This week, a defense of the simple and noble craft of cooking. A matter much too important to be left to the professionals.
There are a few things that I think everybody should know how to do. And very close to the top of that short list is cooking. Everyone should learn to cook for themselves. I believe this as passionately as I believe anything.
And I also believe, with a little bit of effort, you can prepare meals that are better than anything you can get in 80% of restaurants. The only downside to learning how to cook, in my mind, is that you will find yourself with a meal you have just paid for, asking, “Why would anyone do that to perfectly good ingredients.”
I believed this before Mark Bittman, columnist for the New York Times wrote his magnificent cookbook, How to Cook Everything. But I pick him as the most eloquent champion of my philosophy. And he begins his introduction with these words
Anyone can learn how to cook, and most everyone should. It’s a sorry sign that many people consider cooking “from scratch” an unusual and even rare talent. In fact, cooking is a simple and rewarding craft, one that anyone can learn and even succeed at from the get-go.
A simple and rewarding craft. And necessary. Eating and drinking is second only to breathing in importance. And as a craft, cooking is cheap too. Cheaper than eating out. That’s initally why I learned. I was broke, but I didn’t want to eat badly.
But the interesting thing is that equipment is also cheap. Sure you can spend thousands of dollars on pots and pans, but really, I think you can spend down $200 bucks and you’ve got all the equipment you need to throw down in a kitchen. See how far $200 will get you with woodworking.
For example, my favorite knife is a Kiwi thin bladed chef’s knife that you can find in Asian supermarkets for about $4. $12 bucks will get you the same plastic handled chefs knife that all the professional chef’s I know use. On New Year’s Day I cooked a magnificent meal for 20 on a 3ft x 2ft 1/4” inch steel plate over an open flame. We roasted oysters. If our guest hadn’t brought so much stuff I would have done cornbread pancakes and any seared vegetables and thing else I could have gotten my hands on.
In my much worn copy of How to Cook Anything, this is the passage I have underlined in the introduction
It takes no more time to cook many meals than it does to call for a pizza and pick it up. Or even wait for it to be delivered. Grilling a piece of meat or fish and steaming a vegetable or preparing a salad is a 20 minute operation. These may not be meals you look forward to, or meals that you will remember a couple of days later. But they are meals in which the ingredients, flavors and timing are entirely up to you: You know what you are eating and you know what it will taste like. it is a real experience.
Time is a precious commodity, no question about it. But there are few better ways to spend it than by preparing high-quality food for yourself and those you love. Set aside some time each day to cook dinner and you will find it becomes a rewarding, energy-giving routine.
And I can’t say it any better than that. But you are not convinced, here’s my challenge. Pan, medium heat. Olive oil. a clove of garlic, minced. A little onion, four tomatoes coarsely chopped. Salt, pepper. Red wine
Start with the oil, onions and the garlic. Sizzle them a bit until the onions are brown. add the tomatoes, the salt and pepper. lower the heat a little bit. Throw in some red wine. Let it reduce and reduce, stirring every now and again, until the tomatoes kind of fall apart. Then put a squirt of lemon juice — from a real lemon, please.
Do all that and you will have a tomato sauce that even if you’ve messed it up, will be better than anything you can get in a jar. And you will have a dish you can start working with. Add basil. add cheese, add mushrooms. Add whatever you want.
And like that you’re in the game. You’re a cook. As much of a cook as Michelin rated chef. Sure, they’re better, but they are fundamentally the same, they are constantly using their taste and their skill to become better, and turn raw ingredients into meals that nourish and comfort people.
There is a pernicious idea in our age of false expertise. It’s that the expert or the professional is the pinnacle of any field. I do not believe in experts, especially not the variety of experts foisted on us by the news cycle. For I can remember a time before such jackasses existed.
But the crux of it is this, I do not think that professional would live your life better than you. Living, is a game that only amateur are allowed to play. For all of us, this is the first time we’ve lived this life. And have you noticed, as soon as you master one challenge, life throws a new one your way.
As Simon Leys wrote:
None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother—and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.
Cooking is far more humble and less complex than alchemy, but I believe, is so personal and essential to a good life, that even when you don’t do it very well, you are living better by doing it than not. As G.K. Chesterson said
“Just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.”
I once had a chance to talk with a surgeon who installs lap bands. He works with Obese people of the capital O kind. He explained to me that he told all his borderline cases this, “If you prepare everything you eat, you will lose weight, and not need this surgery.” And he added that, in all the time he had been a surgeon, he had never seen anyone who had followed this advice and needed to have the surgery.
Sure there’s lots to be said about horrible ingredients and food additives and diets and on and on and on. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have an obesity epidemic, as much as we have a crisis in the kitchen.
Anyone can learn how to cook, and most everyone should.
Now go on. Do like Big Joe Turner says in the original Shake Rattle and Roll. Get inta that kitchen make some noise with the pots and pans