Julia Child is back in the news as Nora Ephron’s new movie Julie & Julia is spread over more column inches than any movie I can remember. Hundreds of news stories and even coverage on Sunday’s NYTimes Op-Ed page. Enough already! Great movie, but stop reading about it—wait to see the thing! What’s the reason for this astonishing coverage of a story about two women cooking?
I think it's because we miss Julia, a force of nature who told us something new and valuable, qualities that are hard to come by in the sea of dump-and-stirs that fill our screens today.
Michael Pollan opens his long essay in the NYTimes magazine about the end of home cooking and what it means, with his memories of watching Julia and the positive impact she had on his dinner table thanks to a mom who liked to cook after watching Julia. It’s a thoughtful piece sparked by the question “How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?” Much of the material will be familiar, the trajectory of food television from Julia to Giada and Iron Chef (Buford wrote a long story on the rise of food television in the New Yorker nearly three years ago). Not till last quarter of Pollan's story does his real and salient point become clear.
The dire news that even as food television grows in popularity, researchers continue to find that fewer people cook at home than ever and what time they do spend preparing food at home, is more likely to be heating stuff that some other company cooked and packaged for them (the frozen PB & J sandwich is one of the more hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-pathetic examples). Pollan spends a lot of time describing his dispiriting conversation with “veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer,” who basically argues that the way we’re eating now—microwaving pizzas and Lean Cuisines, buying canned stock and boxed cake mix—will only, and inevitably, grow more entrenched.
Isn’t there any way we can bring America back to the days of Julia and the pleasures of cooking, Pollan asks? Balzer says, “Not going to happen. Why? Because we’re cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who’s going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.”
What he does see is who the next American cook will be: The Supermarket. That’s who will be cooking our food.
Balzer is wrong, of course. Many, many people are cooking. Most of the people reading this, for instance, are committed cooks. As are the gazillions of readers clicking on Simply Recipes and 101Cookbooks looking for honest home cooking.
I must here make a distinction that surely will be debated. Since we are unlikely ever to get rid of the unfortunate term “foodie,” I would be grateful if we could separate people who like to cook from foodies. I have nothing against foodies, I hope it's clear. But we should recognize that they are a distinct species, and some people are both foodie and cook. Foodies are the first to hit the newest restaurant, or to plan a trip based on restaurant destinations; they’re are the first to order the coolest new ingredient and make sure you know it. Foodies love to talk about food and cooking. Foodies watch food television with their pants around their ankles and buy The French Laundry Cookbook for the pictures. Foodie is a social distinction, not a judgement. Cooks, on the other hand, cook; they like to cook, they enjoy the work and like feeding others and take pride in various successes in the kitchen, whether it’s their first mayonnaise or a Rachael Ray recipe, and they are not daunted by failure. (There is a third species, someone who does not like to cook, but loves to eat. This is called being human.)
More people are cooking now than in decades. But Balzer says Pollan should get over it and accept it as progress, that what people call cooking is actually reheating. “Do you miss sewing and darning socks?” he asks Pollan.
He has a point. I'm glad I don't have to make my own clothes. Getting food used to be very hard. I’d be bummed if every Monday night I had to catch, kill, de-feather and eviscerate the chicken I wanted to roast.
Happily, buying food in this bountiful country is very easy, so no one should be complaining about how hard it is to cook. And that is all Julia was telling us, that it’s not that hard and the rewards are vast. Ironically, because food is so plentiful, we’ve forgotten what a joy cooking can be.
The most important point of Pollan’s article comes from Richard Wrangham’s compelling book Catching Fire, which argues that we became who we are by cooking our food. (I mentioned the book here, in a post about the “soulcraft” of cooking, also very much related to what Pollan is getting at.)
It was the cooking of food that allowed our bodies to absorb more nutrients and our brains to get big. It allowed culture to form and even social arrangements such as dinnertime where we all ate what one of us spent time cooking; it probably even resulted in marriage (a kind of primitive protection racket, in Wrangham’s words). We’re really the only animal that does it, that cooks. That alone says a lot.
Pollan makes the humorous point that the way we eat today, on the go, in the car, walking between appointments, missing meals or simply eating alone, was exactly how our hunter ancestors ate before they figured out how to cook. Progress, eh?
Interestingly, Balzer told Pollan that the only kind of cooking that’s on the rise is grilling. So, we’re sort of starting over, charring animal flesh over fire. I kept hearing in my head while writing Wooden Boats words from Dave Matthews that apply to planks-on-frames and cooking both: “Progress takes away what forever took to find.”
Finally, 6,000 words into his 7,000 word story, we get to Pollan’s real premise and real issue: “If cooking is central to human identity and culture as Wegman [and I and Pollan] believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life.”
Indeed. One of those effects is a society that is increasingly overweight and unhealthy. “The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity,” Pollan writes.
But in addition to the health crisis our food has there is the spiritual identity crisis we feel because we’ve stopped cooking, a disconnection to the things that matter most.
This is probably why foodies emerged. One of the effects among a certain segment of the population who recognized that we were losing something essential to our nature became foodies, those who turn food, chefs, food-entertainers, and cooking equipment into fetishes—that is, they accord them some kind of magical power. Another segment of our culture who also recognized that we were losing something essential to our humanity learned to cook, out of books, from their moms or grandmothers, from other cooks. And more and more are learning every day.
Was it an accident of history that Julia Child appeared on the scene just as our food processing giants exploded onto the scene? No: she was exactly what we needed and enough people recognized this to make her a meaningful star.
Julia was the person who told this latchkey 9-year-old that he could make a pie. I turned off the TV that afternoon, and made that pie and have been cooking since. And she continues that work, not in the form of the dump-and-stir programs on the Food Network and PBS but in the multitude of food bloggers out there, who are actually cooking and sharing their stories and photographs and their recipes and most of all their passion. We are not seeing the end of home cooking. I believe we have just begun to cook, and not a moment too soon.