July 27, 2011

I'm bringing cooking back

Oh yes I am. One person at a time, if necessary. Did you see the news today that about one-third of the calories kids eat each day are from fast food and other takeout food? (You can read the original research article here.) No wonder we have 9-year-olds with "adult onset" diabetes! 

Does anyone cook anymore? With all the Food Network shows and celebrity chefs (and their branded sets of cookware), one would think that there was a whole lot of cooking going on. But the sad reality is that cooking has, at best, become a spectator sport for most of us, in the same way that forensics is a spectator sport for "CSI" junkies and physical activity is a spectator sport for fans of "Monday Night Football" and "Dancing With the Stars."

I was mentioning to Jeff the HUGE variation in cooking skills among my fellow students in my summer Molecular Gastronomy class. Some of those students will be starting grad school with me in the fall, in nutrition and dietetics. He was incredulous. "Why would someone who can't cook want to be a dietitian?"

I don't really have an answer for that. For me, nutrition and home-cooking are so deeply entwined that I can't  imagine nourishing myself day in and day out without being able to cook. There is nothing more nourishing or caring than preparing even the simplest of meals for those you care about (including yourself). There's nothing nourishing and caring about bringing home food from a drive-thru. That's just a lot of packaging and a lot of grease.

It's an amazing thing to take a handful of ingredients and turn them into a tasty, healthy dish. It's like alchemy. OK, occasionally it's a disaster, but usually it's like alchemy. And even the occasional disaster isn't really the end of the world, unless you're playing with really expensive ingredients. For years I didn't really know how to cook beef or pork, partly because I was a near-vegetarian when I was learning to cook, and also because meat can be expensive, and I was afraid to screw it up. The fear of messing up beans and rice doesn't carry the same weight.

Somewhere between the post-World War II advent of convenience foods and the mainstreaming of two-income households, women stopped cooking. Even worse, they didn't pass on their languishing cooking skills to their daughters...or their sons. In a Utopian paradise, when women started bringing home some of the bacon, their menfolk would have started helping to fry it up in a pan. I think it's pretty clear we don't live in a Utopian paradise.

My mother worked (not always full-time) and she cooked (not fancy French meals or anything). So I grew up being exposed to home cooking, even though I don't recall ever helping out in the kitchen (other than when it was cookie-baking time). More than once in our married life, Jeff has said to me, half-jokingly, "Didn't your mother teach you anything?" No, not really. I entered into adulthood with the idea that dinner did not come from a drive-thru window and that it did involve vegetables, but lacked the skills to confidently assemble a meal. I'm pretty much self-taught. In the beginning, there were more disasters, less alchemy, but with the wisdom of hindsight I can see that I aimed too high some of the time.

When I'm a dietitian, I'm not going to stop at helping people learn how to eat healthfully. I'm going to help them learn how to cook. I'm going to make sure they have the skills to cook and/or assemble simple, healthy meals for themselves and their families. It's not enough to tell people to eat their vegetables and choose whole grains instead of refined grains if they don't know what to do with them!

Tomorrow: More on why home cooking will save the world, and some resources for the cooking newbie!