“You know you can buy marshmallows at the store, right?”
I am lucky that the above is one of the saltiest comments I’ve ever received on an Instagram post. I was making marshmallows, for no other reason than I’d never done it before. The comment’s implication, that the availability of ready-made marshmallows makes preparing them at home an absurd (or at least redundant and unnecessary) activity, is worth considering.
Why do we bother to cook for ourselves? It’s frequently cheaper and more efficient to buy prepared foods, even if you’re trying to “eat healthy,” whatever that means. For the same reasons, most of us no longer make our own clothes or build our own homes. We outsource these jobs to specialists, hoping the efficiency of the market will bring us higher quality, greater access, or both.
Sometimes it works. I don’t own a sewing machine, and while I wish the folks who make my clothes earned a living wage, I have no intention of pounding the rivets into my next pair of jeans.
One difference between jeans and grilled cheese is that my jeans will never be a part of my physical body. The food we eat becomes our skin, our bones, our brains and our blood. The effects of reducing food to a simple act of consumption are deep, far-reaching, and immensely painful.
Disconnecting from our foodshed impacts our individual health: when we don’t know or care what’s in our food, we’re led by our noses, which can be tricked into approving some pretty nasty stuff. We’re sold calorically-dense, nutritionally-void food simulacra engineered to appeal to the reptilian pleasure centers of our brains. The result is metabolic syndrome, depression, shortened lifespans and reduced ability to enjoy the lives we do have.
A lack of basic knowledge about what our foods are and where they come from means they could be anything or come from anywhere. Their manufacture could trample the environment, evince epidemiological catastrophes, doom species to extinction, or exploit the folks who farm, transport, and cook.
When you cook from scratch, especially when you tackle something as involved as lasagna or chocolate chip cookies, your interest in ingredients and processes becomes granular. Food connects our history, our agriculture, our politics and religion. It is a universal portal to exploring our world.
I am not a chef. I’ve never worked in a commercial kitchen, and while my parents are competent cooks, neither one is Julia Child. What my parents and grandparents did give me was the knowledge that cooking is something anyone can learn to do. As Bob Ross said, “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything you’re willing to practice, you can do.”
Some of the foods I’m going to talk about on this blog aren’t thirty-minute meals (although some of the most satisfying can be prepared very quickly). They’re projects, in the sense that they take a significant investment of time. I’d urge you to measure the benefits not just in the deliciousness of biscuits and brownies, but in the knowledge and skills you gain. If nothing else, you’re guaranteed to deepen your understanding of what it takes to be well-fed.