In the Age of Enlightenment, James Boswell defined cooking as a distinctive mark of humanity. Humans, he argued, are “the cooking animal.” While most living creatures eat, only human beings cook. Or, as writer Michael Pollan laments, humans used to cook.
Writing in the August 2, 2009 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Pollan has contributed an essay in which he documents the loss to human civilization, health, and happiness that accompanies the abandonment of cooking. In “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” Pollan writes of the irony of our modern condition. We build homes with expensive kitchens, buy state-of-the-art culinary equipment, but seldom actually cook. Millions of Americans tune in to cooking shows and the interest in televised cooking is fed by an entire cable network (the Food Network). Meanwhile, as Pollan observes, interest in the Food Network and similar programming “has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”
Pollan’s article was timed for the cinematic release of “Julie & Julia,” a warm-hearted film based on Julie Powell’s best-selling memoir, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. The film is a celebration of cooking as experienced through the eyes of Julie, a young woman yearning for a great life project, and Julia Child, the woman who introduced French cooking to America. Julie, happily married to her young husband, is trapped in a clerical position in which he finds no joy. She “borrows” her mother’s copy of Julia Child’s famed Mastering the Art of French Cooking and decides to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s book over the next 365 days. The memoir is based on Julie Powell’s experience of cooking through Julia Child’s cookbook, blogging along the way. The film represents an acting triumph for Meryl Streep as Julia Child and the entire project represents a celebration of cooking as a lost art.
Michael Pollan argues that the decline in cooking is due to several factors — “women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so.” As Pollan notes, cooking is no longer an obligatory activity. As it now stands, “a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.”
Beyond the reduction in time now devoted to cooking in the average household, Pollan argues that much of what is considered cooking is really not cooking at all. As he observes, “processed foods have so thoroughly colonized the American kitchen and diet that they have redefined what passes today for cooking, not to mention food.” Many of these products are presented as a means of liberation, but the loss of cooking as an important part of domestic life has actually “liberated” many families from the experience of eating home-cooked food.
Over the course of the last century, Americans were first alienated from the production of food on the farm and then, of all things, alienated from the preparation of food in the kitchen. Writing as a baby boomer, Pollan recalls: “Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen, performing feats that sometimes looked very much like sorcery and typically resulted in something tasty to eat.” How many of today’s children will recall the same memories?
Pollan cites food researcher Harry Balzer, who believes that the skills of cooking “are already lost.” He asks: “Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.”
Christianity contributes a distinctive understanding of the importance of food and, by extension, the importance of cooking and hospitality. We understand that human beings are made to require food for sustenance. Our need for food is a reminder of our finitude. The food in our fields and all in our tables is a reminder of God’s loving provision for us. The Bible dignifies the loving preparation of food as one of the distinctive gifts of women. While cooking is not limited to women, throughout human history wives and mothers, sisters and daughters, have shown their love for and commitment to their loved ones through the careful preparation and celebration of food. When this is lost, something more than culinary knowledge is lost.
A young student, recently married, once asked me a question that caught me off guard. “How long were you married before Mrs. Mohler became good at cooking?” The question caught me off guard because I have never known a time when my wife, Mary, was not a superb cook. She learned to as a girl, taught by her own mother — another fine cook. Her kitchen is filled with cookbooks and she is constantly searching for new foods and dishes to prepare and present. Over the course of my life, I have been blessed first by a mother and grandmothers who cooked, and now for the better part of my life I have been blessed by the cooking of my wife. Reflecting on this, I realize how much more than food would be lost if I did not know the loving gifts of these cooking women who have so shaped my life.
Cooking is more than a hobby and food is more than a product. Recovering the lost wisdom of cooking will be no easy task but, as “Julie & Julia” reminds us, that which is easy falls far short of a life that is full. If nothing else, all this may remind us to be thankful for those who so lovingly prepare wonderful meals for our health and enjoyment. Beyond this, reflecting on this loss may produce a determination to recover the wisdom of cooking. As Julia Child would say, bon appétit.
On today’s edition of The Albert Mohler Program we will discuss the gift of culinary wisdom passed down from generation to generation in Christian families. My wife, Mary Mohler, and our daughter, Katie Mohler, will be my special guests.
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