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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MEALS AT HOME

"Good food, good meat, good God, lets eat"

A few days ago I wrote about an article in Slate that bemoaned having to make your own means, and reflected on an attitude that seems to be growing in popularity in America, at least.  That idea is that being required to do basic work to have the things you need is some kind of cruel imposition, or even an immoral cruelty.  I have to work to eat?  How dare you!
And in the Slate article, Amanda Marcotte rejected the value and importance of the home-cooked meal eaten together as a family.  She noted a study that suggested its so stressful to cook at home that you lose any potential heath benefits over eating out.  She claimed that the idea of the home meal is "romanticized."
This is nonsense.  I agree that cooking a meal can be stressful and frustrating - the hardest part for me is coming up with the menu, since I tend to put it off until the last possible moment, focusing on other things.  If I plan ahead, its just smooth sailing.
But the stress is more than offset by sitting down at a table and eating good food.  There is something special and healing about sitting down with loved ones to share time and a meal together, especially with a loving family that shares their concerns and days.  The regularity, stability, and predictability of this time together can be incredibly soothing.  Just being surrounded by people who care and love you for a few minutes is relaxing, even if things get troubled.
The TV show Blue Bloods has a regular feature each episode of the Sunday family dinner.  There are conflicts and confusion and problems, but that coming together is a binding aspect for the family and is a rich tradition that is very good for all the people involved.  You can sense the togetherness even when its a rough dinner.
I don't have any lab studies or sociology degrees, I don't have any psychological test cases or books.  I only have my personal experience growing up and eating dinners with family, I only have the wisdom of the ages, and the other families I know that had this blessing, and I know that the food nutrition is only a small portion of the benefits cooking a home meal and eating it together brings.
But that original article was more than simply a complaint about effort to gain reward or the misery of cooking a meal.  Amanda Marcotte, well worth a giggle much of the time, actually brought up some legitimate concerns.
WEARY MOM
First off she pointed out that working moms don't have a lot of time or energy when they get home to deal with kids and cooking a meal.  So bringing home something or ordering out, or throwing a can of goop in the microwave is all they have left to offer.
And this is a genuine, legitimate problem.  Ideally, one parent (usually mom is best) staying home to care for home, children, and deal with things like meals is the way it should be.  That means that parent is able to give proper attention and focus to everything that needs doing and won't be too exhausted to get a meal ready.  But that isn't always the way it can be.
These days many parents are alone, whether divorced or never married.  Many parents work, because the expenses of life are so high they feel that they should.  Now as I've argued (and shown data) in the past, this isn't necessarily the case - often it is not necessary for both parents to work - it can be, and I would not be so arrogant to declare that any specific family shouldn't have both parents working.  You know your situation, I don't.
There are some solutions to this, though.  If at all possible, the other parent should be home around the same time to help be with the kids and help out otherwise.  The kids can help out, by doing some prep work in the kitchen such as setting the table, organizing ingredients, and if old enough chopping and measuring.  Children should be considered resources for the house, not simply customers.  If you teach them how to cook from youth, they'll be better able to survive on their own later.
Kids can start getting things ready while mom or dad changes and deals with the little ones, takes a shower, etc.  There are usually steps that can be taken before the actual tough part (or dangerous part such as using the stove) needs to be done, and youngsters can pitch in for that.  Yes, at first they'll be bugging you constantly with questions and need supervision, but they'll learn and grow in that, too.
Having everything ready and organized helps a lot too.  A clean kitchen workspace and everything put away in the right spot each time makes a very significant difference.  As I noted above, a menu prepared in advance means you don't have to figure it out as you cook; that's a major stress reducer right there.

COST
This is where things get a bit... weird in the article.  Ms Marcotte claims, based on a report, that low income houses can't afford to cook at home.  Now I can understand that seeming so if you shop at Whole Foods or the local boutique market in upper east side Manhattan.  Those microgreens and specialty cheeses don't come cheap.
But the truth is, its always cheaper to buy raw ingredients and cook them yourself than to buy prepared and especially restaurant food.  You're providing the labor, rather than paying for it.  And there are shops that are significantly cheaper with quality food which are readily available.  I know, Ms Marcotte would sooner vote Republican than shop at Wal*Mart, but their groceries are actually quite good and quite cheap.  Other shops can be even cheaper without sacrificing quality.
Buying raw materials such as beans, rice, flour, eggs, and so on to make your own food, from "scratch" is always significantly cheaper than buying a can of the same food.  Rendering your own stock from bones and scraps left over from meals is much cheaper (and better) than buying stock in bottles or boxes.
Yes, the trade off is time and effort, but if you're poor, then that's the trade you have to make.  That is part of why being poor sucks: you can't pay for shortcuts.  You have to do it yourself.  And in the end, it is better for you anyway.  Even fatty foods cooked at home are healthier than processed, prepared foods packed with chemicals and colorings and stripped of nutrients, sugared, and thrown in a microwave.  Yes, that little microwavable cup of soup is easy and fast, but costs like ten times as much as making the same soup yourself - with the kicker of being worse for your health.
And while she has a minor point about cooking supplies such as cups, bowls, etc... that's not a very valid concern.  Relatives and friends will likely have extras, and you can go to a thrift store or shop like Dollar Tree and pick up what you need dirt cheap.  It won't be the finest stuff available, and you'll long for the wonderful supplies Alton Brown suggests on Good Eats, but again: poor.  You make do.
COMPLAINTS
Now here it just gets ridiculous.  The moan is "someone always complains."  Well guess what bucko, those someones complain when you get the meal at Applebee's too.  That's just a fact of life, if you raised kids that complain.  Its one thing to say "wow you oversalted this" but kids that whine about food need to be taught to be respectful of the effort involved, thankful for the food prepared for them, and keep their whining to themselves.
Yes, that's a process, and it takes time.  Yes, its frustrating as a cook to put all that work into things then get a complaint.  That's life, people have a right to voice their concerns, and maybe if you listen closely you'll learn something and do it better next time.  They need to learn to complain less, and you need to swallow your pride more, but while you can't change them you can change you.
There is a class of complaint that is a bit tougher to deal with, and I wrote about that a while back in my Depression Era Survival Kit series.
However, you'll find out that what you make tastes... different than what you're used to paying for. That Campbell's Condensed Soup tastes different than your version. And that's a good thing, it tastes better, but for some people that difference is odd. For a child raised on prepared foods and fast food, cooking from scratch won't be quite right.

For one thing, its not as sweet: fast food joints especially adds sugar to their food. For another, the food lacks preservatives, flavor enhancers, coloring, and other things that palates have become comfortable and familiar with. That burger you cooked on the grill looks different than a McPatty. That chicken Kiev you made isn't a perfect, neat little bun. And that can throw people, particularly young people.

It will take a while for you to get used to the stronger seasoning, more complex and subtle flavors, and distinct texture of food prepared right. That's worth learning. Some people - most perhaps - take to it instantly. Some long for their Totino's Pizza. But once you get used to the good stuff... its really hard to go back.
So its a bit of an uphill climb if you've been bringing home Subway for years and then start building food on your own.  Young people who have been raised on Chef Boyardee will think real pasta is awful; they aren't used to the complex flavors, more delicate layers of seasoning, and lack of corn syrup.
They will, though.  It just takes time.  And its important to remember that the younger (or very older) someone is, the less their palate can take strong flavors.  They have to be given something a bit less bold and flavorful.
Also, your family will find it likes or doesn't like some kinds of food.  My mom used to get brussels sprouts for a vegetable until she learned that not a one of us liked the things, even herself.  If nobody likes liver and onions, well then why make it?  And we have to make sacrifices; make food you don't like sometimes, and do without stuff you love, if your family genuinely doesn't care for it, after trying it out a while.
Ultimately, home cooked meals are ideal; they are the best way to eat and its cheaper than buying your food prepared or cooked for you.  And you have to make decisions for your life of priorities and what matters most. That bag of salad costs you as much as the raw materials to make ten salads, is a few minutes of chopping that much of a horrific burden?
Almost always, people who complain that things take too long don't actually mean that the duration is excessive.  They aren't making an objective statement of effort vs reward.  What they mean is "this takes time away from what I would rather be doing."  And you have to again consider your priorities; does playing Gears of War or getting on Facebook really trump a good home cooked meal?
Because I kind of doubt it.

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