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.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
If you liked this post, take a look at these links:
- Coincidentally, the NYTimes weighed in on the very same subject on the same day.
- My past post on Lunch with Michael Pollan: Two Word of Warning.
- Visit the North Carolina State Sociology and Anthropology Department.
- Eater's list of most anticipated cookbooks for the fall of 2014.
- Food Tech Connect is a great website connect modern technology to food system innovation.
© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.