Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2017

Does Cooking Matter? by Rebecca Huntley

Does Cooking MatterI picked up this little book at the festival bookshop and read it last night over an excruciating room service lasagne.  So yes, I can tell you, cooking does matter…

In her Introduction, Rebecca Huntley writes about Christmas, quoting the British guru of food and cooking Elizabeth David’s heartfelt plea for a simple meal instead of the fuss and bother of the turkey et al.  Her point is that even if you like doing it, first and foremost cooking is labour, and a chore, and that we need to understand that better.  She thinks we might be less wasteful (see my recent post about The Art of Frugal Hedonism) if we recognise that, (though I have my doubts).

Huntley talks about the need to have a sophisticated, healthy and enjoyable relationship with food and that if it seems too difficult then people disengage. We who like cooking shows and experimenting are a passionate minority.  What’s more important is

…how you get the majority of Australians – regardless of age, gender, family formation or socio-economic class – to do the following: cook regularly, develop a varied repertoire of dishes that includes vegetarian options and animal protein options, use seasonal ingredients, know what to do with leftovers, minimise  food waste, eat out less and entertain at home more.  (p. 4)

You might be wondering about the last two: the author cites evidence that shows that we eat less healthily when we eat out, and not just if it’s junk food.  But there’s also important research that shows that families that eat together around the table are more stable and less dysfunctional.  Instinctively, I know this to be true.  It’s not just the sharing of news of the day and discussing stuff like future holidays &c, so that a sense of being a family is maintained.  It’s also better for resolving the conflicts that are inevitable in any family.  We’ve all had our rows around the family table, but when you have to come back next time because that’s where dinner is, that forced contact makes it harder for hostilities to resume.  (My mother had a firm rule: we were not allowed to flounce out of the room.  We could sit there and sulk, but we could not leave until everyone had finished dinner.  It was a forced cooling-off period, and I can remember being amazed when I saw American TV shows where kids routinely flounced out, usually slamming a door behind them!)

Chapter 1 is called The Masterchef effect, and it seems it’s true that the show does actually encourage people to be more adventurous in the kitchen and to learn new techniques.  But Huntley discusses with the judges the problem of the woman (and it’s usually the woman) who has to conjure the meal at the end of the day, often for ungrateful children.  She points out the disconnect between the cooking that the judges say they want (fresh, simple, healthy) and the drama of the haute cuisine that the contestants produce.  I would sometimes see evidence of this disconnect on the Masterchef Facebook page: some people complaining that they wanted to see contestants cook ‘everyday food’ and others saying that they wouldn’t want to watch a cooking show about the sort of food their granny cooked.  What I’ve noticed is that contestants who produce delicious everyday food often get through the early episodes, but that they have to master some very difficult techniques at the end.  How else could they find a winner?

Chapter 2 had some surprising statistics about the limited range of recipes that most people know.

Many of us eat the same dishes from week to week: spag bol, egg dishes, roasts, stir fries, meat and three veg, and stews and soups in the colder months.  We choose these meals because they are tasty as well as quick and easy to make.  They often require us to use only one pot or pan, minimising clean up afterwards.  Family members will eat these dishes uncomplainingly and so we haven’t wasted our effort and resources on food that gets scraped into a bin or a Tupperware container to be forgotten at the back of the fridge… (p.18).

Most people don’t actually know a lot of recipes and do this tried-and-true, pragmatic cooking. We don’t plan, we tend to think about what we’d like, or do something with what we’ve got in the fridge. (I think this why people on diets often say they’re enjoying their food more: it’s because good diets make you plan ahead and then you have nicer food).

The book goes on to talk about cooking in the media, getting men into the kitchen and about kids and cooking.  It’s well worth reading, and *chuckle* provides fodder for chat around the dinner table.  It would be a good stocking filler for the cook in your life too.

I did a cake making course at William Angliss a week or so ago, and my partner was a young newly qualified pharmacist who had literally never broken an egg before. Her friends had clubbed together to buy this day in the kitchen for her as a birthday present because she really, really did not know how to cook.  When he lived in Fitzroy as a young man, The Offspring (who is – and was then – a more-than-capable cook) dined at his local pub every night, enjoying the roast of the day for a song.  Does it matter, if you live in the inner city where you can eat cheaply and well at a variety of places on a day-to-day basis?  Is that just modern life, or do we lose something when that happens?

Rebecca Huntley was a presenter at the festival in a session I didn’t get to.  She’s a Director at Ipsos Australia, and she researches social and consumer trends.

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: Does Cooking Matter?
Publisher: Penguin Specials, 2014
ISBN: 9780143570868
Purchased from the festival bookshop.

Available from Fishpond: Does Cooking Matter?


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. Sounds really interesting Lisa. When I had children at school and was working, involved in school board and P&C, in my reading group and patchwork group, taking kids to music lessons etc, I did plan carefully. I’d check the diary for what nights were busy and would make them, perhaps, Fried rice with leftover meat from the day before. Food never got wasted. If it wasn’t in that meal for example I’d take it to work and microwave it for lunch. I’d check recipe books to try new recipes. Having done all that planning I’d write up the shopping list and we’d go shopping. It made a huge difference to our family life because it removed that stress of being tired and not knowing what to cook. I did this for over a decade. But, now, with just two of us, we’re like you. No planning. I still don’t waste much as I love leftovers!

    I’ve looked at some Masterchef social media over the years but so much of it was unkind that I gave up. I have learnt a few techniques and ideas from it, but wish I could be organised to turn out what they do in the time they do.

    I’ve been thinking about this eating out culture, which I must say we engage in a bit. But I think if that’s all you do, you probably are losing a lot, including the bliss of sitting around the table with friends and family in the quiet environment of home. And of course managing portions and quality of food can be tricky when you are out.

    • I don’t think I did much before-shopping planning in that same phase of our lives, but I planned in my head when I got to the shops (as in we’ll need these veg to go with the Sunday roast and it was chicken last week so it’s beef this week, and I’ll need a kilo of mince to make a pie and a Bolognese sauce.) Because yes, we had a suite of recipes that we knew off by heart and we cooked them regularly (and got complaints if we didn’t!) Interestingly although the Ex was terrific in the kitchen, I was the one who did the planning.
      I think we are more likely to eat in as we get older, because some of our friends have difficulty with the level of noise in restaurants and it makes it hard to enjoy conversation. But our dinner parties are getting smaller and simpler, and we are more likely to cook ahead than we used to.

      • Yes, while I did look up recipe books when I was planning, the majority of the meals were tried and true. Mr Gums always made the Spag Bol (which I can’t eat anyhow) and often he would barbecue meat or fish while I did veggies and/or salad because that sort of meal was quick and pretty healthy.

        I’ve noticed our dinner parties getting smaller too, and just nibbles/antipasto to start with rather than a fancy entree. We still like to eat out but noise is an issue. A lot to older people eat out at lunch which is quieter in most restaurants. But noise is a big issue for our regular Friday lunch outings with my parents. Dad says, “will it be quiet”, and I say “well I can ask for a quiet table but I can’t guarantee it”. We know the restaurants that have quieter tables and many of them know us. But, at this time of year they all get busy and it becomes fraught.

        • It can be a serious problem. I think restaurant designers would do well to remember that our age group can be big spenders but we won’t go to places where we don’t enjoy it.

          • Totally agree … and then some of them play loud, thrumming music! I don’t mind music in the background, but mostly people go to restaurants to engage with others over a meal. Why so many of these restaurants play loud music with strong beats I have no idea.

            • And they have concrete floors and nothing to absorb the sound…

              • Yes, and modern industrial look metal-legged chairs that scrape and scrape on that floor.

  3. I eat much the same every day – porridge breakfast, salad lunch, light tea: Omelette, soup, gnocchi or roast veg. I like eating out but at $50/head (incl. wine) restrict myself to once a week. Interesting point about diets, it was the pritikin diet that got me interested in food and led to me being a vego. and I’m lucky to have a now ex wife and daughters (and brother and son in law) who enjoy restaurant level cooking.

    • I think that being interested in food and cooking tends to run in families. The Spouse learned to cook because his mother was a great cook and he didn’t like his own humble efforts when he first left home.

    • I suspect that one of the reasons younger people are into brunching on the weekend is that it’s cheaper. $20 for fancy poached eggs might sound expensive, but that and a coffee is cheaper than an evening meal out!

      • Yes, I suppose it is… though not so interesting!

        • Not to us so much, I think, but there are some excellent brunch places. The kids have taken us to quite a few over the years.

  4. Sounds like an interesting book. I find it quite surprising how few people cook (largely out of fear of failure) and how infrequent eating together has become. I think you’re right that the time spent eating together as a family is an important time for reconnecting, notably when there is nothing else to do but eat. We try to eat together as a family as much as possible (sometimes my work schedule does not permit) and I cling onto it as strongly as I can.

    • It’s true, it can be difficult, and it doesn’t need to be every day, but if it gets to the stage where we only ever get together when we’re driving the kids to school in the car, well, what’s the point of having a family?

  5. This sounds excellent. I’m in absolute agreement with you about the value of sitting down to a family meal. It teaches you so much about how to get on with other people, sharing, manners and thinking about others not just yourself, Once you have this habit, you have it for life. My partner and I spend hours discussing this, that and everything over supper.

    • There’s lots of other interesting angles too. For example, she talks about the importance of knowing what’s in your food, but acknowledges that lots of people will use prepared sauces, e.g. for the spag bol. She’s not saying everyone has to go to a farmer’s market and make everything from scratch, but that we ought to know what’s in the things we buy and if they are ethically made.
      I remember once being caught out with something that had an extra ingredient that I didn’t know about. We were having a fancy lunch at school so I made a dish from scratch (baked zucchinis with an Italian sauce) for one of the staff who was gluten intolerant. But I forgot to bring the jar of grated cheese for the top of it so I bought some in a packet from the supermarket on the way to school. And then she couldn’t eat my thoughtfully prepared dish, because *surprise* they put flour in pre-grated cheese to stop it from sticking together.

  6. From someone down in the trenches of ‘kids-at-school-or-sports-and-both-parents-working’ I can only be eternally grateful that my husband does most of the cooking. He’s not as good at planning or leftovers as Sue, though! Yet even in 2017 people still look at me askance when I say that he cooks. Of course no one bats an eyelid if I confess that I do all the laundry…
    In the last month or so Husband’s efforts have been supplemented by #1 son, nearly 14, who is obliged to cook a meal for the family every Tuesday night. Next year the Gorgeous Daughter (who already does lots of impromptu baking) will follow suit, so there’s two nights we don’t have to think about (well, not too much, anyway). We usually all sit down together at the table for the main meal – mainly because I too think it’s important family time but also because it’s subsequently easier to clean up!

    • Good plan: enlisting the offspring! (And making them into desirable spouses in due course).
      And yes, the moment that gets on my wick when we have guests for dinner is the effusive thanks to Him because He Cooked, but no one ever says, Hey Lisa you did a great job of cleaning up the umpty-nine bowls and pans afterwards, or Gosh, we noticed that the bathroom sink was sparkling clean. Yes, even in 21st century we are meant to be grateful and appreciative of our ‘luck’ when He does a bit around the house, and we are likewise meant to accept that our contribution will always be overlooked.


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