Worth Doing Badly

I present the dessert—chocolate éclairs—casually.  A flourish would seem excessive: they have, after all, been thawing on the kitchen counter in plain view while we worked our way through the appetizer and entree.  Brie and cranberry in phyllo pockets, followed by Chicken Kiev, both from the freezer section of my grocery store.  The salad was a hybrid: bagged spinach leaves, store-bought bacon bits, and home-made dressing.

As our guests take their leave, they compliment me on the meal.  Although it was tasty enough, I feel uncomfortable with their comments.  Under pressure of work, I didn’t so much cook this mid-week dinner as assemble it.  Welcome to what passes for cooking in the new millennium.   

For my grandmother, cooking from scratch was an essential skill: how else could you feed your family?  For the generation now feeding young families, cooking is hardly necessary: food that’s ready-to-eat or virtually so is available at the local grocery store.  Greens come washed, torn, and bagged with the right kind and amount of dressing.  Barbequed ribs and chicken sizzle in the deli.  Cooked components shiver stoically in the freezer, ready for assembly into complete meals: appetizers, entrees, starches, vegetables and desserts.

My grandmother would find much that is unfamiliar in our supermarkets, but she would recognize the transformation that cooking has undergone.  In her lifetime she saw it happen to the needle arts: sewing, needlework, knitting, crochet, quilting.  For my generation these have been optional activities, useful for scratching a creative itch; for my mother’s and grandmother’s generations they were necessary skills for everyday life.

As recently as 50 years ago, women routinely made their own layettes.  When I was pregnant with my first child, Mom brought out the baby clothes she’d used for us.  From a box in the basement emerged pure impracticality: embroidered nightgowns with a tie at the neck and a draft all down the back, followed by wool sweaters and booties to compensate for the draft.  Where her generation made cotton and wool clothes out of necessity, 20 years later I bought sleepers (stretchy, one-piece, machine-washable marvels that they were) without thinking anything of it, and used knitting only as a creative outlet.  It changed that fast.

Now it’s cooking’s turn to change.

Just yesterday, or so it seems, cooking was taken for granted, a necessary evil perhaps.  With almost no prepared foods available, cooking consumed a significant portion of every day.

Today, cooking is something to do for entertainment, with like-minded friends; something that warrants TV shows and a shelf-full of cook books; something more for special occasions than for every day.  Cooking is not a lost art, but more and more it’s seen as an art.  A few make their own bread—none make their own butter.

Tomorrow, cooking will be quaint: by the time our grandchildren are old enough to cook, they may wonder why anyone ever bothered.

I’m comfortable with needlework’s role as craft or art form, having known nothing else.  But in cooking, I am caught on the cusp of the change: unwilling to maintain the traditional ways, unable to fully embrace the new.  As I struggle through a schedule that’s a little busier than it should be, I sometimes resent ‘having’ to cook.  Yet, perversely, conditioned by the restrictions and expectations of an earlier time, I feel a little guilty when I merely assemble a dinner, no matter how good it tastes.

It is time to be done with this: not with cooking, but with fussing about it.  It is time to adopt the perspective of the coming generation, which will see all forms of cooking much as I see the knitting of a baby blanket: as an outlet for creativity, not an obligation.

Chesterton said, If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. He wasn’t endorsing burned dinners, but rather the expression of our full range of capabilities.  Maybe more than any other generation, we have the full range of options open to us.  Because we have the basic skills and access to the proper ingredients, we can cook an entire meal from scratch, if we want to; we can even hone our skills to gourmet stature.  Or we can mix and match meal components selectively: making soup from scratch, buying fresh bread from the bakery, choosing dessert from the freezer section.  And when time is tight or other priorities take precedence, we can assemble meals without apology.  If we will, we can cook without guilt, enjoying this everyday task in all its manifestations.

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8 Comments

Filed under New Perspectives

8 Responses to Worth Doing Badly

  1. M. Gibson

    Right on! Far more important to enjoy time with friends, than to fuss about not spending all day cooking! The fellowship will be remembered and valued, the meal appreciated for the day. MMG

    • Isabel Gibson

      As yesterday’s guests munched happily through the freezer-aisle desserts, I sure didn’t worry about not having made the tarts. My oldest friend (now gone) was a bride in the 1930s – as we sat with our cups of hot water (tea having too much caffeine) she used to laugh at how standards of entertaining had changed. In her day, she had to proffer petits fours and such to be considered a good hostess. All I wanted was a place to put my feet up for an hour.

  2. Carolyne

    I do agree with M. Gibson–time with friends and loved ones should not create stress because we want to “put on” the perfect meal. But personally, it de-stresses me to be in the kitchen, to work with my hands and to bask in the intuition that guides me into adding just the right spices and just the right amount. There is satisfaction in this too. But it is wholly different from wanting to be with loved ones–an entirely different kind of fulfillment. So don’t feel guilty about the prepared stuff!

  3. Alison Uhrbach

    Just had company for lunch today… served them soup from a can (but HEALTHY soup!) … and assemble your own BLTs. I LIKE cooking…but wouldn’t entertain nearly as much if I had to do it all from scratch…. so I am a fan of M&M and the deli section of the supermarket! Be forewarned if I ask you for dinner!

    • Isabel Gibson

      Way up North, in remote camps, food is a morale issue and chefs go all out. One of the most popular meals is hamburgers and hot dogs – it tastes like home, I guess. So there are lots of ways to connect with people using food, from subtle creations to build-your-own sandwiches. Ain’t food grand?

  4. Jim Taylor

    You may not have been aware of this, but your column confirmed one of the McLuhans’ (Marshall and Eric) theses. When a new technology emerges — such as prepared and frozen desserts — it doesn’t eradicate the old technology, but rather turns it into an art form. Quilting and needlework used to be necessities, as you note; now they are creative arts. Men (sorry about the stereotyping here) used to have to repair their cars just to keep them going; now they choose to do their own mechanical work as a hobby. If the McLuhans are right, cooking will not vanish, but it too will become an art. You won’t just be invited to dinner; rather, you’ll be invited to a specialty dinner, one cooked from scratch, an opportunity for the host/hostess to show off his/her skills.

    Jim Taylor

    • Isabel Gibson

      Well, I sure wasn’t aware of any McLuhan link – I haven’t read their work. Interesting that it should apply as a general rule. It seems reasonable – today’s crafts look like yesterday’s work, from soap making to calligraphy. Gardening, too, I guess – as we move away from gardening to eat and into gardening for show.