I have a small private belief — for which, despite being a science writer, I can produce no data — that much of the complex difficulty of the American food system would vanish if people knew how to cook. When I say “cook,” I don’t mean mimicking “Top Chef” theatrics, or reproducing the transglutaminase excesses of molecular cuisine; I don’t even, particularly, mean carefully following recipes. What I mean, instead, is getting people to a place where they can walk into a store, or into their own pantries, emerge with a handful of ingredients, and make them into a meal.
If people trusted they could feed themselves, without much effort or advance planning, they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the lure of fast and processed food. And if sales of those diminished, the market for the cheap products of industrial agriculture would diminish too. This I believe.
To trust that you can feed yourself, it helps to know a few techniques and to have developed a feel for some simple kitchen processes: when it’s appropriate to use a saute pan or a stock pot, and how long it takes water to boil. Most of all though I think it requires not being intimidated by the idea of cooking. Which is why I wish anyone who wants to be someone who cooks — but doesn’t quite know how to get there — could read “Dinner: A Love Story” (Ecco). At first glance, it’s a cookbook, based on a blog, by Jenny Rosenstrach, a magazine columnist and editor who lives outside New York City. But really, it’s a memoir, and also a how-to manual: a smart, pragmatic, warm and thoughtful guide to how two young professionals taught themselves to cook, and then taught their two kids to like food, and then organized their lives so that they all convene at a home-cooked meal, almost every day.
For the first entry in my (new! limited-edition!) summer feature, Superbug Summer Books, I asked Jenny some questions by phone about DALS.
Maryn at SUPERBUG: You start the book with a story — which made me laugh at first, but then tear up — about a friend who cried in public because she had never cooked dinner for her 5- and 2-year-old kids. I have the sense this is very common, both the not-cooking and also the shame. True?
Jenny at DALS: Oh, my God, yes. Dinner has become such a source of psychological stress. Everyone knows home-cooked meals are better. No one wants to give processed food to their kids if they have an alternative, but we’re all busy so we have to do things quickly, and sometimes the quick options are not as healthy as the slower ones. There are so many things that you can be doing wrong that it’s overwhelming to figure out where to begin. Plus, I think our generation is hard-wired to feel inadequate about ourselves as parents, and dinner has become this test that we feel we fail at. One of my friends said, “It’s like we have to be Donna Reed, but the local, sustainable, organic Donna Reed.”
M: We all have this 1950s image of people sitting down to a home-cooked dinner. But in the decades since then, learning how to cook somehow dropped out of our culture.
J: The processed-food industry convinced everyone that the 30-minute meal is the ideal. Dinner was the main purpose of the day, the the place where everyone reconvenes and downloads and exhales. Now it’s just one more thing that you have to get done fast, so you can check it off the list. If you can convince enough people of that, of course they will buy foods that are fastest and cheapest — the ones that come frozen, that are filled with things that we’d rather not give our kids. That said: We are not 100 percent pure. We have Trader Joe’s in the freezer. It’s not realistic to never have stuff like that around.
M: It’s been my experience that, once you start cooking regularly, your relationship with ingredients changes. It’s as though you take food more seriously. I find that I shop with a plan in my head of how I’ll use things, and not let them rot in the fridge. I’m conscious of waste.
J: I am always thinking about that. It doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily great at it, but I’m always thinking about ways to not waste food. The other night we had a party, and we had a ton of cheeses and prosciutto and salami left over, which I did not want to let sit in the fridge because I would eat them all and feel disgusting. I had some pizza sauce and crusts in the freezer, so I made two pizzas, and we ate one that night — and it was delicious — and I put the other one back in the freezer for a night when the babysitter’s coming. It’s key for the family dinner slog: You can’t start from zero every night. Ideally you’re building on something from a night before.
M: And your family goes along with you on this; it’s not like you’re doing this alone, right? You tell a charming story toward the end of the book about making roast chicken for dinner, and then getting up to put your kids to bed, and by the time you got back downstairs, your husband Andy had broken the carcass down and started a pot of stock.
J: It’s called “Love is Homemade Stock,” and I meant it. But also, having a stash of homemade things at your disposal in the freezer is an amazing feeling, like money in the bank. It pays off in delicious dividends.
M: I was impressed by your strategy for upgrading your pantry — moving toward things that are healthier to eat and healthier for the planet — without making yourself crazy or spending a year’s salary at once.
J: It started just with looking at the things we eat the most. I was giving my kids so much peanut butter that it made sense to look at it. And eggs, that wasn’t any kind of a philosophical decision. That was purely because the flavor was just so astounding to me, the difference between an organic egg and a regular egg. And then I started looking at things more carefully: Parmesan cheese, canned tomatoes, milk, the things we use all the time. it was not stressful — but it also took a lot longer than it probably does for most people. It took a good five years before we really got to the place we are now, which is we try to pretty much only eat meat if we know the source, shop at our farmer’s market during the summer when it’s open, try to buy organic in winter. But we’re not perfect, because not everything the girls like is organic. For instance, it’s very hard to find organic grapes, so we just get regular grapes.
M: Your daughters are 8 and 10 now. Do you feel, because of the way that you cook, you’ve changed the kind of relationship they will have with food?
J:. One of the really nice things about family dinner is the by-products, the conversations that comes out of the food you’re making. They know so much about food, they’re so educated about what’s on their plate. The opposite of our generation, where we knew nothing about the provenance of our food. We’re trying to make sure that they are not becoming food snobs, and also, because they’re girls, I don’t want them to be unduly obsessed with food.
They love to cook. They love to cook with me a little more than I like to cook with them, sadly, because I’m always just trying to get something on the table, whereas they like long projects. But they feel the same way about dinner that I always did about dinner when I was growing up, which is that it’s the center of your being a family. I like the fact that we’ve been able to turn it into a ritual for them, that it’s a safe place for them to come every day, where they know that they can talk to their parents and share good news and bad news. I hope they’ll be able to recreate that themselves.
This is the first in an intermittent series I’m going to run between now and autumn, about books I like and think you should take a look at. Some of the books will be directly related to this blog’s core topics. Others, I just think are cool. You can find my picks at #SBSBooks.
Update: Jenny added to our colloquy in a follow-up post at her blog.