Cooking: still domestic drudgery for most
This article by Megan McArdle on the gap between American cooking fantasies and cooking realities is prevented from being truly interesting by McArdle’s inability to understand that most Americans don’t live in bubbles where they and all their friends are fairly wealthy. She relies on statistics that are drawn from the public at large when determining how much less time people are spending in the kitchen, of course, but then turns around and assumes that owning top end appliances and fancy kitchen gadgets that cost hundreds of dollars to do one thing is typical for Americans. It’s a shame her worldview is so limited by wealth and privilege, because I think she does brush up against an interesting paradox, where Americans are spending more time thinking about cooking while spending less time actually doing it.
Her article is all about the kitchen as conspicuous consumption for wealthy people—thousands of dollars of knives that don’t leave their display blocks, high end ovens used to store clothes, kitchens that have open plans that look great but make actual cooking a pain in the ass—but I’m more fascinated by the working and middle class interest in food that’s also on the rise while actual hours cooking are down. There’s not just a surge in unused fancy stoves being sold, but you also have the Food Network, the explosion in food magazines that shun the intimidating Gourmet aesthetic, the existence of Martha Stewart, food blogs—forms of food porn that suit the incomes of people who don’t have the kind of money that McArdle thinks comes standard with a U.S. birth certificate. And this is more interesting, because rich people buying fancy shit to show off is nothing new, but not-rich people engaging in media about cooking and food speaks to more than simply showing off how much money you have.
I think a lot of it is that we are the land of good intentions. We claim we’re going to church, but we’re not.* We write New Year’s resolutions. We buy books and forget to read them. We start projects and don’t finish them. It’s not that we don’t have time, exactly. We certainly have time to watch TV. It’s just that stuff we “should” do gets characterized as work, and no one wants to work for a living and then go home and do a bunch of work for free. We want to have fun—and god dammit, we do in fact deserve it—and TV is fun. I’m as guilty as anyone—right now, I have art that needs to be hung, a carpet that needs to be laid out, and balcony that needs to be arranged. I’ll probably get to it soon. Hopefully in part because I just outed myself.
I think cooking touches on both the urge to be more productive around the house, but it’s also about our bodies and health, and if it wasn’t in the past, it sure is now. I doubt there’s many of us left who don’t think about the fact that food eaten out tends to be more calorie-dense while less nutritious than what you’re likely to cook at home, even if you’re making the crap that is often featured on some of the more bafflingly popular Food Network shows. We all want to be “better” at this, so we spend more time and money thinking about it—watching Food Network, buying food magazines, and yes, buying expensive kitchen gadgets. But cooking is still work. It’s still constructed as a chore. Which is why I think Megan’s piece kind of fell apart, besides the class issues. She claims that all these food porn things are about believing cooking is fun—a leisure activity—but if that were true, I think people would actually be doing more of it. I think these food porn industries are being driven by aspirations, in the same category as gym memberships that go unused and musical instruments that collect dust.
But I do think that if cooking were in fact viewed more as a pleasurable way to spend time, instead of a chore that you should be doing but just aren’t, then more of it would be done. Of course, I have no clue what it would take to get there. God knows my own experience isn’t helpful; I have always been someone who has boundary issues between what is “work” and what is “play”, which I think is typical of hardcore bloggers as a group.
*The nice thing about being an atheist is that what you want to do lines up neatly with your desires. If you believe, as I do, that religion is actually immoral for being based on a lie, it’s awesome, because you get to live your morals by sleeping in on Sunday.