02cover-395 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.

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122 Wonderful responses to “Julie & Julia, Foodie & Cook”

  • mel

    i agree with a lot of what people are saying. i cook for myself and my family and love it. sometimes, though, i feel guilty because i have a jar of hellman’s in the fridge– is that ok?????

  • Tags

    If you just eat and worship food, you’re a foodie. (nothing wrong with that)

    If you prepare food, you’re a concocter.

    You can be damn sure that if factory clothes made us as sick as factory food, I’d dust off the old Kenmore and make a beeline for the Cloth and Bobbin or whatever they call it these days.

  • Kate in the NW

    If only we didn’t confuse “food” with “meals”.

    Food = calories.
    Meals = thought, craft, creativity, interaction, work, sensuality, time, comradeship, generosity, understanding, flexibility, learning, and leisure.

    We look to the drive-through and the freezer case and the box for things that they cannot provide, separated as they are from the context that makes food a meal.

    Food is a one-night stand. Meals are a marriage/long-term relationship. One satisfies an urge, often to the detriment and disrespect of both parties. The other is truly satisfying and nurturing, not in spite of the work required, but BECAUSE of it.

    Cheap and easy is cheap and easy. Maybe sometimes it works, but building a life around it isn’t healthy for anyone.

    I think it’s sad that people are yearning so painfully for meals and all they’re getting is food. Look at the ads – the crappiest foods are advertised as MEALS – the businesses know exactly what we’re missing: that’s why they promise it to us in the ads. They know we’ll eat more and more of their crap as we grasp at what they’re advertising, and they also know we’ll get emptier and emptier so they can sell us more and more nothingness, until we’re all snug in our extra-wide, lonely, premature graves, and they can enjoy our money.

    Julia knew a little bit about food, but she knew everything about meals. That was back when the stores sold ingredients, not the empty dream of instant meals (how’s THAT for an oxymoron – “instant meals”?!)

  • Sarah

    Michael, I read the line in your post about cooks taking pride in their various successes – specifically mentioning mayonnaise – and I just had to comment. I made my first mayonnaise this weekend and I was ecstatic when it worked! I then used it to make salmon croquettes with a delicious lemon herb sauce!

  • Veron

    There is indeed nothing wrong with being a foodie. I was pathetic in the kitchen at age 34. All I did was eat but never cooked for myself. The reason I started to cook was because I was missing my dad’s/mom’s/gma’s wonderful cooking. I tried eating out at restaurants even real ethnic ones, but sometimes to eat the food you want the way you want it, you just have to make it yourself!

  • misty

    Although I also lament the fact that people are cooking at home less, we can’t ignore the fact that in order to prepare our own food, we cooks are sacrificing something else, in terms of time and -most importantly- mental energy. (After giving birth I asked friends to plan meals and do some of the prep work because I didn’t have the mental energy to worry about it. The cooking itself was not a problem.)

    What are the things we are sacrificing, and what are we asking other people to sacrifice in order to cook at home?

    I am a stay-at-home mom of 2, which I enjoy. But I admit, I worry about what would happen if I needed to leave my husband, or find myself on my own otherwise. I gave up my career and my ability to make a good living.

    As a feminist, I could never ask another woman to make those sacrifices, but I still feel that NOT providing nutritious and appetizing food to children is neglectful. Of course, I believe that fathers share equally in the responsibility. My husband stayed home with my first born for a year while I worked full time.

    Tracey, I admire your commitment to both work outside the home and prepare great food for your family. How do you do it? What do you sacrifice?

  • Another Lazy American

    The guilt I experienced reading this post while wolfing down a Burger King burger is pretty severe. Especially since I spent the better part of my Saturday smoking some ribs and chicken that I had rubbed with my own spice rub, and glazed with my own BBQ sauce.

    Unfortunately, the laziness got another win today.

  • Gabe

    There is nothing wrong with being a foodie. People that sneer on the term just show their priorities are different than mine.

    Also, I just made a deal with old friend. She likes to sew and knit like I like to cook. I’ve made her dinner a few times so now she owes me some homemade clothing. Sweet!

  • The Italian Dish

    I read that article on Sunday and I was really surprised because I thought there was a resurgence of home cooking. When I see the interest in cooking shows, the popularity of stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table, and all the great cookbooks out there that people are buying, I thought that people were cooking more. Maybe it’s all for show! I do feel good, though, when people who read my food blog let me know that they are inspired to cook things that they never would have otherwise. I love that. One person at a time…

  • Harlan

    I think that there may be a problem with the assumptions in the Pollan article. It’s certainly true that, on average, Americans are cooking less. It’s also certainly true that, on average, Americans are watching more food TV. But is it the same people?? I wonder if, instead, the majority of the population is cooking less and watching the same amount of (that is, no) food TV, while a minority of the population is food obsessed, cooking constantly and watching crazy amounts of food TV. This would give the same average behaviors, but would tell a very different story about American food culture. Is there data that speaks to this question?

  • Sprouted Kitchen

    such a wonderful piece of writing! I did read the Pollan piece, and was so inspired. Nice work on expanding on that. Each of us has the power to inspire other home cooks!

  • The Yummy Mummy

    I often feel like the work we do as bloggers is lost on readers who generally believe the same things we do. (Local is good. Fresh is essential. Home-made salsa is better than bottled, etc. etc.) There is no trickle down and I often wonder whether all the writing we do has any real value in changing the way people think about cooking and preparing and eating food. People other than food bloggers, that is.

    But your post has made me re-think whether we’re able to make a big impression on the legacy of home cooking. I love that you see bloggers and food writers as meaningful players in the work of keeping cooking alive and that makes me feel inspired and re-ignited.

    Thanks for that, Michael. Nicely done.

    Kim

  • Tracey

    I am a wife and mother to 2 small kids and I work full time and have a job in which I travel on occasion. My life is busy by design. I am also a home cook, usually an extreme home cook for two primary reasons. First I believe that endeavoring to make most things from scratch (cookies, granola, ice cream, pies, fresh mozzarella) honors the memory of my grandmother, the ultimate home cook and my mother (still living).

    Second, I believe I am providing my kids with some of the best memories of their childhood through food. Yes I could buy a cake at the store but the memory of licking the frosting off the mixer beater will last them a lifetime.

  • Alice Q. Foodie

    I’m so tired of people acting like there’s something “wrong” with being a foodie. It’s such reverse snobbery. After all, what are food critics? Bloggers? Writers? I think most probably started out as the dreaded “foodie.” I may be a little more sensitive than most because I gave myself the name and am now stuck with it for better or worse, but I think you especially, as someone who writes books and appears on shows directly aimed at “foodie” audiences, should know better. Biting the hand of the foodie who feeds you is just bad form.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  • Badger

    I think even within the category of “foodie” there are sub-categories. I love everything about food — eating it, cooking it, growing it, shopping for it, reading about it — but I am not an early adopter. I’m definitely not the first person within my social circle to try a new restaurant or a sexy new ingredient, and I honestly don’t watch all that much food TV because of the very dump-and-stir phenomenon you and Pollan mention. I AM that weirdo who’s looking to learn something by watching a cooking show — I have no real interest in food porn and I sure as f*ck have no interest in watching Guy Fieri masticate a giant burger.

    I started cooking because I like to eat. I’ll admit that I started off in the dump-and-stir school, but when I began dating (and later married) a man with severe food allergies, I started reading labels and learned what’s really in that crap. Soy in canned tuna? Why? Chicken fat in a taco seasoning packet? WTF? That’s what got me REALLY cooking with whole, unprocessed ingredients. Turns out the food tasted better and was cheaper and in many cases just as fast. Who knew?

    And cooking with whole ingredients offers more options for flavor and texture and all of that, which is a big part of what I love about cooking (and eating) — customizing things to MY taste. When you buy prepared/processed food, you’re letting someone else dictate how salty it should be or what the ratio is of carrots to potatoes, and I’m too much of a control freak for that.

    I’ll never be a professional cook — just have no desire at all to apply myself to that sort of study or to do it for a living. But I will always be a home cook, and I’ll always cook REAL food, and I can only hope my kids follow my example.

  • Paul DeLuca

    I learned to cook from my mother, who also taught me some basic sewing, which is why I know how to make basic clothing repairs, including replacing zippers, etc. My point is, cooking, sewing, doing laundry, and cleaning are basic domestic skills that teach us to be self sufficient. I still find it funny that people are surprised by the fact that I cook and bake. I do it for some of the reasons stated above; I enjoy it, I enjoy doing it for other people, and I enjoy the learning process that goes with it. I can’t imagine not doing it and hopefully can pass along my love of cooking to my children as my mother did for me.

  • Richard

    One distinction I would make is the programming on PBS more accurately reflects the ethos of Julia Child than the programming on Food Network. PBS programming isn’t flashy, but the cooking tends to be straight-forward, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and doing as little as possible to said ingredients.

    There’s huge gap in cooking education. You have the Top Chef group, who watch people making amazing food. It makes for good tv because it’s essentially food porn. It looks pretty, probably tastes good, and the people behind it have personality. On the other end, you have the “add chile powder to mac-n-cheese” group. This also makes for good tv, because you can have someone who’s attractive pitching this schlock. It sells cookbooks, gains exposure for the host, and makes a tv network a boatload of money with very little expenditure. But there’s a big group in the middle who want to cook better for themselves and their families. They want to learn how to make bread, homemade pasta, their own stock, etc. However, this makes for horrible television, because IT’S VERY BORING. It is quite difficult to show someone making a homemade boule of bread, or a pot of chicken stock, and have it be good television. The only ones that have been able to do it effectively are Julia Child and Alton Brown.

    This is where the bloggers come in. Good writing coupled with good photography can make this type of cooking interesting. With the right voice, making a simple cookie can be informative, and get people thinking about what they are eating.

    I believe what we are witnessing right now is the food world trying to press the reset button. With the plethora of food blogs, recipe sites, multimedia, and now a movie, we may never have a better time to push that button. If we pass it up, we will have to wait another 40-50 years before we have another opportunity.

  • Shannon

    I have to agree with everything you have said, but most of all with the saturation of coverage on the Julie & Julia movie. Enough already! A movie I was mildly interested in seeing has now become a movie I am sick of.

  • Lisa

    Very much enjoyed your article, and agree with your point that what Mrs. Child did so well continues to influence and inspire lots of us. The popularity of farmers’ markets and people buying meats from local producers is also evidence that lots of people are still cooking, as well, seems to me.

    Oh, and I was another latchkey kid who watched Julia!

  • ntsc

    I started cooking because my first wife prefered spending her time making her own clothes.

    It was a fair division of labor, she took care of the house and the clothing, including her hobby. I cooked, did the yard and enjoyed my hobbies, which were car/motorcycle mechanics and home remodeling.

    I’ve long since droped the mechanics and added cooking to the hobby list.

    As a side point, when we seperated she not only did her own cooking again, but having watched me do it started baking her own bread. 30 years later she still does.

  • Aubrey

    I am A Cook. I’m also a mom of mostly grown kids, a wife, a home-business owner, and busy-busy-busy. One day last week, I was absolutely and furiouslsy exhausted, not to mention frustrated, because I had planned to make myself lobster cakes for dinner (part of my cleaning out the freezer plans – hubby had a steak). I just didn’t feel that I had the time or energy, but I wanted them! Damn. So I did it anyway – chopped and sauteed and mixed and invented and substituted and formed and sauteeed… and it re-energized me back to human. Cooking does more than nuture your body – it nurtures your soul. (Tonight – your amazing quiche with roasted green chiles, onions, and I’m thinking bacon…)