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.)