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”

  • Martha

    Michael – Thanks so much for this post, especially the last few paragraphs. Making food approachable and not intimidating is exactly what Julia did best and what we all love her for.

    I agree with the Julie/Julia over-saturation but as opposed to Virginia Willis’ rant from a few days ago, I appreciate your approach to the argument. In Virginia’s mind, those without culinary pedigree have no business discussing food. But how can we bring cooking back to the home if it’s phrased only as a subject fit for “experts” or food snobs? The larger the conversation, education aside, the greater the outcome.

  • Sugar Apple

    I’m not sure I buy into the argument that cooking is a lost skill no one cares to learn any longer. My experience is that we aren’t in such dire straits.

    My father was visiting a few months ago and my daughter made a ragu from scratch. We’re now in the States visiting my family and my dad was so impressed that he’s asked her to make the pasta for the whole family – that’s an 11-year-old proudly cooking a meal from scratch for 13 people.

    My daughter’s fifth grade class went on a three-day camping trip and each tent had to buy and prepare their own food. Sure, some resorted to boxed mac-n-cheese and packages of luncheon meat. But most of them bought ingredients, not packages, and prepared meals for themselves. Simple ingredients, sure. But they cooked real food. I’ve seen one of her classmates catch, dress and grill a fish on the beach.

    Yes, my daughter has grown up in the kitchen with me (and my husband who is probably an even better cook than I am). But she’s not alone in her love for food and cooking. When her friends come for sleepovers they often end up making us their specialty for breakfast. One makes killer cheesy scrambled eggs. Another makes English pancakes, served with a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar.

    And my most of grownup friends cook real food too. Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t so bad out there.

  • luis

    Not really Diane… there are some up and coming businesses which provide folks with a prep kitchen and the pantry so they can make their dishes and take home to finish.
    This is waaaaaaaaaay more economical like 5:1 savings, HEY Rhulman another one for your next printing of RATIO.
    Obviously if you have spices and veggies and meats laying around you don’t have to vacuum freeze or watch spoil… the savings there is TREMENDOUS. Plus you get to trade notes with the other folks there… This is a GOOD THING.

  • Michele Niesen

    Ah, I LOVE Foodies! They have feathered the nest I sit in now, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains as the sun shall sink and I shall drink my single vineyard wine and partake of my heirloom vegetable garden and wait for the fireflies…maybe a lap in the pool…

    No, let’s not ground the foodies. They keep us chef people in business. There is a fantasy to the life of a chef, the magic of a REALLY great cook that transcends all of us. But this is America folks and our traditions stem from Vegas, Hollywood, NYC and people with money. It’s only been in the last few years of moving to a rural place that I have started to see the tradition of pickling, putting up, farming for dinner and survival not just because it sounds cool.

    And yea, I have a friend or two who like to talk a bunch of jive about first pressed this and heritage raised that…and I know that in my heart of hearts they don’t know a Johnson Brat from an Ossabaw chacuterie, but let them have their fun. We work for them! They pay us. Those who CAN, do. Those who CAN’T? Go out to dinner and watch movies about it. Let them! Let them!

  • Kanani

    Jeannie is right.
    Julia would never make it through the first round in Food Network’s Next Star. Neither would Graham, the Frugal Gourmet, the Two Fat Ladies or that other guy from the UK (I can’t remember his name).

    As for being busy –none of those things are forced upon on us. The committee meetings, the driving kids to and fro, the this and the that. Those are of our own design, and unless we pay attention –we’re destined to instant meals and food bills that make our budgets shatter. Cooking is a priority in my house –though am increasingly shocked that most of the kids at daughter’s school seem to live off convenience food.

  • Sugar Apple

    I’m not sure I buy into the argument that cooking is a lost skill no one cares to learn any longer. My experience is that we aren’t in such dire straits.

    My father was visiting a few months ago and my daughter made a ragu from scratch. We’re now in the States visiting my family and my dad was so impressed that he’s asked her to make the pasta for the whole family – that’s an 11-year-old proudly cooking a meal from scratch for 13 people.

    My daughter’s fifth grade class went on a three-day camping trip and each tent had to buy and prepare their own food. Sure, some resorted to boxed mac-n-cheese and packages of luncheon meat. But most of them bought ingredients, not packages, and prepared meals for themselves. Simple ingredients, sure. But they cooked real food. I’ve seen one of her classmates catch, dress and grill a fish on the beach.

    Yes, my daughter has grown up in the kitchen with me (and my husband who is probably an even better cook than I am). But she’s not alone in her love for food and cooking. When her friends come for sleepovers they often end up making us their specialty for breakfast. One makes killer cheesy scrambled eggs. Another makes English pancakes, served with a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar.

    And my most of grownup friends cook real food too. Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t so bad out there.

  • Tags

    Maybe things aren’t so bad out there?

    If you need an example of why cooking is going away, just look at what happened to farming. Good luck finding a fruit or vegetable tasty enough to even be called a shell of its former self. It’s hardy or it’s never planted.

    If we don’t act soon, it’ll be just as hard to find a good cooked meal as it is to find a tasty piece of fruit.

  • Alex

    Brilliant points. I cook for all of the reasons you’ve written above, and because I am passionate about the creative enterprise. I’m also labeled a foodie (by others), usually knowing the what, where, and why of the top restaurants in town. Part of this is because I formerly worked in restaurants, and grew up in a family of servers and line cooks – it’s in my blood. But mostly I am a foodie so that I can learn, and use that learning to entertain myself and my loved ones. I can’t think of anything more human.

  • Brian

    I feel that the wholesale decline in cooking in America is from a lack of will and desire to wash dirty dishes. Did you ever notice that no one cleans dishes on cooking shows.

    And the motivation behind most packaged, take out, or super market deli and hot bar meals stems from disposable, dish washing free packaging. After all most of these foods are bad. Even the novice home cook could do better then more packaged meals.

    I say we need to get back into the kitchen and back into the dish sink as well.

  • mirinblue

    Sheeesh! I find it odd that something so very basic and nuturing has become such a highly debated issue! We grow, we cook, we eat, we teach.

    Teaching a son or daughter to cook should be part of the “basic training” of childhood. I mean, after all, we teach them to read, to tie shoes, to make beds when they are young. As they get a bit older, we teach them to clean, to do laundry, to cook. We teach them manners and respect. I don’t know-it’s just so obvious.

  • Jim Wolper

    I watch very little TV, and most of what I watch is food. We draw a clear distinction between the cooking shows we watch for entertainment (either for a charismatic host or attractive hostess) and those we watch for instruction. Our household menu evolves because of the latter; the former is ephemeral entertainment. We refer to Food Network as “Boobs Network,” since breasts (and I don’t mean boneless skinless chicken breasts) seem to be a primary focus.

    There are TV shows that really show the textures and techniques and sights and sounds of cooking, better than the internet. I have adapted recipes from Rick Bayless, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and, of course, Julia Child (whom I watched from the very beginning) for our family meals. That’s what Pollan missed: some people really do cook this stuff!

    But Pollan has a point: take a look at what people are buying at the grocery store. The prepackaged meals are popular!

    This week I’m going back to Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art…” to make the chocolate cake at the end of volume one. I’ll make it with my daughter. Enough said?

  • Gabriela (gabrielaskitchen)

    Thank you Mr. Ruhlman. You just stated everything for which I could not find the words! I’m a home cook not a foodie, but I could never explain to myself or other (foodies/food bloggers) why that term bothered me. I refuse to fetishize food. Also, people have the misconception that from scratch non-dump-n-stir has to be time consuming and complicated…it doesn’t. I cook most everything from scratch and still have time to take a stroll in the park, watch a movie, entertain, blog and work 40 hours a week. Simple and fresh is the key to cooking, at leat for me!

  • Jim-49

    I’m Sorta young,60 years,but thank the “Great Father Above”,for Julia Child,the Two Fat Ladies(loved them all my Life)!! Cooking Grandmothers,mothers,fathers,many real good foodpeople online!! I cook everyday,and teach two grandkids,until pushing up those daisy’s!! Someone,has to make food worth eating,not out of the can,and make memories!! Thank you for your sites,and work!!

  • S Carrico

    I was laid off from a boring office job in January, and in June finally took the 401(k)-less plunge I haven’t had the balls to take since I started my love affair with food 5 years ago [I’m 26] – I became a line cook. In a Basque restaurant. After I started work, a chef friend of mine sent me a note saying, “No one can call you a foodie anymore – you’re legit, now.” This isn’t to say I ever felt illegitimate before, but the first time I came home at 3:00 a.m. covered in 5 layers of God knows what and sank into bed, I certainly felt different.

    I would say it’s a good sign if college-educated food enthusiasts are switching careers at the quarter-life mark for the sake of feeding folk. Better yet, I still cook at home… as long as I make it there at a decent hour.

  • LB

    The simple and sole reason” Julie and Julia” is splashed all over the media has nothing to do with our supposed fascination and longing for “real” cooking. It’s a function of Nora Ephron being personal friends with virtually every magazine and newspaper editor in New York.

  • Kat D.

    Thank you so much for making the distinction between foodies and cooks! If it weren’t for copyright laws I think I would reprint it on a t-shirt so people could stop calling me a foodie. I have always loved food, cooking, eating, etc., and although foodies do have their place in society I am not one! Although I appreciate new restaurants, new ingredients, new cookbooks, I cook because I love food, love to eat, love to serve and nothing more. Thanks again!

  • Elaine

    Michael, thank you for this post. I am a cook, not a chef, certainly not a “foodie”, I originally typed “doodie” Freudian, do you think? Anyway, I love to cook and most of my recipes these days come from some of the most wonderful women, and a few men, on the internet. They are food bloggers and I daily receive many posts, yours included, which I wait for, often with bated breathe, knowing that I will find at least one amazing recipe I MUST try.

    This Balzar guy is a complete asshole and I generally do not say that about someone I do not personally know, but from what I read, the word suits. Where does he get off calling us “cheap and lazy”? If he is a “veteran” food marketing researcher, just when does he pull his head out long enough to get a real picture of the new world of cooking? The first food blog I read was 101 Cookbooks and I was hooked. Came across Simply Recipes not too long after and found another friend. Thank you for mentioning all of the food bloggers out there, giving of their time and energy to give people like me a new way to learn how to cook, now that people like my grandma are gone and my mom, who is 80, soon will be. We are not all blessed with those women in our lives and thank the gods for the food bloggers who can do the best they can to take their places.

  • CVB

    Thanks for a beautifully written essay on cooks. Despite having foodie in my blog title (had to go for alliteration), I’m a cook, and work had to make that distinction clear. I teach to that middle group – the group that wants to learn to make stocks, and pasta, and bake really great bread, and ease them into making their own dinners accessible and delicious. Those that want to do nothing more than talk about food and eat, but have no idea of the work that goes into a really amazing meal grow tiresome. Your commentary is dead-on (especially the “pants around the ankles” part), and I’m sure I’ll be quoting it often.

  • codfish

    I have nothing against foodies, I hope it’s clear.
    I’m not even sure I know what a foodie is, but it is not clear, given this passive-aggressive description:

    Foodies watch food television with their pants around their ankles and buy The French Laundry Cookbook for the pictures.

    compared to this exultant one:

    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,

    that you have nothing against foodies.