family-meal-@1020

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

 

Virginia Heffernan adds to the increasing noise about how unfair cooking is for working moms in the NYT magazine. I’m a fan of her work, but her Sunday essay, a long, shrill, monochromatic whine about not liking to cook dinner, is so sad and self-unaware I feel compelled to figure out my own thoughts on a subject I write about regularly.

I don’t disagree that there are many people who really don’t like cooking. More, I’ve argued that it’s probably important that every family includes people who don’t like to cook. But I do think cooking food where you live is important, as readers here know, and we fail to recognize just how important at our peril.

Heffernan early on calls Ruth Reichl pompous for saying that cooking food is the most important thing you can do for your family, and responds with hysterical rhetoricals, but her points overall are few and simple:

  • That the onus of making dinner too often falls on the woman of the house (probably true, but not always; for example Stay at Stove Dad; Cook Like a Dad; my pal Blake and his wife Mary, both of whom work, don’t particularly like to cook, so they alternate days).
  • To cook or not is unfairly bound up with a woman’s self-worth (to which I would paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: “only with her own consent”).
  • And that the calls to cook for your family are unreasonably difficult. (The meal above, chicken schnitzel, spinach salad with bacon vinaigrette, and mashed potatoes, was completed in fewer than 30 minutes. Oh, and photographed by the woman of the household, at my request—I hope not a sexist one).

I’m sorry Heffernan feels so guilty and put-upon that she must spend what must be 2000 words in the world’s most important newspaper attempting to justify not cooking for her five-year-old daughter. “Virginia, please, relax. But you do need to figure out how to put nourishing food before your kids and yourself. Yes, it’s arguably more important than clothing them and hugging them.” She doesn’t say if she’s single or not; if she is, that indeed is another level of difficulty; if she’s not, then she has options. She’s a freelancer, so presumably she works from home, more reason not to complain.

I’m writing to reiterate this: cooking food for your family is a good and powerful force, and failing to cook at least one meal a week that you share with the entire household deprives all of that goodness. If you don’t do it, will the kids turn to a life of crime? Not any more than they’ll be affected by a father who’s never around. It happens. Life is hard.

Honestly, the reason most people think cooking is hard is because they don’t think ahead (perhaps because they spent four hours the day before watching television), they fail to plan. Their knives are also likely dull, which makes cooking difficult. As for Sunday’s dinner above, I cooked off the bacon while watching Cleveland trounce the Steelers, washed the spinach and seasoned the chicken thighs with salt and rosemary (we had hard-boiled eggs already). That’s how, between 6:30 and 7:00, we could make, photograph, and serve the above meal in fewer than 30 minutes. On an earlier evening, when I didn’t have this luxury, it was hotdogs on the grill (really good hot dogs), frozen corn, frozen peas, and Lay’s potato chips (ingredients: potatoes, salt, oil—don’t buy the baked Lay’s, they’re treated with corn syrup). I was going to do kale chips but forgot to turn on the oven in time.

Other reasons cooking an evening meal routinely is worth the trouble:

  • The smells of cooking, which affect our parasympathetic nervous system and do so for a reason, relax us. They are natural stress relievers. No small thing in our stressful lives.
  • Routine generally is a good thing for kids and adults, giving structure and stability to the chaos of our days.
  • Cooking our own food is better for our bodies and our waistlines.
  • Sharing food creates a time to talk with the people you care about most while you all nourish your bodies.
  • Cooking food makes the people you care about happy.

Another benefit? My daughter used to rail against the nightly meal, why did she have to sit at the table, she’d cry (which she did, even when she refused to eat what I’d cook, instead microwaving pasta in defiance). Today, at 19, she and her boyfriend routinely ask to cook for me and Donna, which makes me feel inordinately lucky. Virginia, there’s huge potential payback. Derek Clayton, a Michael Symon chef and really talented cook, volunteers to cook at a local hospice, which I recently wrote about (“Last Meal“).

I’d like to repeat his words when asked why this volunteer work, cooking for the families going through hospice, felt so satisfying: “I have a lot of associations with food and family,” he said. “I sat down with my family every day for the first 18 years of my life. I don’t know if I was always happy about it then, but I recognize now how important it is.”

A lot of associations, a lot of nourishment, a lot of love. Goes a long way, the evening meal. Laziness and failure to plan isn’t a good enough excuse to give that up. We all make our own choices. No one should judge those choices. But we should be aware of what those choices mean.

Chicken Schnitzel

  • 4 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
  • Panko bread crumbs as needed for coating chicken (about 1 cup)
  • Vegetable oil for pan-frying
  1. Season the chicken with salt and rosemary. Dredge in the panko.
  2. In a large skillet, heat a quarter inch of oil over high heat. When you see currents swirling in the oil, lay the chicken pieces into it, and lower the heat to medium-high. Cook until golden brown and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side.

Serves 4

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