There is an article at The Atlantic this week, written by Elizabeth Dunn about “The Myth of Easy Cooking” and I have some opinions about it.
Let’s get a few of my disagreements out of the way first:
* The author mentions “exotic” ingredients and the impossibility to find them in average supermarkets. Eh, “exotic” is in the eye of the beholder. Or, perhaps, I should say “exotic is in the eater’s taste buds”. What is exotic for a middle class, white, urban living person might be an every day staple for an immigrant of another country, specifically, immigrants from the Global South. Chimichurri, the “exotic” sauce that chefs have discovered in the past couple of years was something my uncle made before family BBQs. If you have Chinese roots, hoisin sauce will not be some “exotic” ingredient that you never heard of. It’ll be in your home pantry or, at the very least, an ingredient that you have grown up accustomed to. Exotification and othering of cultures are the very root of a colonial mentality that should have no place in modern discussions about nutrition, taste or policy making. Specialty items are not “exotic” and perhaps the discussion should be about food distribution processes, profit margins and what kind of demographics supermarket chains try to appeal to (hint: they never try to appeal to minority consumers, the bulk of purchasing decisions are made with a “generic” consumer from the dominant culture in mind).
* The author makes some broad assumptions about everyone’s background, namely, that “easy cooking leans heavily on things your mom taught you”. My mom taught me how to can, preserve, make every single thing from scratch, grow vegetables, fruit trees and raise farm animals (including chickens, rabbits and ducks). I am not the norm and I was incredibly lucky that I grew up in such environment and with a family (on both sides) with a farming background for whom these things were “normal” and that land was cheap and plentiful and we had the space to do these things. Had my mom worked two or three jobs she would have not been able to teach me how to cook (let alone how to grow anything) because she would have been very busy surviving on a day to day basis. Had my mom lived with chronic illness or a disability, I doubt she would have been able to pass cooking techniques onto me. Had my mom been a refugee with no cooking facilities in a reception center (something quite common these days for hundreds of thousands of people in the European Union), she would have never been able to share any kind of food preparation with me. What I am trying to say is: the assumption that easy cooking is passed from mother to daughter is, again, a very comfortable middle class thing to say.
* Lucky Peach magazine is, arguably, one of the best (I hesitate to say “the best” because I am sure there are others equally good) food magazines in the world. It’s diversity (in opinions, writers, foods, etc) should be held as an example of how to do a food magazine even if not all the recipes or techniques described can be easily reproduced at home. Which is why I cannot get behind the assertion that a recipe book released by the editors of Lucky Peach would be too complicated or difficult for average cooks. I am double perplexed by the fact that the author of the article made such statement without reading said book (I read it; I have a copy; I am slowly trying to work my way through the recipes; they are no more difficult than your average recipe book).
I do agree with the author on the salient points of the article though. More specifically, this:
Food editors are, for the record, acutely aware that their (mostly female) readers want sophisticated meals but feel that the complex recipes offered by chefs are incompatible with their harried lifestyles. So, they make efforts to simplify and streamline, without ever admitting the one thing that cooks really need to hear: that real “easy” cooking, if that’s what you’re after, is far too simple to sustain a magazine and cookbook industry. It relies on foods that can be purchased at a single point of sale and involves a bare minimum of ingredients and a small repertoire of techniques.
I wish the author, who does mention that the bulk of cooking is still done by women, had taken this one step further and made the obvious connection: for the past 10+ years (since the advent of mass internet access) cooking and more broadly, “foodie culture” have been made to be an extension of the fashion industry with all that it entails. The same aspirational marketing, the same drive to consume and “exotify”, the same gender essentialism about which foods are for women and which are for men (and the concomitant “male and female” cooking techniques and assumptions). Foodie culture has been stripped of politics, cultural context and class and racial dynamics. Instead, we are presented with aspirational, unachievable goals and expectations of how we should cook, eat and “be” based on our consumer habits. As with the fashion industry, food is used as a tool to enforce roles and expectations on women. While the fashion industry pushes for unrealistic and unachievable beauty standards, the industry behind cooking and foodie culture pushes for a gender normativity that can be best summarized as “the domestic goddess career woman”. Just like the vast majority of women can neither afford nor wear the clothes showcased in Paris Fashion Week, the vast majority of women can neither cook nor easily source the ingredients for those “easy meals” without devoting an unrealistic amount of time to the task at hand. And while we have half a century or more of feminist cultural analysis to thank for our awareness of the problems with the fashion industry, we barely have a similar body of work to help us understand how the front line has now been extended into our kitchens and dining tables.