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HOME COOKING

In Defense of Home Cooking

September 16, 1998|MARION CUNNINGHAM

In the last month I have read the results of two surveys on the subject of home cooking. One survey reported that only about 40% of the population cooks at home. The second survey said only about 30% were cooking at home. One thing we know for sure is that fewer and fewer people either don't know how to cook or just don't cook.

I think this is a loss greater than we realize. Home cooking is a catalyst that helps to bring people together at the table. We are losing the daily ritual of being seated together (without the intrusion of television), of having the opportunity to learn to interact and share our experiences and concerns, to listen to others.

Home kitchens, despite the increase in designer appliances and cabinetry, are mostly quiet and empty today. Strangers are preparing much of our food. And our supermarkets, which once considered restaurants and fast food places the enemy, have joined the trend by enlarging their delis and serving ready-to-eat food they call "home meal replacements."

Why are fewer people cooking at home? There are, of course, a multitude of reasons. But there is one reason above all others: Home cooking in America has always been considered menial drudgery.

This sentiment is not hard to understand. Struggling immigrants did not want to see their children, in this land of golden opportunity, spending their lives hidden in kitchens and cooking for others. They had big dreams. Neither did many women, denied privileges in other areas, want their daughters to be defined by housework.

It was easy, then for big commercial food companies to sell their goods with the promise that their boxes, cans and bags of food could be ready to eat in minutes. Later, microwaves promised even quicker results with almost no clean-up necessary.

There's been almost no counter-argument. We home cooks have never gathered in force to speak on behalf of home cooking, and so the image of cookery as drudgery lives on.

I know first-hand, however, that home cooking can be simple and it can be rewarding, as well as being healthier and more economical than convenience and take-out food.

For most of my life I raised a family, and my favorite pastime was baking at home. I baked so many cupcakes for the PTA over an eight-year-period that if I had sold them, I could have retired years ago a millionaire. And I still love to bake cookies. I bring them, unsolicited, to my accountant, to friends, to just about everyone I meet.

Even if one lives alone, as I do now, it's so pleasant to cook and eat something that one is fond of. Many home cooks feel as I do. Cooking at home is therapy.

Another of the pleasures of home cooking is exchanging recipes. I love to get a recipe that somebody is passionate about--it's a real connection to that person. There are cooks who ignore recipes and only improvise, but I think there's something wonderfully communal about having shared recipes, about passing down flavors from friend to friend and generation to generation.

I also love to talk about cooking. At farmers markets I'll talk to growers and other shoppers about how to prepare a vegetable. I talk to friends about the best way to make pancakes. Talking about food is wonderful because it rarely provokes arguments--and it's such a cheerful topic.

I should point out that my conception of home cooking may not match that of other food professionals. Home cooking is not about daily shopping and always starting out with the freshest and best of ingredients. That is what chefs do.

Home cooks shop once or twice a week and try to cook more than is needed for one meal. Home cooks think creatively about how to make good food from leftovers. And home cooks don't always get every dish perfect.

Indeed, a joy of home cooking is the knowledge that even if you flub a dish you can usually eat your mistakes. I advocate the ingenious Pennsylvania Dutch style of putting all kinds of pickles, relishes and condiments on the table with each meal so that if the food isn't great it can be repaired with some lively preserves.

As for the excuse that there's no time to cook, I know women and men with young families who work and they cook several hours on a weekend so they can fill the refrigerator with good meals for the week. Some might think spending time cooking during the weekend sounds like work, but it doesn't have to be. Young children love to help, and when families cook together it can be a magical time.

Not long ago, I found a small paperback I'd forgotten I had, called "Notes From A Scandinavian Kitchen," by Morry and Florence Ekstrand. It is a fine collection of home recipes, plus personal stories. The following paragraph summarizes many of my thoughts.

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