Monday, June 7, 2010

The Arts and Crafts of Cooking

A posting on Orthonomics quite a while back on a completely different subject engendered a whole discussion thread about cooking versus buying out. Some of the commentary actually centered around the number of minutes it takes to make lunch/dinner or cook/prepare various items as opposed to what could be done with those minutes if you ate out. There was also mentioned that clean up time after a cooking activity needs to be factored in. And what was also mentioned, more than once, was that not everyone knows how to cook, so having restaurant food available is a necessity.Oh boy, where to begin here.

Not everyone knows how to cook? That's not a terminal condition, nor is it one about which something can't be done. And then the term "cooking" needs to be defined. Are we talking here about any and all dishes that one could wish for and that would gladden the heart and stomach? No, it is quite possible that not all people know how to cook on the upper levels of cooking. But if we define cooking to mean the preparation of food that can be eaten, then there is virtually no one living who can't be taught how to cook. Do we think of a three-year-old as being capable of cooking? We can, if by cooking we mean pouring milk over cereal, or spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread, or unwrapping a slice of cheese and placing it on bread. And if a three-year-old can do it, an adult can surely do it.

I spent some time timing myself as I was cooking various meals to be served to my family for weeknight suppers. The average length of preparation time for a midweek supper? 7 minutes. When a food like chicken is involved which requires longer cooking time in the oven, that does not count as actual time the cook is involved. During the 45 minutes the chicken is ensconced in the oven I am not sitting there talking to it and watching it go from raw to cooked. I can be busy elsewhere doing things I have to do or want to do. It takes longer to get into the car, drive to a restaurant, park, go in, possibly wait on line, finally be seated and place an order and then finally get served. (And this is not counting the return trip home.) What fell into this seven-minute category? Broiled and baked/roasted chicken or fish including any spices or toppings to be used, vegetables to be steamed, potatoes to be baked, putting up the water for rice or pasta to be cooked, draining said rice and pasta and pairing it up with a topping or sauce. Yes, somewhere in the a.m. I took an additional 13 seconds to go to the freezer and take out food to be defrosted for that night's supper and to put it in the fridge.

Cooking something that requires more than 7 minutes of prep time? Let's make it 20 minutes. That's still shorter than that round trip for the restaurant. In addition, if you are making something that is time-intensive, the smart cook doubles or triples the recipe: one for now, and two to pop into the freezer for two meals at some later time that will only "cost" the cook the 13 seconds to take out of the freezer and pop into the oven. Divide those three meals into the 20 minute prep time and you're back to seven minutes per meal to prepare.

Now to clean up. First of all, are we talking about families here? If we are, the cleanup time should be divided by the number of people who were sitting and eating that meal. Everyone ate? Everyone helps to clean up. Even very young children can carry a plate to the sink. Even very young children can carry items to be put into the fridge. Mom does not equate to maid in the English language. Washing dishes? A whole lot of people have electronic dishwashers, and loading those dishwashers is not an evening's activity. Washing by hand? Go ahead, set a timer and see just how much time that takes--not.

There's also this: that prep/clean up time is not considered by some as time that can be spent "bonding" with our children. Say what? Of course it can be considered bonding time. A parent spending time helping children to learn life skills is not bonding time? Talking while cleaning up or doing dishes is not bonding time? Giving our children a sense that they are important, contributing members of the family is not bonding time?

I will grant you that there are some times when it is simply not possible to get a meal on the table, and eating out or bringing in may be necessary. But not knowing how to cook is a paltry excuse at best; it's rationalizing rather than real. You don't know how to cook? No problem. Make an appointment to see me and in less than two hours I'll give you enough of the basics so that you will never be able to make that statement again. (And I'm more than willing to bet that G6 could give you those same lessons as well.) Nope, I'm not going to teach you how to pull strudel dough during those two hours, nor how to make challah. I'm not going to teach you the intricacies of making homemade sushi, although I might. But you will surely get more than enough to never again be able to say "I can't cook."

Let's at least be honest here and say what we really mean: it's not that some people can't cook--it's that they don't want to cook, a wholly different thing.


Anonymous said...

Some basic nutrition and cooking classes should be part of Chosson and Kallah classes. Yes, I said Chosson. With women working full time, men need to know how to cook too and so many mothers teach their girls, but not their boys. Actually, I would make this part of high school. Some men and women will be single and not living with their parents for a period, so they need to know how to cook even before marriage.
Also, families cooking and cleaning up together is great bonding and discussion time.

Anonymous said...

So shoot me but I hate to cook, don't care if I ever learn and am perfectly happy with takeout and restaurant food. If I can afford it what business is it of anybody how I eat? My job evaluation doesn't include cooking and it's stupid to say it's a survival skill today when it isn't. You want to cook? Fine with me but leave me out of it.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...


Lion of Zion said...


"So shoot me but I hate to cook"

me too. if i had more disposable income and was reassured of a healthy take out store i'd close turn convert my kitchen into a game room for the kids.

"If I can afford it what business is it of anybody how I eat?"

no one's business . . . unless you're one of the people who complains how expensive it is to feed a family and then continue to say that it makes sense to buy lunch everyday, or insist that takeout for shabbat every week makes sense.

JS said...

A few points:

I really enjoy cooking and wish I had more time to do it. I actually do most of the cooking in the house. I think some people just hate cooking and nothing will convince them otherwise. For the rest, cooking is a pain because it is a skill that involves far more than just how to hold a knife or what temperature to set an oven to. Cooking involves a lot of planning in terms of having the right ingredients on hand to follow a recipe or the ability to improvise when all you have is a cut up chicken, some tomatoes, mushrooms, and carrots. There's also the knowledge needed to create variety in dishes. Most people don't want to eat the same thing day in and day out. Also, the ability to make things presentable and appetizing. Almost anyone can make a tuna sandwich, but people might prefer the restaurant's tuna sandwich because the bread is nicer or maybe it has chopped celery in it or whatever. Finally, the 7 minutes of prep time that you mention comes with a lot of experience. For example, I can probably make a salad for 8 people with lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, etc in maybe 10-15 minutes (and I'm not that fast), but without the experience and skill of using a knife it can take someone 10-15 minutes just to cut up a few peppers (and they may get frustrated that the peppers don't look "nice" like they do at the restaurant's salad bar).

Cooking and meal planning and such aren't easy, but I do think it's a skill that those so inclined should try to learn.

Miami Al said...

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, her heightened sense of smell began to reek havoc on her ability/willingness to cook (with later pregnancies, the need to actually feed the existing children trumped this). She kind of backed off from cooking.

At the time, my culinary skills involved: scrambling eggs, grilling hot dogs/hamburgers. The fact that rice and pasta was simple helped (I didn't believe that you actually just put water on the stove and threw the food in). Steaming vegetables was pretty easy, I bought a pot with a steamer attachment, that helped. This left me with rice, a side of vegetables, and just needing an entree.

Decent knives, pre-made dressing, and finding good produce made salads pretty easy.

Complicated dished came a few years later, but these basics got me pretty far. My starter entrees included: chicken baked in BBQ sauce, steaks on the grill.

Doesn't seem like much, but this was the basics of putting "foot on the table." From there, learning more complicate stuff came pretty easily. A few cookbooks and experimentation, and I learned that simply mixing up the spices and seasonings was easy, as why buying DIFFERENT pre-made sauces.

However, here was the difference, when I was learning to cook, my wife was helpful, complementary, and didn't bash me or insult me, which is VERY different from most spousal relationships that I observe. Whenever I try something new, my wife is super supportive of those efforts, even if it doesn't always come out well.

I recommend the Joy of Cooking. A relative that gave us cash for our engagement but didn't want to show up to the engagement party empty handed brought us this as a gift. It was EXTREMELY helpful.

Most of our cookbooks are either fancy, ethnic, or focused on quick meals, but this one is absolutely essential for anyone starting out, it has the basics.

Stupid questions like, "How do I hard boil eggs" are answered in here, remember, I didn't know how to make rice. Joy of cooking won't help you make gourmet meals or do things FAST, but if will help you get food on the table.

Before marriage and kids, we went out to dinner 6 nights a week, with simple Shabbat meals. Now we go out one-two times a month, a little more if family wants to take us out to dinner and do something in one of the areas not around our neighborhood. I credit Joy of Cooking with covering all the staples. This lets me explore my gourmet side, while not worrying about "how do I coddle eggs, how do I hardboil them, etc., etc."

Leahle said...

To be fair to the prof this post wasn't a rant about eating in restaurants or buying take out so that comment by anonymous wasn't really on topic. I think she got it right that anyone can learn how to cook so saying I can't cook as an excuse for eating out is kind of weak.

I know people who use that excuse because they don't want to have to get into a discussion if they would say they don't WANT to cook but want to eat out. Me, I say each to their own, but still agree that the I can't cook excuse is a pretty bad one.

Just for the record, I can cook and I do. Eating out is for really special occasions mostly because I don't think most of the kosher restaurants are anything special and they charge way more then what the food is worth.

Lion of Zion said...

like i wrote, i too hate cooking. but it should be criminal to buy certain foods ready-made. i can't believe people pay through the nose to buy gefilte fish from a take-out store. for crying out loud, just dump it in a pot of water for 90 minutes with an onino and some carrots. (or mush it up with tomato sauce or spinach and bake for 60 minutes)


cash in hand is empty-handed? i'll take cash any day over most presents that people give.

tesyaa said...

Al, I loved reading The Joy of Cooking when I was a kid growing up. I read it like a novel! I also recommend How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman - more modernized but the same idea. Literally starts from the very beginning and if you never made rice before you have nothing to fear.

Miami Al said...

Lion of Zion,

She gave us a nice sized gift earlier, which went into our down payment fund. But she didn't want to show up with nothing at the engagement party, it just isn't done, so she brought a nice book. We were appreciative, and I understood her not wanting to attend a party without a gift.

Literally, when she arrived at the party, she wanted to have a gift in her hand and put it on the gift table, which I completely understand.

Just told my story, anyone learning how to cook would do well to have it on their book shelf, it covers ALL the basics.

Dave said...

I literally do not remember not knowing how to cook.

When I was still quite young, one of the "special treats" of visiting family who were still in Manhattan was that I would get to make my own dinner. I would have $2 to go down to Gristedes (*), and I had to plan, cook, eat, and clean up after, a balanced meal. I thought this was great fun. For obvious reasons, so did the adults.

But the key is, I enjoy cooking. So I do the booking. And I continue to improve my skills and techniques, because I enjoy doing so.

Not because it makes things cheaper. We spend a lot of money on ingredients, because, while I know how to cook cheaply, I no longer need to, and like working with unusual ingredients.

It just happens to be a hobby that also makes for our daily meals.

Dave said...

That should read "do the cooking". I do not, in fact, handle either hiring musical acts or processing of accused criminals.

Dave said...

And I forgot the footnote.

(*) This was well before the "helicopter parenting" trend, and going down to the grocery store in the same building was considered perfectly acceptable.

Allen said...

For a society both frum and secular that is supposedly not class divided we pay attention to a lot of things that do signal class. The uber wealthy don't have to cook or do any other things that are considered work around their homes, at least that's how those 'under' them see it. A lot of less wealthy people believe they have moved up when they also can buy services rather than perform them. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, watching children--these get farmed out by a lot of people who will tell you they are too busy with their important work to do menial labor.

It always amuses me when some people make guesses about how much money my wife and I have based on what we pay for instead of doing. We only get cleaning help for four hours once a week so we must not be up there financially. We mostly cook all our meals. We do our own laundry. And we raised our own kids plus no sleep away camp. We don't drive leased luxury cars. And we're also not in debt nor likely to be, we've got plentiful savings, and we don't feel like we've given up anything.

Miami Al said...


The wealthy keep their money. The aspiring wealthy flaunt it. Frum society is predominately the latter.

Jewish incomes have risen, but their sense of class has not. They emulate the rich-poor flashy communities, their homes are more likely to look like a house from the Sopranos than a wealthy Connecticut family. Their cars are more likely to look like the "tricked out" car from MTV than an expensive town car from a wealthy family.

Frum Jews need better role models.

Anonymous said...

Al: Maybe some of the frum jews you are familiar with lack a little understated elegance when it comes to their homes or cars, but I don't think that is a fair generalization.