Cooking Isn't Fun, But You Should Do It Anyway

What to eat. What not to eat.
Aug. 27 2012 3:44 AM

Cooking Isn't Fun

But you should do it anyway.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

It took me until I was 33 to start cooking dinner.

Don’t get me wrong—I was no stranger to the kitchen. I had prepared laborious, extravagant meals before, often using exotic ingredients I’d learned about in magazines. My sisters and I had bonded in the kitchen, spending visits preparing elaborate dishes together for hours. Cooking had been everything the food world told me it could be: a way to engage with a community, to travel without leaving home, to respect the local environment, to look after my own health. I nodded along with the eminences of the food world, convinced that their shared conclusion was the pinnacle of truth: Americans just don’t cook enough, and we desperately need to cook more. Our health, our civility, our culture depend on it!

And yet, even while espousing the ideals of the communal table and cross-cultural exploration, I rarely cooked dinner for myself in my 20s. Where was the fun in that? My sisters and I would groan to ourselves when my stepmother implored us not to cook Christmas dinner. (Her reasoning: It was too much work and we could just get Costco lasagna and be done with it.) But when left to my own devices, I would feed myself almost anything so long as I didn’t have to turn on the stove. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I cooked a meal once a week and otherwise made do with hummus and pita, or cereal, or crackers and cheese and olives. I liked to commune with the foodie writers but not enough to cook every day.

Advertisement

Which brings me to the dirty little secret that I suspect haunts every food writer: When you have no choice but to cook for yourself every single day, no matter what, it is not a fun, gratifying adventure. It is a chore. On many days, it kind of sucks.

I might have gone to my grave denying this fundamental truth if I hadn’t reported a book that had me living and eating off minimum wage (and less). While working at Wal-Mart in Michigan, I stocked up on bulk items, foolishly using middle-class logic (“great unit price!”) instead of working-class smarts (“save enough cash for rent plus small emergencies”). I soon ran out of money and found myself hungry and exhausted, staring down a pantry containing little more than flour, coconut flakes, a few scraggly vegetables, and two frozen chicken thighs. There was nothing about this scene that inspired me to cook. The ingredients were boring. There were no friends bringing over bottles of wine. I had left my glossy food magazines in New York.

But there would be no calling Papa John’s for pizza or stopping at Trader Joe’s for premade lasagna or a selection of fine cheeses; my $8.10 an hour precluded that. I had two choices: consume raw flour and cauliflower, or cook. By dint of my newfound poverty, I had lost the third option—the escape hatch, really—that most middle-class people take for granted: eating without having to cook. Once subjected to the tyranny of necessity, I found that making my meals from scratch wasn’t glamorous at all.

There are many good reasons to cook meals from scratch. Cooking simply at home from whole ingredients is often cheaper, per serving, than heading out to a restaurant—even a fast-food restaurant. Food made at home usually has far less salt and fat than either processed foods or what’s on offer in eateries. And, contrary to popular belief, families don’t save much time by turning to box meals like Hamburger Helper rather than cooking entirely from scratch. Researchers at UCLA found that, whether using processed foods or whole ingredients, American families spend about 52 minutes preparing their dinner every night.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 1:01 PM Can Activists Save Reyhaneh Jabbari?  
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM The Many Faces of Texas
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.