For the New Year, Glimmers of Hope and Abject Despondency

Thanks, Food Network, for both shattering my confidence in my fellow human beings, and providing me with sheer locavore foodie titillation.

J. and I returned home with our boys on Saturday evening, after spending a little more than a week at my folks’ house in Upstate New York.  Yesterday was therefore devoted to re-acclimating everyone to being back in our own house, putting things away, and cleaning; it’s always surprising to me how I can leave the house thinking that it’s “good enough,” and return with fresh eyes, thinking “Hmmmm….”  So I spent the day in a frenzy of activity, which included baking a loaf of banana bread (we came home with a few VERY ripe bananas) and making the first full dinner I’ve cooked in over a week.  By the time I was ready to relax last night, it was 9 p.m.  J. and I cozied up on the couch and turned on the Food Network for the premiere of “Worst Cooks in America.”

For those of you who have not encountered this show — now entering its second season — it’s essentially a competition between two renowned chefs, each of whom is trying to prove that he or she is the better chef/instructor by taking the absolute worst home cooks in the country and teaching them to make a restaurant-quality meal.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but watching it actually crushed my soul just a little bit.  I mean, I can understand not being a great cook.  Not everyone has to be proficient in the kitchen.  But I can’t understand the level of cluelessness that brings such moments as: dumping several tablespoons of WHOLE peppercorns into a dish to “disperse the flavor”; ripping chicken breasts apart with bare hands because you don’t have the patience to figure out how to use a knife; or coating meat thoroughly in cayenne pepper, then attempting to cook it in a scorching hot skillet with absolutely no oil, butter, or lubrication of any kind, resulting in a smoky scene that one of the chefs likened to mustard gas.

Why can’t I understand it?  Oh, maybe I’m just a snob.  But it occurred to me as I watched this carnage that in no way would this have been considered entertainment forty or fifty years ago; certainly it wouldn’t have been socially acceptable.  The people on the show, who are offering themselves up as the most clueless home cooks in America, would never have gone on national television admitting this level of ineptitude in the kitchen.  Certainly you wouldn’t have heard a mother of two admitting, “My kids eat PB and J pretty much every night for dinner because I can’t cook.”  If any parent in the mid-20th century had admitted such a transgression publicly, the neighbors would have stormed the house with casseroles and taken the children.

Here I go being a curmudgeon again.  I’m not trying to set women’s lib back a half-century or anything; I’m not even suggesting that females have to be able to cook and males do not.  What is startling to me, though, is that we’ve managed to “progress” as a society from a time when being able to at least handle food and cook it passably enough to avoid e coli or trichinosis or salmonella was not an optional skill, but a mandatory part of life if one planned to stay among the living for very long.  Even the most macho of pioneer men could butcher a deer and cook some strips of venison over an open flame, for Pete’s sake.  Somehow, we’ve managed to evolve our food culture to the point where it’s become possible, for the first time in human history, to exist (with questionable long-term consequences, perhaps, but undocumented ones) and even appear to THRIVE without ever having a single person in the household cook a single meal.  What’s more, we’ve adjusted so thoroughly to this processed-food unreality that we can actually amuse ourselves with a competition that centers around people’s revelations that they “haven’t cooked 27 meals in 27 years.”  Granted, all of these people are on the show because they want to change their kitchen karma and learn how to cook — good for them — but it’s the larger social commentary I’m interested in, and the fact that we can even conceive of and film this show makes me very, very nervous from a food culture perspective.

However, Food Network did redeem itself last night by following the “Worst Cooks” debacle with a re-airing of its 2-hour “SuperChef Battle,” which challenged Iron Chefs Bobby Flay and Mario Batali (teamed up with White House Chef Christeta Comerford and Chef Emeril Lagasse, respectively) to cook five spectacular, entirely locally produced meals based on the bounty of the White House Gardens and D.C. area food producers. I’ve seen this battle before — I was glued to the TV the night it originally aired — but I had to watch it again.  Never in my life have I drooled so mightily over produce, which is a bold statement, considering my love affair with the Farmer’s Market.  And the idea that the White House Gardens produced over 1,000 pounds of local, organic vegetables, fruit, and honey in only 6 months (much of which was donated to area non-profits) gives me some hope for the greater shift in our national food culture that many people — not the least of which, certainly, is our First Lady — are trying to achieve.  I almost couldn’t sleep after watching it again last night; my mind was churning over thoughts of local, seasonal produce, and whether or not I could reasonably reproduce something like Batali’s sweet potato and goat cheese raviolo.

As for our own household food culture, we begin 2011 with the same mission as always: Just trying to get everyone fed.  There are bound to be ups and downs.  P. has decided to firmly entrench himself in this food denial phase which I love so dearly; L., in the meantime, seems to be continuing to make strides in his approach to the foods I want him to eat.  Just recently at a restaurant, he actually ordered broccoli instead of french fries with his meal (no, he didn’t eat much of it, but it was a victory nonetheless), and last night he voluntarily ate peas — a baleful look on his face the whole time, I’ll admit, but no coaxing from me required.  So we’re no worse off than we were in 2010, I guess.  Onward and upward, with gratitude for the fact that if we can’t have access to the White House Gardens, at least I’m not one of the Worst Cooks in America.

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5 Responses to For the New Year, Glimmers of Hope and Abject Despondency

  1. Pingback: “Worst Cooks” Again — Maybe it’s a Weekly Thing | Red, Round, or Green

  2. Donna says:

    While I was reading this, I could have sworn you had been in my living room last night! My husband and I were watching also, and talking about everything you mentioned above. And it reminded me of an occurrence in my own life that you will find appalling/heartwarming:

    After college, I went to a summer program at NYU, where I lived in a dorm with 3 other girls from the same program. The dorm room was equipped with a full kitchen, and since I was driving to the program, I dutifully brought pots, pans, dishes, utensils, and everything I would need to survive for 8 weeks. There was a grocery store across the street with tons of good food. I let my new roommates know they could use whatever they needed, since they had flown in and packed light. But I noticed after a week that the one girl had only eaten cereal for dinner every day since she arrived. I commented that she really must like cereal, and she said it was cheaper than takeout, and she didn’t know how to make anything else. Her mom never cooked, and so she had never learned. I about cried when she told me that she didn’t even know how to heat up canned soup. I took her to the store the next day and spent 5 weeks teaching her some basic things she could make. She was so receptive, and by the end of it could at least make herself salads, chicken, steak, shrimp, a variety of vegetables, pasta, burgers, tacos, and pizza. Not exactly 5-star gourmet food, but it was fresh, nutritious, and more satisfying than cereal.

    At the risk of sounding like a snob, is it too much to ask of families to pass on the basic skills of survival to their children? And if that system fails, is it too much to ask of these children when they’re grown to buy a cookbook, take a class, or ask a friend for help before they go on reality TV?

    • Donna! Glad to see you back on here, and SO glad to see that I’m not the only curmudgeon/snob who was thinking these things! Good for you for taking your housemate under your wing and teaching her a few things. That’s exactly the kind of scenario that I think plays out much, much more commonly in this country than we might suspect, and it’s absolutely the crux of the issue for me. It used to be, waaaaaay back in time, that if you had children, part of your parental responsibility was to cook food for them to eat and to pass on to them the knowledge required to do the same for themselves as they grew. Few families send their children off to college these days without teaching them to do their own laundry; in my mind, knowing how to plan, shop for, and prepare your own healthy food is as crucial a life skill as cleaning your own clothes. But because of fast food, takeout, ready meals, and dining halls, parents can safely assume that their college students won’t starve to death. Those who haven’t learned by age 18 how to function at least a little bit in a kitchen may not learn at all, because they’ll likely leave the dining hall to strike out on their own in an apartment for the first time, and there’ll be no one there to feed them or teach them how to feed themselves. My own dear husband, J., can’t cook at all — grilled cheese, barely; pasta, barely. And his mother did cook!

      • Donna says:

        It sounds like you have the perfect teaching opportunity right in your own home–P. and L. can learn to cook at the same time as J. 🙂 In all seriousness though, that brings to light that not only are there moms that don’t cook that aren’t passing on those skills, but that there’s also the chance that moms who do cook might not pass on these skills, and might not even realize it.

      • It’s absolutely true. His mother says that he never wanted to learn; my thought is that it shouldn’t be a choice. I’m sure he didn’t WANT to learn how to clean a bathroom, either, but she made sure he knew how to do that.

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