I grew up in a house with a man who cooked. My father made dinner every night (we ate out very rarely, and when we did, it was usually lunch somewhere around town), and I helped him as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife, stir the contents of a pot, or voice my opinion about a recipe. I was constantly surrounded by food and cooking and meals made from scratch, including a variety of foods he’d picked up from nations in his travels or from various girlfriends; one night might be mu shu pork, the next night might be fried plantains, the next might be pasta with clam sauce.
The girlfriends were always very impressed that my father was a cook, as were the parents (particularly the moms) of some of my friends growing up. To me it seemed natural: everyone needs food, someone has to cook it, when you have a single dad, he’s the one who needs to do the cooking. Obviously. It came as a shock to me when I visited the households of some friends and learned that their families were more likely to order in food or eat out, or to use prepared/packaged foods as the basis for their meals.
In a sense, I grew up with a sort of snotty sense of cooking privilege. Cooking came as something very natural to me, as did improvising recipes, eating things I liked and figuring out how to copy them, and working naturally within the kitchen; when I encountered recipes that weren’t specific about amounts, cooking times, or other characteristics, it didn’t bother or worry me, because I knew that I could figure out the appropriate step or steps to take from the context of the recipe, what I was trying to do, and what the food tasted like as I tried it.
As I grew older, I came to understand that not everyone was raised in the same conditions I was — this became particularly jarring for me when I started living with housemates and was alternately shocked, horrified, and amused by their cooking. Their pathetic attempts at trying to cook on their own were often revolting, or boring, and I didn’t fully realise that they had never cooked on their own before, and this was new and frightening for them. I mocked the fear of cooking that some people had, got impatient with people who asked me to help them, and looked askance at people who relied heavily on recipes.
The longer I’ve lived in the world, the more my attitude about people who can’t or don’t cook has changed, as I’m exposed to the realities of a world in which many people don’t grow up with cooking as a part of their lives, a world where not everyone has had access to the same opportunities I’ve had, a world where fresh ingredients can be hard to get, a world where not everyone has the time and ability to cook on a regular basis. But it still troubles me that this is a society where a fear of cooking is almost cultivated, because I believe the ability to cook can be immensely empowering, even if people don’t necessarily use the ability — it’s their choice, but I don’t want them to be in a situation where they can’t fend for themselves.
I observed this a great deal in New Zealand, where I had a chance to watch lots of different people cooking in the hostels I stayed at in Te Anau and Christchurch, and had an opportunity to see a wide diversity of cooking skills. Some people really brought their game, often when they were traveling in groups, busting out with amazing multicourse meals that put my own fairly modest ones to shame. Others stuck with things like packaged soups and noodles, which may have been the result of a combination of cost factors and low cooking skills rather than personal preference, although of course I didn’t go around asking people rude questions about what they were eating as it wasn’t my business.
I would spot my fellow hostel guests at the grocery and while I wandered through the aisles thinking about what I wanted to eat and making decisions on the basis of what looked freshest and least expensive, they were operating from rigid lists, and they were terrified and frozen when they couldn’t find ingredients or were confused by different labeling and terminology. They’d see me in the produce section and ask me ‘what’s that for’ or ‘how do you use that’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know, I’m going to find out,’ and they would look deeply confused that I was willing to experiment.
Cooking is a learned skill. It’s also a privileged learned skill, and it shouldn’t be. I’m starting to see a trend in some communities of providing cooking and nutrition classes to offer people a chance to acquire kitchen skills, though such classes aren’t necessarily always accessible (they aren’t always free or low cost, they may clash with individual schedules, etc). I’m excited about this, because cooking should be democratic. It shouldn’t be elitist. There shouldn’t be anything special about being able to cook, being able to improvise in the kitchen, being able to eat something and replicate it. And those of us who can do those things shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back about how superior we are — we should be helping other people do them, because if food is really that awesome, and cooking is so wonderful, why wouldn’t we want to share?
Photo: Cooking Amy Cook Off, Sean Duran, Flickr.