Is it time we consider the anti-cooking backlash?
In a recent rant in The New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan confessed to irritation with the daily necessity of feeding her children and posed the rhetorical question: “Cooking! Aren’t we past that?”
Well, no, Virginia, I’m not past that. And yes, I am one of those traitorous women (her words, not mine) who actually likes to cook.
Still, while Heffernan’s petulance did make me wonder if someone needs a nap and maybe a boost to her blood sugar – I know “hangry” when I hear it – I also found myself connecting some of what Heffernan was saying to a more serious and thoughtful discussion.
In Chapel Hill at the annual Terra Vita Food & Drink Festival earlier this month, I listened to a panel on the subject of why some people don’t embrace cooking, and whether those of us in the food media sometimes make that problem worse.
The title of the talk was officially “The Wholesome Food Movement and Food Accessibility in the South,” and the speakers included Kinston chef Vivian Howard, food and nutrition writer Jane Black and cookbook author Sheri Castle.
But while the discussion was supposed to be about encouraging accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables, they also ended up talking about the mixed messages we send out in the food world.
America is in danger, they said, of becoming a two-tier world of cooking: On the top, there are upper-middle and high-income people who can afford to roam food markets, picking up pristine vegetables and lovingly taking them home to cook. And on the bottom, the people with tighter wallets and shorter time frames have to grab the fastest, most-processed food they can find – and feel ashamed for doing it.
“Too many treat farmers markets like a food petting zoo,” said Castle.
“It’s not all golden and dripping with meaning,” Black agreed. “Sometimes, it’s just dinner. Everything isn’t fraught with meaning.”
Black and her husband, Brent Cunningham, are working on a book about a project to turn around poor diets in Huntington, W.Va., which was classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as America’s unhealthiest city.
One woman Black met there was trying to focus on the fresh-cooking message. But she confessed that she sometimes spends money on fresh vegetables and then runs out of time to cook them, so they go to waste.
And yet, she felt “bad” if she bought frozen vegetables, because she’s absorbed the message the frozen isn’t as good as fresh. But frozen vegetables are still vegetables, Black told her. There isn’t anything “wrong” with using frozen vegetables if they get more vegetables into your life.
When she was growing up in rural Eastern North Carolina, Howard often felt ashamed of the food they ate, like her family’s traditions were too hick. Now, as a chef with a TV show, she understands how important it is to show her real daily life, not what New York or Los Angeles thinks rural life is.
“People need to see that the world values what they do and what they eat.”
Community life is just what we do, not what someone tells us we ought to do. And we don’t have to make every moment a postcard.
We just have to make it dinner.