideal, family dinnertime can be a fundamental source of many different kinds of health and well-being, one worth the relatively small burden of buying food, cooking it and cleaning up after.

To that end, I reprint one of my favorite family meals. It’s not going take any pounds off, but it will make you and your family very happy.

Midweek Macaroni and Beef with Cheese, photo by Donna

 

Macaroni and Beef with Cheese

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • salt to taste
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed in the can with a hand blender or in a blender
  • 1 pound macaroni
  • 1 cup each grated cheddar and mozzarella cheeses
  • optional seasonings: black pepper, oregano, cumin, coriander, chopped garlic, hot smoked paprika, chili powder—whatever you’re in the mood for (I just used black pepper, garlic, and a tablespoon of fish sauce, which gives it depth.)
  1. Sweat the onions in the oil with a three-finger pinch of salt. Add the beef and cook it, breaking it up as you do. (Because my beef was very fatty, I cooked it separately and added it to the pot along with the tomatoes. Also an option, but uses an extra pan.) Add another three-finger pinch of salt or two, along with any dry seasonings you want. Add the tomatoes and any fresh seasonings you may be using, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 1 hour.
  2. Cook the macaroni in boiling salted water till it’s half-done. Drain it and add it to the tomatoes. (I wanted this to stretch into two meals, so I used the whole box, but if you want your dish to be very tomatoey and beefy, you might want to add only half the macaroni.) Stir it into the sauce. Taste it. Add more salt and other seasonings as needed, and cover. When it’s cooled and the pasta has absorbed the tomato juices, transfer it to a large baking dish and cover it with foil. It can sit out for several hours like this, be refrigerated for up to two days, or frozen a few weeks.
  3. Bake it in a 400°F/205°C oven till it’s piping hot (about 45 minutes if it’s cold or room-temperature). Just before you’re ready to eat, remove the foil, cover the macaroni with the cheese and broil till it looks beautiful.
  4. Having used all the pasta, I put the second batch into the cleaned baking dish and covered it with foil, wrote “Mac and Beef, bake, cover with cheese and broil” on the foil with a sharpie—so that next time I’m gone, Donna has a mid-week meal ready to go.

This should serve 8 if you behave yourself.

 

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© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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41 Wonderful responses to “Rethinking the
Home-Cooked Family Meal”

  • BiterinDisguise

    This is hilarious because a mere three years ago, Marcotte was holding the exact opposite position. The original site where she published, Pandagon, is now defunct but through the Wayback machine, the article is still available. (I don’t know if links are OK in this commenting system, if anyone wants to read the article and cannot find it, I’ll share the link). The title of the piece in question was “The convenience of cooking at home” and in it, Marcotte extolled the virtues of a well stocked kitchen and the myth of eating out as a time saver.

    • Brenda Johnson

      I’ve been reading Amanda Marcotte since the old Pandagon days, and I don’t think her current article is anything like an “exact opposite position” to anything she’s posted about food in the past. It is entirely possible to note, on the one hand, that cooking at home is easier and more achievable than many people may believe, while noting on the other hand that the mythologization of home cooking can create unhealthy and oppressive pressures on women without being in contradiction. And indeed, if you read the article, nowhere does she say that home cooking should be abandoned. Instead, she says the work involved should be shared equitably — hardly a contradiction, and hardly a revolutionary concept.

      • Camorrista

        Brenda, I couldn’t agree more–Marcotte’s Slate piece doesn’t question the value of home cooking, only the Ozzie & Harriet mythology surrounding it; and the work involved for people under severe time & money pressures. (In other words, people who don’t have the leisure to read food blogs and leave patronizing remarks.)

        Depressingly, most of the commenters here seem more than eager to imply that Marcotte is (1) incompetent; (2) lazy; and (3) morally inferior for not learning how to shop & cook they way *they* shop & cook. But no foodie elitism here. No, sir.

        What I found particularly callous is that Ruhlman, normally the epitome of compassion, appears puzzled that Marcotte would shut down her Twitter Mentions because of scores of tweets like these (which he found merely a “bit strident”):

        “I wonder if @AmandaMarcotte is ever happy about anything,” read one tweet. “She’s not snarky, just bitchy and miserable. And you know what they say about misery loving company and all…” wrote a self-appointed Twitter psychologist. “Perhaps finding a soulmate that can cook will help @AmandaMarcotte overcome her lack of ability to boil water,” read a twofer accusing me of being both lonely and incompetent. “Marcotte is a complete and utter crackpot who seems to really hate families,” said another. “Whiney much? If u hate your family leave,” advised another expert on my life.

        Indeed, a “bit strident.”

        In my visits here, I’ve never noticed any attacks like those above–negative comments here are so mild as to be a perverse form of sycophancy, and if they are personal, they are flattering, not to say fawning.

        • Alex

          For twitter that is JUST a bit strident. Have you looked at what some people tweet?

        • Michael Ruhlman

          What mattered to me was that the twitter comments weren’t anonymous. Marcotte was free to respond in a measured way to defend her position and remain above crass commenting. Such as “How on earth am I suggesting a hatred of families.” Or just call them what they are: Philistines and leave it at that. What I can’t stand and won’t abide is anonymous trashing of someone’s work.

        • Michael Ruhlman

          I wouldn’t say fawning, but I am hugely grateful that the commentary on this site is almost uniformly respectful and intelligent.

        • DeeDee

          I agree with Camorrista’s comment, and I’d like to delve a little further into the Twitter mentions angle.

          First let’s clarify that Marcotte did not stop looking at her Twitter mentions because of the response to this one article–it was simply the latest instance of a woman being treated terribly on the Internet for the crime of having an opinion. I’m dismayed Michael spun that article the way he did in his post.

          But the real heart of the issue here is that Michael is a very smart and talented guy, but he has no idea what it’s like for women bloggers, and the out-of-proportion responses they receive for daring to say anything negative about anything.

          I was a blogger for about a decade, not even a hugely well-known one, and I talked about things no more controversial than movies and television shows and other forms of entertainment. Even so, I received numerous rape threats, and several death threats. People posted graphically sexual and violent photos in the comments of my blog. I was told that I must have been f–d by my father throughout my entire childhood in order to be so stupid and messed up. Remember, this is in response to things I said about fictional characters! Marcotte, who is a well-known feminist blogger, has undoubtedly been subjected to worse, and in greater quantities, as there is an Internet law (AKA Lewis’ Law) that states, with absolute accuracy, that “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

          So I guess maybe having been through what I’ve been through, and eventually pulled the plug in part because of it, I’m disappointed by the “couldn’t take the heat” vibe I get from Michael’s mention of the Twitter response. Maybe a few minutes spent reading the results of Googling “women bloggers death threats” would be enlightening, if he cares to take the time.

          • Michael Ruhlman

            there is definitely a can’t take the heat vibe. writers should be able to defend what they write. failure to do so vitiates their credibility.

            that said, I am aware and astonished by the hatred unleashed on female bloggers. Salty in Seattle called the FBI and tracked down the anonymous hater. bless her.

            Why? Are there that many damaged men out there? I guess so.

  • Shelly

    This is very timely for me- I have an 11 month old and although I love to cook, it’s been a real challenge since the baby arrived, especially as my work situation has evolved from maternity leave, to working at home, to going back to the office every day.

    I’ve had to accept that my days of blissfully stirring a sautee with a glass of wine in one hand have been mostly replaced with quickly tossing together a stew or casserole while an impatient baby whines for me to unstrap him from his high chair and throws cheerios at the cats.

    It’s not ideal and some days I certainly rely on takeout or my favorite version of “fast food”- a rotisserie chicken and a bagged salad. But I’m helping to shape the way my child eats as he grows and hopefully maintaining the health of everyone in our family- so although the”fun” of cooking falls to the wayside, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor.

  • Kathy S.

    The idea that cooking is difficult and time-consuming is as ingrained in the American consciousness as the idea that naturally occurring fats will make you fat and that nutritionists/scientists are making government food policy. It just ain’t so. It was put in our heads in large part by marketing/advertising. Really pay attention to print and TV ads sometime, especially the ones that air during so-called women’s programming. Making real soup is so hard — here, feed your kid this slop in a can. Getting a hot meal on the table is so hard — here, stick this frozen crap in the oven. Nevermind that if you’d stuck a cheap hunk of protein in the oven or slow-cooker with a bit of salt and liquid before you left for work, you’d be coming home to something delicious, and it wouldn’t take you any more time then re-heating a bunch of processed corn and soybeans. Nope. That’s too haaaaaarrrrrd.

  • Darcie

    I think that people who think cooking is hard or a chore just don’t know how to cook. It’s a shame that “home ec” has fallen off high-school curricula in favor of teaching to the standardized tests. What could be a more important skill than properly feeding yourself? Yes, I eat out sometimes because I’m too tired to cook and haven’t properly planned ahead. But that’s pretty rare.

    I feel for people who live in a “food desert” and don’t have convenient access to good quality, inexpensive raw food. They often have substandard equipment/appliances, too, plus their schedules often involve working during mealtime. It would be very difficult to cook a family meal in those circumstances.

  • KristineB

    I made lasagna last night, and I live alone. It wasn’t hard. I used no boil noodles and sauce in a jar (I know, but some time constraints.) Was it the best I’ve ever made? Of course not, but it was good and I have left overs for the rest of the week, and for the freezer, or I’ll bring some over to a friend who cooks for her teenage son every night. It certainly wasn’t that expensive. And if trying to make the effort so your family can spend some quality time together over a meal is “romantic,” well, maybe the world needs a little more romance.

  • Bob

    Cooking for your family is no more difficult than any of the other tasks we set our mind and effort to on a daily basis – it’s the unfamiliarity of the tasks that make it daunting / time-consuming.
    Some of it is mise en place, and that takes practice – a lot of it is common sense and simple math, juggling cooking times and preparations, so that everything comes together to be served.

  • Julesl.

    I do think there is some merit to the idea that the pressure of cooking a delicious meal and making a picture-perfect family-dinner is something that plagues women more than it does men. If you read any parenting blogs, you’ll see that women are always saying, “I feel like such a FAILURE!” (before invariably concluding not to give a damn any more) while men go, “Hey, at least my kid ate an apple today.” Is it a harmful burden? I don’t know–I’m sure there is a percentage of children who would rather eat out of a box every night if it meant their mom would play with them before bed, just as there is a percentage of children who would be better off never being allowed to lay their hands on anything edible in a box. I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to call home cooking a “harmful burden”, but dimissing the piece as merely a silly conceit disregards a very real obstacle to home cooking for a lot of people.

    That bein said: I am a SAHM, and we have had a sit-down dinner exactly once in the two years since kidlet was born. It’s a matter of timing–he goes to bed when my husband starts kicking into high gear, so there’s NEVER a good time for a meal. I cook most of our food, but I have long since resigned myself to the fact that our dining table is only for guests.

  • Dean

    There’s a very interesting article on this topic in today’s NY Times (link below). It concludes with this very key point”
    “If you have children, and they are in school, and particularly if you work, those evening hours around dinner — plus weekends and holidays — are what you get, if you can get them. That’s your time together, whether your meal is simple or elaborate.

    Family dinner isn’t, and shouldn’t be, something to get through. It’s not a way station on the way to some goal. For most of us, sitting with family and friends, whenever and wherever we can, and no matter what’s on the table, is the goal. It ought to be within everyone’s reach.”

    http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/when-the-problem-is-priorities-dont-blame-cooking/?_php=true&_type=blogs&partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0

  • Anny

    If not for the nights I actually find time for evening meal prep, I think I would melt into a puddle…a stressful mess. I never get home early after my workday, but the kitchen is an anchor for me. It’s my place to unwind and transfer my restored energy to those around me. I love to cook and that’s my ace. Mealtime, no matter how simple, is at the core, of the family experience. Hopefully it will remain important to enough home cooks to see it in perpetuity.

  • Michael

    Does everyone realize how much cheaper a family can eat if they cook basics and refrigerate or freeze them? I haven’t eaten fast food in years, but have seen the prices and honestly can’t see how subsistence families can afford not to cook, portion and reheat meals. Makes no sense to me, plus if you can’t give your kids much, at least you don’t have to kill them with the food you feed them.

  • former butcher

    I grew up in the Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver era, when ,most moms were “housewives”, like my mother. My friends and I all ate “home cooked meals”, and the outcomes could hardly have been more different. I would go to friends’ homes and be served food my mother would have tossed in the trashcan. I was brought up to eat whatever was put in front of me on such occasions; and to say it was very good. And when these same friends would eat at our house, the comments were often like”This spaghetti isn’t cooked all the way”, or “This food is really spicy,” or “This is lamb? I guess I don’t like lamb”. I guess my point is, not every household has the same culinary traditions or standards. Let’s not forget that that same era saw the birth of frozen TV Dinners, that took the burden of actually having to cook something off the mother’s shoulders. As for nutrition….that something for people in white lab coats to worry about.

  • Katie

    Michael, I love you. *

    You are such a balanced voice of reason in an increasingly insane world — you usually say much of what I’m thinking, but so much more eloquently than I could ever manage! I’m so glad I started reading your blog — it’s so nice to know that there are still normal people out there.

    * (no, Donna doesn’t need to be worried — it’s a brotherly thing 🙂 )

  • Richelle

    You are so awesome! I do not believe I have
    read through a single thing like that before.
    So good to discover someone with a few unique thoughts on this topic.
    Really.. thank you for starting this up.

    This website is one thing that’s needed on the internet, someone with
    some originality!

  • Edward Brumby

    I learned to cook when my wife left me along with our three children. I had very little money and had never cooked before. My children told me that they got together to discuss how they might be able to eat. It was during that period that I learned how to make good meals every night with inexpensive ingredients. That was 27 years ago and I still cook every night. My skills are a lot better. But I have continually enjoyed the act of cooking. I went on to college in my late 30’s, graduated, then went on to law school. Now my ingredients can be as fresh and expensive as I desire. But whether feeding a family of four on ten dollars a day then, or spending a bundle on a single meal now, the creativity of cooking has remained with me and been a liberating thread throughout my life. I know its not for everybody, and I would hate for someone to feel they have to cook in order to live up to an image being imposed upon them. But cooking at home is not an elite foodie construct, it is an immeasurably rewarding activity that can be, and is, done by people from all walks of life.

    • Victoria

      Yours is a beautiful story.

      How lucky your children are to have a father who taught them how to make lemonade out of lemons.

      Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Indigotea

    When I was 22 years old, my then-boyfriend (later husband) called me from his part-time job telling me he was starving — could I bring him some dinner? We were living off my fresh-out-of-college salary as he was still in school. I opened the fridge and came up with a plan: chicken and dumplings. I cooked and deboned some chicken pieces, made biscuit dough and turned out a pretty tasty dish with some frozen peas tossed in for color and vitamins. Then I took it to him.

    He ate two bites, and said, “I really hate it when you cook crap like this”, and asked me to run and get him some fast food. Fortunately, I had enough pride to tell him to stuff it in that instance. But it was not the last time over our 20 years together that he turned up his nose at my cooking — which only improved as our incomes rose and I could afford better raw ingredients and tools — in favor of eating low-nutrition garbage.

    That, to me, was what you missed out of Marcotte’s piece. The fact that the non-cooks can be so damn picky and bitchy that it is downright demoralizing. It was a pain in the butt, after a hard day at work, to navigate the preferences of three people, to cook and shop and plan and know there was a high probability that a lot of it would go uneaten if you didn’t stick to the lowest-common-denominator’s tastes.

    • Katie

      His comment to you, after you’d gone home, made his dinner and took it to him, would have been where I issued a permanent invitation to feed himself. He’s an adult, and he won’t starve to death — but no way would I have ever put up with that crap, and I’m sorry you went through it.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      seriously, anyone who denigrates food that someone has labored over, whether that food is good or bad, should be summarily excused from the table.

  • Victoria

    I am gobsmacked.

    Because I love to cook, cooking dinner isn’t a chore for me, and although I have now recently retired, I worked for all my adult life and made dinner most evenings after work. I even cook a nice dinner for myself when I am alone. That isn’t to say that I don’t realize that cooking is, in fact, a household chore, but the fact that something takes effort and planning and is a chore doesn’t mean it should not be done and/or does not have value. It made me so sad to read Amanda Marcotte’s comment

    “….the main reason that people see cooking mostly as a burden is because it is a burden. It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway.”

    The problem of a low-income woman living in a flea-and cockroach-infested hotel with her daughter and two grandchildren goes way beyond it’s hard for her to cook dinner, and using that example to prove the point that cooking dinner is difficult is preposterous.

    Families presenting a major obstacle to a woman’s (and it doesn’t have to be a woman, does it?) cooking dinner for her family speaks to a sadder state of affairs than the fact that cooking dinner can be difficult. In my childhood home, we didn’t have the children-have-no-likes-and-dislikes rule, and I was never made to eat something I hated, but common courtesy and mere etiquette prohibited complaining and whining from anyone at the dinner table, not to mention anyone saying “I really hate it when you cook crap like this.” (By the way, my mother worked a job outside the home.)

    For any readers who hated the article in Slate, perhaps this lovely piece about being polite will make you feel better.

    https://medium.com/message/how-to-be-polite-9bf1e69e888c

  • Jackie

    I think it’s fairly easy for wealthy intellects with flex schedules to pontificate about the importance of cooking family meals and wonder, “Why on earth doesn’t anybody cook anymore?”

    The reality is that, for households with a single parent or two working parents, the slow cooking ideal is often compromised by budget and time limitations and/or scheduling conflicts. As we know, the fast food mentality is also enabled by a plethora of cheap, convenience options that can be tough to pass up during frazzled, exhausted moments.

    Instead of making parents (primarily women) feel guilty for not re-prioritizing their lives to reach some unattainable home-cooking perfection, perhaps we should consider practical actions that the average family can manage.

    Things like:
    –Committing at least one day for a family meal each week
    –Grocery or farmers’ market shopping as a family to foster educated choices
    –No dinner in front of the TV…or on the go
    –Spending a half day cooking a few easy meals to pack up and reheat throughout the week.

    Cultural shifts may start with awareness and pontification, but they’re ultimately fueled by small steps that build momentum. Change will come from simple actions that are rooted in an appreciation for food and togetherness…as well as a true respect for the realities of today’s busy family dynamic.

    • will jay

      “… cheap, convenience options that can be tough to pass up during frazzled, exhausted moments”

      Yes, that is what I did tonight and last night. It probably would have actually taken less time to wash a few lettuce leaves, trim some vegetables and make a tuna salad – everything was in the ‘fridge – but I was pooped and paid for take out.

      I am fortunate, but others do not have the the resources or the choices I have.

  • Brad Weiss

    I have great respect for the work that Michael has done as an advocate for home cooking, and the techniques he’s promoted as a means to enhancing “family meals.” But I think this account is dismissive of the original scholarship that Marcotte’s piece is only loosely based on. These sociologists are NOT making a moral judgment as to whether “family meals” are, or are NOT commendable, they are reporting two basic facts: home-cooking, often by those who barely have the time and resources to pull it off, is often not appreciated – or EATEN – by the “family” for whom it is intended. We might dismiss such ingratitude as ungracious, but it does not change the fact that many people (no, not everyone) EXPERIENCE the act of “family dining” as unpleasant and unfairly foisted on certain members of the family (i.e. moms). Second, the authors show that “family dining” has very different position in domestic relations within different CLASS contexts. That is, “family dining” is not a universally admired standard, it is an ideal which has (relatively recently, in fact) been proposed as a solution to a range of social problems, from delinquency, to poverty, to overconsumption, to health care. This is not their PREMISE, this is their FINDING that emerges from many many hours of interviewing and working with women and men of different social classes. The point that these authors try to make is not that we should be dismissive of these problems, or of food provisioning as means of addressing them, but that it would be great if we could come up with other models of food sharing and collective life that didn’t put so much of a burden on the already frail structures of “the family.” Read the short final paragraph of the original piece, and you’ll get the idea.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      It is a very inclusive and reasonable final graf, true, but it still seems to be a mixed bag as far as a study goes. We know that for those living in poverty, life is incredibly stressful and unfun in too many ways to count, so what does this study have to do with helping them? for those who aren’t impoverished, it’s a matter of priorities that’s all, and I think, the authors don’t want to feel guilty about being too tired or disorganized to get dinner on the table for their families, or have someone do it. They should make their partner do it. Again too many mixed messages in the “study.”

      • Susan

        What if you don’t have a partner?

        I was a single mother who generally provided my kids with a home cooked meal every night. And, for 15 years I didn’t cook things with sauce, because my kids refused to eat it. My son wouldn’t eat breakfast for dinner (the easy route) so we couldn’t have that. It’s not one size fits all. They were tiny tyrants and I had to put up with it. I’m not putting in for a purple heart, but not a whole lot of fun either.

        And unless you are discussing German aristocracy, graf is not a word.

    • Susan

      Thank you for stating this so eloquently.

      Performing a task night after night, because you know it is the right thing to do, and have it not be appreciated by those it’s supposed to benefit is incredibly demoralizing. That’s Marcotte’s point.

  • Jahqdruh

    I count my lucky stars. Whatever I cook, my father-in-law will happily eat (except brussels sprouts — reminds him of his time in WWII). He never says anything except “That was pretty tasty” for meals he really liked. My husband also plows through whatever I cook, goes back for seconds, then says, “That was really good. Thanks for taking the time to cook.”

    I can’t imagine having to cook for people who would rather be eating fast food.

  • Katie

    “Far more than a romantic ideal, family dinnertime can be a fundamental source of many different kinds of health and well-being, one worth the relatively small burden of buying food, cooking it and cleaning up after.”

    Relatively small burden? Let’s run through this:

    Let’s say you don’t have anything in the fridge for dinner. You can

    a) take your infant to the grocery store, which is designed to make you circle it at least 3 times before you’re done, leaving you with a screaming child and unsympathetic onlookers who give you dirty looks to make sure that you know how very much they disapprove of your child’s noise pollution. If you manage to actually purchase anything that can be coherently pulled together as dinner, you’ve probably spent more than you can afford. After you drive an additional 1 1/2 hours of driving around and picking up your schoolchildren and your spouse from work(did I forget to mention you can only afford one car?), you go home and spend half an hour preparing the meal. Half your children complain about it, and your spouse makes a mild but clearly critical remark. No one helps with the dishes. No one helps put away the food. No one wipes up the floor underneath the table where the baby dumped his food.

    b) announce “It’s pizza night!” and order a pizza delivered to the house.

    Am I saying that it should be pizza night every night? Of course not. But it’s dangerous precedent to romanticize work that is primarily designated to one member of the household. Remember that, pre-Industrial Revolution, even very low income houses had servants to help prepare food and clean up. When the Industrial Revolution led to servants leaving their below-stairs posts to work for factories, the burden of cooking and cleaning was then completely upon the shoulders of the woman of the house.

    Truthfully, this hasn’t changed all that much. Certainly men do more around the house than men of the 19th or early 20th century. But anyone who says that the burden is equal is kidding themselves.

    I, for one, love a good home-cooked meal. I just hope that we as a society can be a little more clear-headed about a lionizing an ersatz “tradition”- it really hasn’t been around that long and came about mostly from economic forces- that guilt trips women into feeling bad if they don’t cook a meal every night.

    • leah

      Kathy, I agree with you. I don’t have kids but I still struggle to cook a meal after I come home from work. I generally make something that will be on the table in 30 min or less. I do it because left to his own devises, my husband will eat peanut butter and jelly for dinner. In the few times he made dinner for me (bless his heart) it was spaghetti and sauce in a jar. Sadly, the macaroni and cheese used as an example here, that requires considerable prep time and 45 minutes in the oven will not work for me. Now, Stouffer’s mac and cheese takes only 7 minutes in the microwave. I’m not proud, but I’ve learned to forgive myself just as well.

  • Tin Chef

    I very much agree with Michael on this: cooking is fundamental to who we are, it’s a critical part of the human experience. Across cultures, societies, and all the long millennia – we have gathered together to eat and communicate. The table is where we establish and nurture the bonds between people and nowhere is it more important than at the level of the individual family. Eating well is more than just a nutritional equation – it is fundamentally a deep social experience, a primary building block of groups, communities and families.

    I’ve spent my entire life perplexed by the “home cooking is too expensive/difficult/time consuming” thing. My parents raised us around the kitchen table – both of them working too much, both of them cooking the traditional family fare – sometimes horribly, sometimes with surpassing excellence.

    Regardless – the kitchen table was and remains the beating heart of our family, and a critically important part of my adult relationships. I consider my coming of age to be the establishment of my own kitchen, my own hearth and table, the ability to get in and cover the fact that my parents are no longer able to drop a feast on ten or fifteen people with half a days notice – to carry forward the tradition of “NO ONE GOES HUNGRY ON OUR WATCH”.

    Now that I’m a divorced and remarried parent with four teenage Kids randomly running in and out the door, a financially stretched man who might have to produce dinner for eight or ten people (high preponderance of eternally hungry teenagers) with very little notice on a very regular basis I simply don’t understand why more people don’t cook from raw staples. In my experience and generally speaking – honest, basic cooking is cheaper per mouth per night, it tastes better, it’s vastly healthier and most importantly – it helps to connect us all with one another more deeply.

    Home cooked family meals are to me the critical part of turning my children into healthy adults. It’s the primary ritual that shapes us – we learn the nuances of interpersonal behavior for the first time, over dinner, all of us, at the family table – around the cooking fire of our ancestors.

    The Kids Today may not value the smell of a home cooked meal wafting around the house and luring them to the table. In fact they may well dare to grump about being asked to cut onions or stir a sauce or wash some dishes afterwords – without understanding that a a generation or two ago they’d have been sent out into the wilds to help scare up, kill and prepare the evening family meal. Sheesh, the ungrateful little modern eating machines may even well prefer the usually nauseating offerings of the giant sustanance extrusion chains at the moment… Push button, get food, terribly easy.

    But if you work at it, if you make the commitment to go old school and cook it yourself – one day Those Blasted Kids might well treasure those memories, might desperately crave the simple, pure food of their childhood and that feeling of belonging, of community and family that went along with it – and hopefully then seek to replicate those experiences, to re-create the ancient and sacred ritual for themselves.

    The root of the problem to me: I don’t see how you get any of that set of benefits by going to the store and buying pre-made whatever, or driving up to a window for a an expensive bag of empty calories – even if you take that stuff and put it on the same table with the same people that you love. It’s the act of cooking, of seeing or being involved in making the meal – the time involved, the slow wind-up, the process and ritual of it, the sensually and emotionally rich experiences it involves – that’s what forms the strongest memories, the human bonds, those moments that appeal to us on the deepest levels.

    We’ve got politicians screaming about how it’s the fault of gay rock and roll video game marriages, and I just listen to those jerks dumbfounded because I think it’s actually because we radically altered the way we eat – both the substance and the ways of it.

    I’m not damning fast food to the ninth circle of Hell here – it has a place in our lives. It’s rough out here – delivery pizza, the drive up windows, etc – I’m obscenely grateful to see them from time to time. But there’s no there there. I don’t take my kids to the plastic booths of mega-corporate junk food pushers if I’m trying to lure them into engaging with me on something they’re reluctant to discuss – no no! I play to their weaknesses, I go a mile or ten out of my way, I got you that cheese you love, those crabs, that fruit – I’m engaging you, seeking you out, I made your favorite and now please talk to me.

    It works, for the most part.

    Mashing buttons on microwaves or phones or websites to make calories appear requires trivial effort, it involves no commitment. But family, community – these things require of each of us some level of effort. Even in our land and age of abundance, it still requires effort and commitment to feed one’s family and friends in a healthy and responsible way.

    Our modern curse is that it requires more commitment and effort than ever before: regularly trying to trade off additional effort simply by spending some of your hard earned lucre on a shortcut after a long working day generally seems to involve pumping a wide range of long, slow metabolic poisons into our loved ones. If you’re not watching closely and actively working at a better outcome, you can look up one day and you and your whole family will be obese, diabetic, with nasty fatal health consequences looming all over the place, and that’s a horrible place for anyone to find themselves.

    Our families, our friends – in a thousand different ways, we all have to find the way to make the time to do right by them. I’ve an appallingly demanding job, one that I have to fight off constantly to make room for the rest of my life. To my mind, cooking and eating together as family is one of the big drivers for the fight. I MAKE the time to cook from scratch for anyone fate has deposited on my doorstep, friends and strangers and family alike. My parents and their parents before them considered that not just obligatory hospitality but a happy cause – and they passed that belief on to me, without ever a single word spoken on the subject.

    It’s so simple to me, so instinctual that I have significant cognitive dissonance issues when I look at a lot of the world around me. To me, cooking for my family, my friends is one of the purest joys I know, the more the merrier, and if it’s not reciprocated sometimes who cares? For everyone who’s ever been ungracious at my table, I’ve made ten friends.

    If I have a bad day, the job kicked my ass, I’m on the ropes and feeling beaten – perversely, my people know they’re probably in for a special treat: I want and need to make others happy to fix myself up. I’d rather go to bed dead tired from flipping wigs and blowing minds with basic ingredients, minimal frippery and a maximum flavor invasion then just resigning myself to picking up the phone and calling in another digestive drone strike any day.

    You might not be able to give your family or your friends better schools, better jobs, or cars or any of the blah blah better blah blah than the guy next door or the richest people in town, but anyone can cook up a better meal than McBurger Taco-Sub Hut and share it with those whom they love. It empowers them along the way – eating well and being treated well is contagious. Sometimes it spread like a meme or goes viral or whatever The Kids These Days are calling it.

  • Aaron

    Michael,

    I wonder sometimes if the rise of ‘food culture’ has backfired on this idea that people should cook for themselves. I think that a lot of times people (especially people who weren’t brought up having home cooked meals) will see dishes being prepared on Iron Chef America, or one of the Top Chef iterations, and think “I can’t make that, cooking must be too tough” – not realizing that the day to day business of cooking for a family need not be nearly that complex or involved.

    I think a lot of this comes down to the idea of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We have a self-selecting group here, so it is easy for us to stand up on soap boxes and decry the lack of home cooking. But I’ve got a pretty good schedule going – I can get to work early, leave at 3 to pick up my daughter from school, and have time for any errands/activities/homework/bath/etc and put together a meal for when my wife gets home at 6-6:30, and even then, there are still days where I text the wife and say that cooking isn’t going to happen, please pick something up on your way home. I can’t imagine if we both had to work until 5:30 and had 2-3 sets of homework/baths/activities and get kids in bed by 8-8:30. I’m sure that there would be a bit less cooking – and I like to cook. So maybe, instead of piling on these people for not cooking – celebrate if they start doing 1 or 2 meals/week.

  • Allison Horton

    In addition to having a meal together – breakfast, lunch or dinner – it is also about the conversation. Nutrition sustains our bodies and conversations sustain and nourish our minds and self image. The family dinner table is where both should come together.

    I’m a single mom and I know how difficult it can be to get a meal on the table after a long day at work and school but I also know that no matter what we eat or when we eat it – my kids appreciate that time.

    Great source of inspiration — http://www.thefamilydinnerproject.org

    Check it out!!!

  • Erfster

    I grew up in a single parent household, my mom had to work and take care of the house pretty much by herself. She would occasionally buy fast food but as that is expensive she would mostly cook our meals at home. We didn’t have much money, we received government aid, so the ingredients she used were pretty simple. Like almost every child I liked some meals better than others, openly voicing my complaints about the ones I disliked or just not eating what I was served. Now that I’m older and cook for my own houseful, the dishes I complained about are the ones I love the most. I don’t remember the visits to McD’s or any other restaurant so much but I have incredibly fond memories of the food my mom used to cook.

    Moral of the story, cook for your kids. They’ll thank you later.

  • Pancho

    A home cooked meal eaten as a family (wether that family is the common mom-dad-kid, or -as in my case- me and my roommate) is the beating heart of any home.

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