Monday, July 6th, 2009

Reason for Not Eating Out #33: To Preserve a Dying Art

My great-grandmother was a keen tatter. Every Christmas, my family took out her tatting: intricate cotton snowflakes, bells, Christmas trees, flowers, all tatted by her own hand. Tatting, I was told by my father, her grandson, was a dying art. It’s a bit similar to crochet, but the particular style of weaving has fallen out of favor through the years, for some reason. I’m aware that knitting and home-sewing have become chic hobbies in recent years, even (or especially) for urban lifestyles, but tatting (and please speak up, any tatting enthusiasts), has not so much. My ancestor’s graceful relics are admired fondly each year, but soon there will just not be enough tatting to go around for future generations to enjoy. And I fear that cooking, at home, not for commercial purposes, is on its way toward eclipse, too.

But don’t call me the alarmist one. That home cooking is being practiced less and less in this country is nothing new. Nor is its decline being put into such maudlin terms. Over the past few months, I’ve read articles, attended talks, screenings and readings where influential thinkers in the food world have pointed to the demise in home cooking as one of the culprits for the “broken” food system in America. In the view of many, no longer cooking has contributed to an overall decay in personal well-being, too, and that includes our obesity epidemic. It’s not nearly just the individual who’s to blame, though. In many urban areas of the country, there are more fast food restaurants than there are stores to purchase whole and fresh foods; grocery stores are dwindling in numbers to the point where many New York City residents have no fresh food within reasonable walking distance. Around schools and colleges, fast-food and other convenience eateries have set up shop in the hopes of steering students away from the comparably more healthy cafeteria food choices (which could include a brown-bag lunch). And many of those students are taking the bait, and eating fast food every day, as was lamented by a public school teacher who raised his hand to ask a question after a sneak-preview screening for Food, Inc. a few weeks ago.

So here are a few quotes from other concerned voices on the “death” of home cooking and its repercussions, culled from my favorite recent food-related articles and scribbles in my notebook. Please note that the direct quotes were hand-transcribed by yours truly on location and thus may not be completely accurate in wording (but probably are; I’m just being cautious). I encourage you to check out the articles linked, which are terrific.

“I don’t think they cook, I think they get frozen, take-out food when they eat in” — Gael Greene, of people when they “eat in,” at a panel on “Food Trends and Finds” at the 92nd St. Y, 12/15/08

“Unfortunately for the last few generations, cooking has been left by the wayside in exchange for cheap, convenient substitutes as people became increasingly squeezed for time and energy.” — Rob Smart, in the Huffington Post, 7/2/09

“Home cooks more than ever today don’t know the basics of cooking — once learned by watching parents or grandparents in the kitchen.” — Pervaiz Shallwani, in The Wall Street Journal, 4/1/09

“As we lost our skills at the stove, we also lost something less tangible but no less important: the opportunity to spend time together in the kitchen, talking and cooking.” — Amanda Hesser, in a New York Times Op-Ed, 5/30/09

“Americans hate inconvenience.” — Joel Salatin, at a panel discussion after a screening of Fresh, 5/27/09

“You do see a lot more people cooking, and that’s a healthy change.” — Michael Pollan, at a discussion on his book, In Defense of Food, at The Museum of Natural History, 5/14/09

This last quote offers a slice of the brighter side, and a point that’s being made more and more frequently: that people are cooking more due to the economic recession. A second wind for the “dying art” of cooking?

“In the last depression, we didn’t have McDonald’s,” Michael Pollan went on to say at that lecture, alluding to the fact that the fast food chain’s sales have been climbing ever since the recession began. Frozen food like pot pies and TV dinners are on the rise, too. I think this goes to show that cooking for everyday consumption is already out the window for many people. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t enjoy a little play for novelty’s sake, does it?

So rather than overwhelm oneself with make-ahead meals, weekly grocery shopping and recipe-hunting, perhaps all those non-cookers out there might want to think of preparing a meal as a fun recreation. Like enrolling in a class on knitting, or taking up the art of ship-in-a-bottle making. For the sake of preserving an archaic tradition. They might just find it rewarding enough to keep it alive.

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20 Responses to “Reason for Not Eating Out #33: To Preserve a Dying Art”

  1. kim says:

    i agree, but I think people recently do cook in a lot more just to save a few bucks.

    I haven’t had fast foods for a few years already and never craved it again. I would rather save up and have one GREAT meal than a couple of deli meals.

  2. Zora says:

    Great way of looking at it, Cathy. Maybe some people are more apt to try cooking as a positive response (new project!) rather than a negative one (I’ll die of junk food poisoning if I don’t). Sort of similar to recasting environmental issues in a more active, positive light.

    It does strike me as a serious problem that people so seldom learn home cooking from home cooks anymore. Instead, people who didn’t grow up with family who cooked now have to learn from professional chefs, and that’s a whole different (and usually more difficult and intimidating) style of cooking.

  3. Liv says:

    I think it is probably true that many people opt for convenience, but I know so many people who love to cook. It is true, however, that we tend to buy certain things rather than make them from scratch – i.e., chicken broth, ketchup, salsa. I never knew how easy these things were to make – even ethnic foods! – until I had a hard time finding them and turned to making my own. Do most people today know that they can literally whip their own cream with nothing more than cream and a beater?

  4. Melissa says:

    I’ve been lamenting this for quite some time. What bothers me most are women who actually TAKE PRIDE in not knowing how to cook. I’ve spent a great deal of my 31 years in academia…and it amazes me that otherwise intelligent, liberal, and open minded women think it is demeaning to know your way around the kitchen.

    But all my friends that are proud that they don’t know how to cook sure do enjoy my homemade breads, fresh grown produce and all the wonderful stuff I create in my kitchen :)

  5. TattingChic says:

    Hi there! That is wonderful that your Grandma tatted! It would be neat to see pics of her work if you were fortunate enough to inherit any!
    I would love to be the one to let you know that tatting, indeed, is ALIVE and WELL!

    If you would like to see more tatting feel free to visit my blog (just click on my name above). It’s all about the tatting there and I have a lot of tatting buddies, too. They also have blogs. Well, if you do decide to come for a visit then “happy bloghopping”, LOL!
    I’ll bet your cooking is fabulous. I can tat, but I’d sure love to improve my cooking skills, LOL! :)

  6. Jane says:

    Hi there. Just to let you know that tatting is alive, well and thriving in a modern and vibrant way. Do please put in a google search. You’ll be gobsmacked!!!
    Colours, new designs, modern techniques and a very friendly worldwide collection of people who all tat.

  7. Nath says:

    I agree with your article but from what I see around me, I can’t blame some people. Some of my friends really have little time in the evenings and, as they don’t find cooking to be either a pleasurable or relaxing experience, I can understand them not spending their weekends doing so, particularly the ones with kids. I think it will take an awful lot of social structural change for things to start improving. And as for the loss of knowledge, I feel blogs and libraries (as opposed to chefs as mentioned by Zora) have a great part to play in making these skills freely accessible.

  8. Cantaloupe Alone says:

    Luckily sharing your meals can have a viral/opposite effect. After guests taste how great a home-cooked meal is, they are much more motivated to try for themselves.

  9. Liz says:

    I agree with Nath that most people can learn to cook from the web and books these days- not necessarily expensive cooking classes (though I’m sure they would be fun!). I grew up in a home where my mother hated to cook and did it grudgingly, but from being around people that took joy in cooking as an art and a hobby, I found a love for it, too. I taught myself to cook and now look forward to it as relaxation after a long day, though unfortunately it is a luxury that I don’t always get to indulge in because of time.

    It is sad that home cooked meals are harder to come by, but I don’t really feel that cooking will ever die out; people will continue to pass their love for it on to their friends and their children.

  10. gina says:

    I got here from a google alert about tatting but since a few of my tat-mates have responded about that, I’ll just talk about the cooking part. I turn 60 this month. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me at all that I seldom cook. I appreciate good food, but it doesn’t have to be home cooked to be good. One of the nice things about this day and age is that people who truly enjoy cooking can indulge to their heart’s content with newer and better equipment than past generations ever had. Both of my grandmothers were excellent cooks and also earned their living in later years as cooks in restaurants. Occasionally I’ll cook a meal, but it’s not my passion and after 30 years of trying to come up with 3 good meals a day for 4 kids on a pauper’s budget, I’m happy to leave it behind. But as I said, I do appreciate good food. It’s nice that we don’t have to cook unless we want to.

  11. Zora says:

    Nath: Hear, hear for libraries! It’s a great way to test-drive a cookbook you’re curious about. The library kept my cooking knowledge going, even in the lean patches.

    BTW, in an attempt to share home-cook knowledge (not fancy cheffery), I started a podcast, Cooking in Real Time.

  12. cathy says:

    I can’t tell you how happy I am that the tatting community has spoken up; I think I’m inspired to take up my great-grandmother’s craft.
    Zora’s podcast is the bee’s knees!

  13. Sarah says:

    I think it is a sad state that so many have seemed to lost the art of cooking–especially as food is vital to our survival. Thank you for this entry.

  14. Jerusha Klemperer: Preserving the Dying Art of Cooking (and Other Things I Do Because I Nnow in My Heart They’re Important) | TipTe.com says:

    [...] New York, got me thinking about this when she posted Reason #33 (to n.e.o.i.n.y) a few weeks ago: “To Preserve a Dying Art.” For me, that is reason enough. I don’t want to see a world without home cooks any more than I [...]

  15. Jerusha Klemperer: Preserving the Dying Art of Cooking (and Other Things I Do Because I Know in My Heart They’re Important) | says:

    [...] New York, got me thinking about this when she posted Reason #33 (to n.e.o.i.n.y) a few weeks ago: “To Preserve a Dying Art.” For me, that is reason enough. I don’t want to see a world without home cooks any more than I [...]

  16. Melissa M. says:

    I am a 45 year old mother with my sons ranging in age from 8 months old to 25 years old. I was taught by my grandmother how to tate when I was 6 years old. Sadly, I did not keep in practice and have forgotten how to do it. I believe it is important for all to know how to cook a home meal. It’s so very satisfying to see what you come up with. I love the southern cooking the best and traditional cooking. However I will try new things too. Cooking for your family is especially rewarding when you see how much they love it! Happy cooking all.

  17. Jerusha Klemperer: Preserving the Dying Art of Cooking (and Other Things I Do Because I Know in My Heart They’re Important) « Daily News says:

    [...] New York, got me thinking about this when she posted Reason #33 (to n.e.o.i.n.y) a few weeks ago: “To Preserve a Dying Art.” For me, that is reason enough. I don’t want to see a world without home cooks any more than I [...]

  18. Heather S. says:

    I don’t think it’s sad that cooking at home is becoming a dying art. If you think about it, women have done the majority of cooking throughout history. It has only been in the last 50 years (in America) that woman’s roles have changed. More and more women are the breadwinners in the family and do not have the time to cook. Not including how many single-parent families have grown over the years. We can say some people are being lazy, but I don’t see a crime in buying frozen vegetables when we live in a culture where a 40 hour work week isn’t enough anymore.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am actually for cooking. I try to incorporate some of the things my mom has taught me in the kitchen, when she had the time to teach. But please, let’s look to the chain of events that have brought us to this current situation. (Woman’s strides in the working world, fast-food companies expansion/targeting lower-income neighborhoods, singe-parent families, fewer farmer’s markets, constant importing of foods to the US, schools cut “home economics” classes, the list can go on.)

    Like I said before, I am all for cooking at home, but most men no longer hunt for our dinner, so why should I feel bad if I don’t cook. ;)

  19. rob62521 says:

    I would have to agree that cooking at home is a lost art. Most of the people I know don’t cook at home. They eat out or buy convenience foods. One gal brags how they can eat cheaply at Burger King since they are senior citizens and then in the next breath complain about their medical bills for their cholesterol meds and tests…hmmm, think there’s a correlation there.

    We do eat out. But it is a special time for us. I like cooking for my husband and our friends. Last Christmas I made goodie baskets for our friends for Christmas and they were very popular.

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