Unless one of us has a work engagement, my husband and I try to eat dinner together every night. And while we occasionally resort to takeout or that old standby the grocery store rotisserie chicken, at least nine times out of 10, that means I plan and prepare things with my own two hands. Not because Cooking Is a Woman’s Job, but because in my household, Cooking Is a Megan Job, by training and preference. My admirably feminist husband does the dishes, which to be honest, he probably does not enjoy as much as I enjoy cooking. If there is a net psychic wealth imbalance in our distribution of household chores, I am the one running the chronic surplus.
I love thinking up things to make, and making them. I like finding new recipes, and trying them. I like planning our meals, figuring out what things complement one another. I like the smug satisfaction of knowing there’s something delicious in the Crock-Pot, and I put it there. Maybe I hate myself a little when I bake my own bread and spread it with homemade ricotta and fresh tomatoes from the farmers' market or a friend’s garden. But I also really, really, really love those sandwiches.
But let’s be honest: For all my love of cooking, it can be kind of tedious. I have to remember to put the zucchini in to marinate and the bread to rise. If I forget, as I did yesterday, I have to tear myself away from a beckoning bed and trudge into the kitchen to put the bread together. I often start my workday at 6:30 a.m. by sauteing vegetables and meat for the Crock-Pot. Our schedules are complicated; trying to find a time when both of us can be at the table, eating together, is often very difficult. Sometimes we’re tired and don’t have awesome family time at the dinner table; we have crabby adults shoveling leftovers into their mouths. And we don’t even have children, who have to be taught manners, demand to eat nothing but macaroni and cheese for months on end, and can easily fill 110 percent of any nearby adult’s time with activities other than cooking.
And you know what? Sometimes my husband doesn’t like what I make, though he will usually chew and smile manfully. Peter is a meat-and-potatoes-and-more-meat kind of guy who came into our relationship deeply suspicious of any vegetable that was not a carrot or a pea. I came into our relationship as a vegan who preferred vegetables, fruit and bread over basically everything else. The veganism fell by the wayside (my thyroid won’t tolerate very much soy). The conflict between what I would like to eat and what I cook for my husband because he likes it persisted. I gained weight eating his preferred foods. We’re still working out compromises as he patiently tries to learn to like new vegetables, and I have accepted that I can make stuff he doesn’t eat.
Does this mean that the ideal of joyful cooking is an excessively idealized illusion? That’s what Amanda Marcotte suggests, riffing off a recent sociology study of how people incorporate Mark Bittmanesque ideals into their everyday lives. It turns out that the women who cook find kids and husbands more difficult to deal with than do the folks in loving magazine articles about growing your own lima beans and making fresh succotash. Fresh produce tends to rot if you shop only once a month. Hectic schedules make it difficult to get everyone sitting at the table. Preparing new things on a tight food budget is risky when they might end up rotting in the refrigerator, uneaten.
And to be sure, those articles can be extremely annoying, not to mention unrealistic. Michael Pollan’s riff about his family trying McDonald's for the first time and finding it gross struck me as a fine bit of elitist mythmaking: I mean, maybe it’s true of the Pollans, but I find it hard to believe that neither he nor his children had ever encountered a Quarter Pounder before. And even harder to believe that no one liked it; the chain is wildly successful in all sorts of places that have stellar reputations for lovingly home-prepared food. My mother, who made her own croissants, also loves Sausage McMuffins. It’s OK to extoll the joys of taking the time to prepare some complicated dish and to reassure people that cooking high-quality food is not necessarily as difficult as they think. It’s also OK to grab the occasional bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That said, the sociology study reads like it was written by aliens who unfortunately never got to spend much time on their visit to our planet. Some of the obstacles they cite to cooking are obviously huge, such as living in a motel room that only has a microwave and a tiny sink (though you can, I must note, acquire a used hot plate at most thrift stores for under $10, as long as you can sneak it past management). Some of them are frankly bizarre. Pests! Small kitchens! Not enough money for high-quality organic produce! Welcome to life in New York City, home of a very high percentage of the nation’s foodies.
Seriously, here’s Mark Bittman’s kitchen. Here’s mine; it is larger than the New York City kitchen in which my mother prepared thousands of meals for friends and family, although not so well laid out. But it’s 110 years old, laid out for a workman’s family, not a fancy mansion with servants. By the standards of any new home, it’s tiny. Though it’s enormous by historical standards, which call, for most of the human beings who have ever lived, for a single room in which the family cooks, eats and often sleeps. Yet somehow, women have been preparing scratch meals under these intolerable conditions for millennia.
The picture of my kitchen does not, alas, show the annual ant infestation that streams in through our 100-year-old walls or the mice that regularly immigrate from nearby construction sites or the traditional end-of-summer fruit-fly infestation. I don’t know a single middle-class family that doesn't have a pest problem of one kind or another. Nor do I know anyone who finds, say, the omnipresent New York City cockroach a reason not to cook.
These things, it is true, make cooking less fun than it sounds on the pages of a magazine or to imagine in moments of gauzy fantasy. But that’s true of everything; women’s liberation itself turned out to be more complicated and fraught than its founders imagined, which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.
Forming a family is hard, not because of poverty or class or sexism (though those things can make it harder). Forming a family is hard because, hey!, there’s another person here, and he has his own ideas about how the household should be run, and also, he's in the way. Did we really need sociology researchers to point that out?
This air of shock at ordinary facts of human existence spills over into the solutions the sociologists propose, which are … well, I’ll let them speak for themselves:
So let’s move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.
Small towns and rural areas already have lots of potlucks, which they could have found out by stopping at any firehouse or church. And as for the idea that we can fix America’s dinner hour by having the school cafeteria cater it -- one hardly knows where to start!
Having made fun of their solutions, I suppose it behooves me to offer some of my own. Luckily, I happen to have a little list right here:
- Don’t cook from scratch if you hate to cook. Cooking is a joy. So is rock climbing, or ice skating, or reading science fiction novels. That doesn’t mean it’s a joy everyone shares. There’s no reason that you should cook from scratch if you don’t like doing it. America’s supermarkets offer an ever-more-stunning variety of quick, tasty, relatively healthy frozen entrees. Virtually every grocery store has a giant freezer case devoted to making dinner time a snap, another big refrigerator case filled with things that take barely more time, and a huge prepared-foods section that is still cheaper than takeout. So is a box of pasta and a bottle of decent sauce like Rao’s. For that matter, I still remember very fondly my grandmother’s signature kid dish: hamburger meat, pasta shells and Ragu.
- Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the adequate. The primary object is to keep everyone’s stomach filled without giving them Type II diabetes or busting the budget. Do that first, then stretch to more ambitious goals such as mastering coq au vin.
- Frozen produce is just as good for you as fresh. I don’t like them as well, to be sure. And there’s a certain amount of variability: Frozen fruit is better than fresh for most cooking; frozen peas, artichokes and pearl onions are very good; frozen broccoli’s not my favorite. But these are vegetables that were picked at the height of freshness, flash-frozen nearby, then transported to your store without bruising or wilting. They keep a long time. And they’re already pre-prepped, so all you have to do is thaw and season them. You can do a lot with sauces and seasoning to make frozen vegetables a worthy side.
- For risk-averse kids and spouses, try everything new as a side dish to the main course. For example, I love chickpeas. The Official Blog Spouse was deeply skeptical. So when I got a new recipe for slow-cooker chickpea tagine, I served it alongside a full meal of things he already liked. Three bites into the chickpeas, he said, “You know, this winter, we should have this as a main course.” I’m not saying you’ll get those results every time; many’s the evening he’s taken a few bites of something new and put his fork down forever. I’m just saying you’ll get less fighting and spoilage if you introduce new things in a lower-risk manner than throwing it on the table and saying “That’s all there is, so you’d better eat.”
- Pre-prep and freeze. Yes, you can be one of those people who pre-preps nine slow-cooker meals, carefully freezes them and dutifully puts them in the slow cooker on the appointed morning. I am not one of those people. I am, however, one of those people who freezes big batches of soup or chili, throws some marinade on a roast before popping it in the freezer, or flattens and flours chicken cutlets, freezes them on a baking sheet and pops them in a freezer bag to be prepared later as needed. There’s no need to defrost before cooking as long as they’re relatively thin. Steaks can also be cooked straight out of the freezer, as can pot roast or stew meat. Loaves of bread can also be prepped (cut into servings, or turned into garlic bread), then frozen in foil for later use. So do those things when you have time, then at a hectic dinner time, you can have a full meal on the table in 10 to 20 minutes.
- The odds of a picky husband or child dying of malnutrition or whining are really very low. I’m not saying that it never happens. In most cases, however, they will eat when they get hungry enough. You are, as my mother frequently noted, not running a restaurant. Your job is to put healthy food on the table, not to make sure they leave said table in paroxysms of delight. It’s disappointing if they don’t like everything you are cooking, but too many women let that disappointment drive them to unreasonable lengths.
- It’s OK to resort to fast-and-dirty shortcuts. My recipe for slow-cooker pulled pork involves three steps: 1) Rub a delightfully cheap pork shoulder with garlic powder, paprika and brown sugar. 2) Pop it in the freezer or let it sit in the fridge overnight. 3) Put it in the slow cooker with a cupful of decent barbecue sauce and a little vinegar. Will this win prizes at a barbecue competition? No. Is it pretty good? Yup. And it requires five minutes of active time. So do grilled cheese or tuna sandwiches; egg salad takes a full half hour, if you need to hard boil the eggs. Scrambled eggs can be safely eaten at dinner time with no ill effects. Turkey sandwiches make excellent dining, and if you want more of a “dinner” feel, you can always heat them up in the frying pan or the oven. The point is, there are lots of things that are fast to throw together, and they're pretty tasty. Your kids won’t think it’s weird unless you tell them; I was an adult before I realized that waffles were not traditionally a dinner food.
- You’re going to repeat yourself. A lot. This summer, my husband has eaten zucchini, sliced thin and baked with olive oil and spices, at least twice a week. We eat steamed buttered green beans at least that often, year-round. Also arugula salad. And beef soup. And chicken breasts in some sort of pan sauce … did I mention I’m not running a restaurant? It’s great to try new things, and I do pretty often. But the actual majority of my cooking revolves around a library of stuff that I know how to cook very well because I’ve done it a lot. And that’s true of every chef I’ve met. Food columns often make it sound like everyone’s going home and making six new dishes every night. This is not because that’s how anyone cooks, but because you wouldn’t read a column titled “Here, why don’t you make some gingered carrots again for the fifth time this month.” In fact, it’s not just OK to make the same things over and over; it’s what your kids will remember and want to eat again 30 years from now when they’re feeling blue. Is it a little boring to brown the meat for Turkey Chili: Take 197? Sure. Life is often a little boring. It is nonetheless sweet.
- There are ways to make cleaning less of a chore. Line pans in foil and Crock-Pots with plastic Crock-Pot liners. Use pre-prepped or frozen vegetables, which are not even more expensive than those in their natural state. Silicone baking mats will prevent oven-baked things from sticking. Use a chopper instead of a knife. Get free newspapers at the local supermarket and lay them on the counter before you start baking to catch spills. Use a garbage bowl on your counter to make after-dinner cleanup basically one-step. Keep oil from splattering with a splatter guard.
I’m not saying I do all these things -- there's a certain amount of moral hazard to being the cook rather than the cleaner. But if cleanup is bumming you out, spend a few extra bucks on foil and pan liners and bulk paper plates, rather than a lot of extra money on takeout.
We shouldn’t over-idealize home cooking as some glittering apex of human experience that no decent person can do without. But let’s not remedy the cultural overshoot by demonizing the preparation of a decent, healthy meal as a grueling chore that stonkers all but the most privileged and dedicated cooks. Cooking at home is often fun, and it’s almost always cheaper and healthier than the alternative -- and tastier, if the alternative is picking up a tray at the high school cafeteria. It can, of course, be stressful -- but it can be a lot less stressful if you will repeat after me: “I’m not running a restaurant. I’m running a home.”
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Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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