Thursday, August 6, 2009

One More Voice in a Chorus of Thousands

I do hate to jump on the whole Julia Child bandwagon, as she has been discussed and deified ad infinitum due to the whole Julie/Julia thing, but I have to admit that Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Sunday magazine this past weekend got me thinking.

I'm not sure that this was his overriding point, but what stood out to me was Pollan's implication that one of the major differences between food shows "back then" (i.e. Julia Child in the 1960s) and now (i.e. Food Network) is that the ones "back then" were meant to inform and the ones today are meant to entertain. I would agree with that. Every story you hear about Julia Child seems to revolve around the idea that mothers everywhere were newly inspired by her to learn to cook and to do so well.

My own mother, who like so many adventurous, vaguely bohemian women of her generation moved to France in the early 60s, cites her landlady there as a culinary influence (chicken feet are a stockpot's best friend!) more often than she does Julia Child. But she does marvel occasionally at how new the information that the great warbler brought to America was, at how deep our culinary knowledge deficit was and how dire the need for true culinary information was.

In a way it feels as though as a country we're back to that place again. Despite the intense focus on food in popular culture, home cooking is, on the whole, a relatively rare phenomenon when you get right down to it (although I'm not sure it is quite as rare as sources cited in the article believe). Rather than TV dinners we rely on Trader Joe's, the prepared food case at Whole Foods or local takeout spots. We have cooking shows telling us how to impress our friends with a meal made in the shortest time possible, how to feed our families with the fewest ingredients possible...which all seems to imply that cooking is a chore to be minimized, rather than a pleasurable activity to revel in.

Julia Child (and others, I'm sure there must have been at least a few) took clear joy in teaching and seemed to derive inspiration from cooking. She ended her shows happily sitting down to eat what she had made by herself rather than running around serving it to a group of friends, clearly comfortable with the idea of spending time preparing something delicious for herself and no one else. She relished the process of cooking and had no desire to shorten or bypass it. It is this attitude that we as a nation seem to have lost, and presumably is one of the reasons we've allowed our food supply to be hijacked by corporations that don't respect basic things like the integrity of a fruit or vegetable.

Do we have a hero on the horizon anywhere? Julia II? Anyone?


The Townhouselady said...

So well said. I completely agree. I will say much as I hate to love Martha Stewart she does provide lots of simple education along with her recipes. She often discusses differences in technique with her guest chefs. Even simple things like the best way to chop an onion. Ive learned a lot watching her.

Now if only I had the innate ability for measurements my grandmother did. She'd make cakes and pies just by reaching in a bag of flour and grasping handfuls and tossing them into a bowl. She never measured a single thing and I can say without hesitation they were the most light and flaky crusts, incredibly delicate and moist cakes. She just instinctive knew what to do.

Miss her and her food. After all how do you get a recipe from the non measurer?

Thanks for this post, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

This article struck a real chord with me, Laura. I hate the whole reality TV competition direction food TV has taken. Pollan voiced why I dislike it perfectly: "But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth."

Regarding TV chefs still teaching cooking, Ming Tsai does that on his show Simply Ming. And he too sits down at the end to eat what he's prepared.

Mothering Mini said...

Quote: "For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?)"

This, actually, is very much how my life goes! Working full-time + a kid can lead you to this. :) I'm not a professional chef, but I do adore cooking (and by 'cooking' I don't mean heating up TJ's carnitas).

We eat from-scratch dinner 5 nights a week, 99% of the time cooked by me. Sometimes the string cheese works its way in there. :)

Jane said...

Yes this is food for thought. I can't bear all those reality food shows. They don't treat you respect for ingredients, seasonality blah blah. By the way I love Michael Pollan I am now onto his second book the Omnivores Dillemma after In Defence of Food. His perspective and analysis are fantastic.

Dustjacket Attic said...

Hi, thanks for coming by and leaving a comment .. which made me laugh.

Was having a read through some posts, fell in love the Resturant Neptun, one of those moments in time.

Interesting post on the cooking issue too.


altadenahiker said...

I think the same thing may be said for much of the food writing. Is there anyone today who can touch MFK Fisher?

she was not a how-to cook writer, but a how to savor, how to enjoy writer. And she is the one who finally, finally moved me into the kitchen.

Laura [What I Like] said...

Townhouselady - I pretty shamelessly love Martha, in spite of her crazy neuroses. I think she does put some very good information out there, both for easy and intricate meals. I once tried to bake something without measurements and it was an unmitigated disaster...I too wish I had your grandmother's talent!

Terry B - Maybe it's just something about PBS that encourages chefs to inform and enjoy rather than compete in a fictional realm?

Mothering Mini - I cannot ever argue against the liberal use of cheese. String or otherwise.

Jane - I quite enjoyed In Defense of Food, thought the arguments were rational and important to share, but haven't made it to the Omnivore's Dilemma. Sometimes I feel the need for a break from the drumbeat of depressing food news which I can only assume is why I haven't taken it on yet!

Dustjacket Attic - I am still in love with the Restaurant Neptun, and it's been nearly four years since I ate there!

altadenahiker - MFK Fisher is one of my favorite writers...she really had a unique voice and I think a really new (even today) attitude towards food. I found How to Cook a Wolf so fascinating...all about how to make do with very little (wartime little, not our time little!). She is hard to touch today...Nigella maybe is in the same vein, but agree, she's in a league of her own.

Josephine Tale Peddler said...

I have noticed a trend lately of advertising cooking classes for toddlers by chiefs. I think this is just so ridiculous to be honest. Cooking should be learnt in the family kitchen in my opinion. It should not be another activity for already overstimulated toddler and children to have to maintain! I love baking with my daughter and she of course loves it too. (Licking the bowl and spoon) Cooking should be part of everyday life! xx

Laura [What I Like] said...

Josephine Tale Peddler - That is insane! I actually was at a pilates class the other day and a mother was there with her eight year old son, annoyed that his sushi making class had been canceled, so she was taking him to pilates instead. I could barely keep a straight face. Agreed, cooking is wonderful to learn at home if you live in a household that cooks. Some of my best memories growing up are of cooking with my mom, and she always claimed that it provided a wonderful excuse to teach a bit of math (fractions, counting, etc.).

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