Tuesday, February 26, 2013

5 Good Reasons Why You Might Suck At Cooking


My mother jokingly forewarned me at a very young age,  “You should learn how to cook, because in your generation, don’t expect the woman you date/marry to know how.”  And in that moment, I guess she struck the right chord with motivating my interest to learn to cook.  Recently, I’ve continually run into a ongoing trend and reoccurring truth: for a growing number of people, the motivation to learn to cook is low on the wishlist and practically nonexistent on the priority list.  Unfortunately there are a lot of reasons and issues for how cooking has come to its current situation – essentially a dichotomy between those (seemingly the few) that understand, nurture their interest and cook food, and, those that do not.  Here are 5 very good ones:

5. Family

Other people tend to find more traditional reasons to cook, but it seems family tends to be the big factor and source. General accepted wisdom dictates that families that eat together tend to come from families that cook together, which then indoctrinates their future generations to continue the simple tradition of  creating the meal.  If the principle is broken, the link from one generation to the other is lost.  And with each missing link, we lose traditional heirloom flavors, techniques and cultural etymology or significance. 

4. Fast Food/Supermarkets

Michael Pollan can give you just about a million reasons and specifics about the hazards of fast food and supermarkets, but I’ll narrow it to one focus: processed and premade items make us lazy.  Considering their dominance, the true flavors of common items like aioli/mayo, mustard, ketchup, chicken stock, and good cheese might as well be the safari animals of the food world: close to extinct but accessible by occasional visitation to a zoo or museum. 

If you want to connect the dots from a mental standpoint, the more fast or processed foods there are, the less inclined people are to actually cook.  This makes them even less likely to sit at a dinner table – which of course, is just the precursor for severing the connections that families hold to cooking.   

3. Education

The school system in this country will stress the importance of math, science, language and history as the cornerstones of the education system.  They are the pieces of our framework that many claim as absolutely necessary for our survival.  Unfortunately, things like practical social manners/conventions, building/repair, banking/finance, cooking/farming/hunting and self sustenance/health are all deemed as extracurricular.  Unfortunately, those things are only important in daily life (or paramount in a post apocalyptic world), but not on our SAT’s.    Derivative calculus certainly helped me understand how to work through LaPlace Transforms in college, but I’m not sure they are relevant in my current adult life.(*Update: Yes, I get that math and science is crucial to all those other skills I noted, that’s not the point…)

2. The Recipe

The recipe is not your friend.  The recipe is your enemy.  The recipe tells you to do this or that.  If the recipe told you to twirl your fingers and spin three times to make a souffle rise, I would not be surprised if you acquiesced.  People fail at cooking with recipes because there is one aspect of cooking that people always forget to acknowledge: everything is variable – whether that be kitchen tools, ingredients, atmospheric pressure, author’s ability to write clear instructions, skillset or intelligence. 

The primary things that are not variable are science and the application of technique.  If you understand the science and foundation of basic cooking techniques, you can almost master every single cooking situation out there (or at least enough of them to be a great home cook).  The only guiding tool necessary would be reference/preferences (ingredient list, technique to utilize, preferential adjustments/steps) and ratio (scientific relationship between the amount required for each item, e.g. bread).  Mastering basic technique enables more creativity without failure and the expansion of understanding how an ingredient works (not just the way its used on the one recipe).  For example, if you understand how to braise a pork shoulder, it should not require separate recipes to do one with apples and parsnips than one with onions, fennel and garlic.    

I’m not trying to upset those that love cookbooks (since I am a proud owner of a beautifully inspiring collection), but the over-reliance of the security blanket of the recipe (recipe culture if you will) mentally disarms people from making attempts to learn to properly develop the skills of a cook.  People seem too content to follow what real cooks know to do intuitively.  People learn cities by studying, walking and living through them, not by following a GPS in them.  Cooking is no different.              

1. You

You are too busy.  You have no time.  You have to work.  You are too tired.  You don’t know where to start.  You can’t afford the time.  You can’t afford the ingredients.  You tried but failed.  You think its easier to just eat out.  You end up with too much food.  You can never make anything as good as anyone else.  You have kids.  You have school.  You have a broken finger.  You aren’t creative.  You aren’t technical.  You have a small kitchen.  You don’t have enough tools.  You can’t follow so many steps.  You don’t know if you’re doing it right.  You aren’t really trying to impress anyone.  You have to cleanup after.   

You know the benefits.  You know the importance.  You want to. 

You can stop making excuses.