The Joy of Cooking
My family and I live in Boston's South End, a melting-pot neighborhood with its share of typical inner-city problems. When I tell people where we live, they usually play back the newspaper's page-one version of city living-- drive-by shootings, rapes, crack dealers, racial tensions, and crumbling infrastructure. What never makes it into the news are the sounds of the choir from the nearby Baptist church, the pleasures of a walk home past the Victorian brownstones, the gathering of neighbors to prune the rose bushes in our park on a crisp October morning, or the delicious steamed dumplings in yellow curry sauce at the local Korean grill.
Like city living, food should be a day-to-day affair, not just page-one stories of bioengineering, pesticides, and irradiation. Food should be a fresh-baked buttermilk biscuit with homemade blackberry jam. A quick stir-fry for unexpected neighbors. Pears poached in white wine, liqueur, and white peppercorns. A loaf of rye bread, still warm from the oven, and a shaker of salt given to the new family across the street. The first crisp bite of native corn in August.
Perhaps cooking has become too everyday in an age in which everything "worthwhile" must have global impact. Can we enjoy a splash of cream from time to time without thinking about the cost of long-term health care? Can we make the time to prepare food at home when we should be thinking about the rain forest, Bosnia, or the national debt? Daily life is intrinsically repetitive, mundane, and predictable-- but it is also more compelling, satisfying, and fascinating than the global world of page one. On many days, there is more sense to be found in a good recipe for roast chicken than in all the news on the front page of the New York Times.
At the height of the food mania of the 1980s, a restaurant owner took me aside and whispered, "You know-- it's only food." That's right. Food is to be eaten, not worshipped. And therein lies the romance of it all. James Beard captured it best, in Delights and Prejudices, when he extolled "the exquisite pleasure of a simple piece of broiled meat." Beard was a truly honest home cook, a man who preferred dining home alone to "endless luncheons in smart restaurants, endless tasting, endless talk about food."
Cooking is rarely glamorous. More often, it takes hard work, training, patience, thought, practice, and repetition. It is, after all, a craft rather than an art. But, for all of us here at Cook's Illustrated, it is not only the page-one story but our passion. And we're glad so many of you (75,000 new readers in the last six months) have taken the time to stop by and share our table and our enthusiasm. We appreciate your support, your letters (we've received a stockpot full of them), and your comments. One of my favorite letters expressed concern about our decision not to take advertising. "Do you have a benevolent friend or relative willing to indulge your purist approach?" it asked. The answer is, no, we do not. What we do have is thousands of commonsense readers who love to cook.
Not too long ago, the page-one news was that home cooking was dead. It was the age of the microwave (the use of microwaves for home cooking has steadily declined since 1990), a time when dining out had replaced eating at home (since 1985, annual per capita restaurant visits have dropped by more than 10 percent). So much for trends. All of you know what so many others have forgotten-- good home cooking matters. As Julia Child says, "The pleasures of the table depict food…as a delightful part of civilized life." In an age when the major headlines are anything but civilized, perhaps we can rediscover a sense of purpose and enlightenment in the kitchen.