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.