Mark Bittman: Cooking Solves Everything

In this excerpt from the new Byliner Original, bestselling columnist Mark Bittman reflects on his introduction to the world of cooking, and our country's subsequent alienation from it.

What cooking did for me cannot be overstated. It was my first constructive hobby, my first real learned craft. It was an organizing principle for seeing the cities in which I lived as well as those I visited. It became the basis for socializing as an adult. Instead of smoking pot and eating junk food, I was learning to sauté chicken breasts, serve them with green-peppercorn cream sauce, and choose a wine to go with them. And, after the birth of my first daughter in 1978, cooking was an important means of kneading (if you will) the family together.
While I was learning to cook, I was learning to work. I wasn’t all that disciplined. In fact, I was lazy: I saw cooking as a means to an end. Which is OK. We don’t cook for pleasure the way we make love or watch a movie for pleasure. Most of the time, we cook the way we walk: to get somewhere. To get food on the table. That’s the goal. As you do this, you get better at it. First you follow recipes to the letter; then you begin to synthesize some of those recipes, comparing one with another and drawing on what you see as the best of them; then you develop a repertoire of recipes you’ve made your own. Finally you throw away the books, start shopping, open the refrigerator, and cook. You cook like a grandmother, or like anyone with experience.
Still, most people don’t bother. According to a National Restaurant Association survey, a third of Americans think that take-out makes them “more productive”; three-fourths think the social opportunity of restaurant eating is a better use of their time than “cooking and cleaning”; and more than half think they can’t duplicate the “taste sensations” of restaurants at home. (For some reason this one angers me more than the others. The reason you can’t duplicate flavors at home is because you’re not using “enough” MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, and garlic powder. The reason you can’t duplicate “fine” restaurant food at home is probably because you’re not using enough salt or fat—often butter, but have you seen how much olive oil a really good Italian cook uses?) Almost everyone agrees that eating in a restaurant relieves “monotony.”
But real cooking is not monotonous; it’s as varied and challenging and rewarding a task as exists. Unlike tennis, for example, which is incredibly difficult to become good at, or driving, which is easy but really monotonous, cooking will pay you back in spades every single time you do it. I agree that cleaning up can be monotonous, but the majority of Americans have dishwashers.
Americans, I’m sad to report, spend less time cooking than anyone. How do we spend our time? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2010 the average American spent thirty-two minutes each day preparing food and cleaning up, as opposed to two hours and forty-five minutes watching TV. Other activities competing with meal preparation include online pursuits and socializing—things for which we generally don’t budget time. (Few people say, “I don’t have time for television.” They say, “I don’t have time to cook.” Note that they have time to watch people cook on television!)
I will not argue that cooking is effortless, like watching television. It requires time, though often as little as thirty minutes. We make time for the things we care about, regardless of what they are. For many people, cooking is as much a priority as other optional aspects of life. Cooking is like exercise or spending time in nature or good conversation: The more you do it, the more you like it, the better you get at it, and the more you recognize that its rewards are far greater than its efforts and that even its efforts are rewards. When you become even marginally good at cooking, you begin to enjoy the process. Even the shopping. Even, sometimes, the cleanup.

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