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.