Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch

July 31, 2009 · 3 comments

Saint Julia

Michael Pollan’s new essay – which will appear in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday – begins with a reminiscence on Julia Child, which seems almost mandatory with the forthcoming release of Julie and Julia next week.

When I asked my mother recently what exactly endeared Julia Child to her, she explained that “for so many of us she took the fear out of cooking” and, to illustrate the point, brought up the famous potato show (or, as Julia pronounced it, “the poh-TAY-toh show!”), one of the episodes that Meryl Streep recreates brilliantly on screen. Millions of Americans of a certain age claim to remember Julia Child dropping a chicken or a goose on the floor, but the memory is apocryphal: what she dropped was a potato pancake, and it didn’t quite make it to the floor. Still, this was a classic live-television moment, inconceivable on any modern cooking show: Martha Stewart would sooner commit seppuku than let such an outtake ever see the light of day.

The episode has Julia making a plate-size potato pancake, sautéing a big disc of mashed potato into which she has folded impressive quantities of cream and butter. Then the fateful moment arrives:

“When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions,” she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, Julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: “When I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up.” And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: “If you’re alone in the kitchen, WHOOOO” — the pronoun is sung — “is going to see?” For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers’ recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers’ social standing), Julia’s little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”

I can identify with Julia’s courage and convictions; I’ve written here about my own potato-flipping experiences. But Pollan uses Julia as a starting point for a much more important discussion: the decline of actual cooking in the American home. I won’t go into detail here, instead, I encourage you to read the entire essay.

As he reaches his conclusion, Pollan asks:

The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work? One in which the cooking shows on television once again teach people how to cook from scratch and, as Julia Child once did, actually empower them to do it?

Let us hope so. Because it’s hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.

Once I learned, I never stopped cooking, and now I’m passing that knowledge along to Miles. I’m doing my part, how about you?

3 comments

Bryan July 31, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Well, that’s it, then. Next week I am going to start actually cooking again. Really. I’ve been pretty lazy about it the past couple of years. A rut, if you will. A few years ago I was doing pretty well–I was working at the French Culinary Institute in New York and getting fresh produce from the local CSA. So I was trying to work my way through some of the curriculum materials I was editing–especially the pastry end of it (I told the people there I was a “dessertatarian”). I worked in the library, so I had access to just about every decent cookbook there was, and all the demo videos. It was easy to stay enthused about cooking, trying new things, trying to improve my skills. Now I tend to rely on a few easy dishes that I can make fairly quickly. But I have a nice kitchen to work in, and more free time, so I have no excuse.

Weirdly, the bad economy might actually be spurring a little bit more home cooking–the restaurant business is hurting, and people are spending less money on food outside the home. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t turning to processed convenience foods, especially if those foods seem cheap. Will people take the next step and see they can get a better food value by using better ingredients, doing more of the work themselves?

The other weird thing that Pollan doesn’t mention is that at the same time home cooking is being marginalized, the home kitchen is fetishized. Ever watch HGTV? They constantly push the idea that everyone should want a big kitchen, acres of granite, steel-clad appliances, cherry cabinets, big, high-tech everything. Know how to actually use it? Well, that, not so much. Maybe it’s like the women who bought instant cake mixes, but still wanted to crack the egg, maintaining the illusion of baking. Someone with a nice kitchen can pretend they’re a real cook, even with a freezer full of premade pb&j sandwiches.

Well, I didn’t mean to practically hijack your blog here, but that article kind of set me off.

David August 1, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Working as an editor for the FCI sounds like a job I’d love (don’t disabuse me of my fantasy).

It’s pretty easy to cook with good ingredients in the summer here, it’s the winter that becomes a challenge. That’s why I’m spending more time on canning and preserving techniques now. As soon as decent roma tomatoes arrive (if they arrive at all), I’ll buy a bushel and convert them to basic sauce to use in the winter.

Trips to the Stop & Shop are becoming less and less enjoyable for me, so I’m limiting my shopping to basics like flour, sugar, milk, etc.

I agree with you about the fetishizing of the kitchen. I’ll be watching you to see if you actually use that Wolf pro range that’s sitting in your new home.

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