Cooking Culture

April 23, 2012

For our first graduate engineering math class, our professor had us introduce ourselves. We stated our name, undergraduate institution, and an interesting fact. As the introductions wended about the room, it became apparent that we are either all have the same interest or we cannot think on our feet. “I like to cook,” or “… and I guess I also like cooking,” kept being repeated. Why do so many people think this is an interesting fact? Is cooking really a hobby now?

This “cooking as a hobby” phenomena has to be linked to foodie culture and the Food Network nightly programming. Like an evil twins, these have transformed cooking from a ho-hum everyday experience into a hobby or art. Granted cooking can be an art that transcends the everyday experience, but I think that few people are capable of this wonder.

Hold on. Wait. Since when did cooking immediately conjure  thoughts of exquisitely refined food art? Whenever I think of cooking, I think of simple meals that my mother made. Rice, broccoli, and cheese casserole. Spaghetti and meatballs. BLT sandwiches. I believe that the Food Network is particularly to blame for making cooking seem out of reach to people.

It is now a fact that the average American spends more time watching someone cook than actually cooking. The rise of Food Network has led to people watching, no ogling chefs and fetishizing food. Or maybe the two events coincided. Either way, cooking as an everyday activity is dying out. You may be thinking that Food Network would be slowing this decline, but their prime time programming is all entertainment. Trying to learn cooking from Chopped, Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars, etc is like trying to learn driving from watching Nascar.

Actually, the best way to learn how to cook is to learn from someone else. Sadly, parents neglect cooking the skill lapses in our current generation. Without this handing down of customs, we risk cooking dying out. People should be alarmed as this is culturally equivalent to saying that music is dying out.

That seems sensational, but think about how much custom and culture surrounds food. We go out for drinks with friends. We have dinner, hold a potluck, grill out, do coffee, hell even going to a movie usually involves food. I’ve been cooking from different cultures, and many of the cook books tie the cuisine back to the history of the culture. I’d hate for a future cookbook to say something extremely lame like, “Macaroni and Cheese became a real hit when Kraft introduced individual microwaveable bowls.”

Equally culpable is the foodie culture. “Foodie”. What an ugly word. Foodie culture seems needlessly pretentious and snobbish. Rather than reconnecting people to simple cooking, it is needlessly distancing people from cooking. In this groundbreaking clip, Tim Allen (who hosts “Chopped”) mocks the movement. Clearly, I am not alone in thinking foodie culture is annoying.

Some food blogs counteract these evil twins of Food Network and foodie pretentiousness. Food blogs are usually run by amateurs who are cooking to enjoy cooking. They efface the food as unreachable art by showing photos of cooking in progress. Often a narrative is interwoven with the recipe, effectively recombining the food and culture. For this reason, I applaud food blogs.

So to end this shambling post, cooking should not be relegated to hobby status like photography or numismatics. Rather, it should be just another everyday activity that we take for granted. People think cooking is a hobby or an interesting fact because cooking has become a rarity. Foodie culture and Food Network have done their fair share of discouraging cooking while food blogs have encouraged cooking. Cooking is very culturally significant, and we should enjoy it for its history. Annnd for the delicious food.