Nothing’s Cooking, Good Looking

I suppose, given my culinary predilections, you could call me a “foodie,” though honestly I don’t quite see the point of that label: like the term “Apple fanboy,” all it really seems to signify is someone who enjoys things that don’t suck. I am not sure what a “non-foodie” would look like, anyway: someone who is enthusiastic about Walmart ground chuck and microwave fudge squares? Or maybe someone who isn’t excited about any kind of food, and who just eats things. I don’t know.

Well, anti-foodies—wherever you are, and for whatever reason you feel that way—rejoice: food consumers in this country are increasingly turning away from a culture a food and toward a culture of consumption:

According to a study published last week in the Harvard Business Review, only one in 10 Americans actually enjoys preparing dinner, which puts cooking into a category alongside hobbies like wood working, stamp collecting or sewing your own clothes. The problem isn’t the convenience of a meal kit service; it’s dealing with food at all.

Cooking at home is on a long, slow, steady decline, and the retail consequences are frightening: According to the Harvard Review article, the top 25 food and beverage companies have lost $18 billion in market share since 2009.

“The risk to traditional grocers and Big Food is not just market share declines but category obsolescence,” says the study’s author, the retail consultant Eddie Yoon. “As more people opt to buy prepared meals, grocers need to reallocate shelf space, and manufacturers will need to exit entire categories…”

But why should people be asked to visit a grocery store in the first place? The average supermarket stocks 35,000 items these days, a bewildering array of choices that makes grocery shopping, at worst, a chore or, at best, a treasure hunt.

Then there’s the problem of “cooking” itself. More cookbooks are published every year than any other category. Why? Because all too many Americans don’t know how to cook and don’t understand the process.

The two problems described above—the idea that grocery shopping is “bewildering” and the fact that many Americans “don’t know how to cook”—are actually interrelated: if the average shopper does not enjoy cooking and moreover does not invest any significant time in learning how to cook, then it is unsurprising that a trip to the supermarket would be a daunting experience: it would be like visiting New York City without a map or a cell phone. And if shopping for food feels like a “chore” rather than a normal facet of domestic life, then cooking will surely feel the same way, resulting in a cyclical aversion to both buying and preparing food.

There are plenty of good reasons to both learn how to cook and learn how to love to cook. There is, as a primary concern, the financial aspect of it all: eating out is expensive and cooking at home is cheap. There is also real merit in learning and practicing a useful domestic skill: the patience, attentiveness and creativity required to learn good cooking will surely inform other areas of your life, and anyway it makes you a more attractive mate.

The value in loving cooking—taking real enjoyment and pleasure out of it, not merely as a necessary task but as a fun and interesting one as well—is harder to quantify, and it is a harder sell in our modern economy, particularly as men and women have become convinced that they simply don’t have enough time to do good cooking anymore. Here is a declaration from the official Trial of the Century Font of Wisdom™: on average, the people who insist that they “don’t have time” to cook are lying, either to you or to themselves or both. There surely are people whose schedules simply don’t allow for much time in the kitchen, but they are doubtlessly in the minority. There are 24 hours in the day; it is not hard to pluck ninety minutes out of them to prepare a good meal, especially with modern Crockpots and other useful kitchen implements.

Enjoying the art of cooking need not be a profound existential experience; it need not even be an “art,” insofar as you don’t have to make a frigging Chez Panisse fricassée ever single night. A good domestic cook does not make a showboat of himself; he just uses good ingredients to create tasty dishes to feed his family. In the end, that is the ultimate benefit of cooking: to feed and nourish people you love with dishes you have prepared well for them. There is great joy to be had in that, as much as there is in any other well-mastered and practically useful skill. Once you have focused your energies on mastering the basic principles of domestic food preparation, the whole process becomes much less “bewildering” and more like any other part of a normal, healthy life.

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