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Why I Cook

Warming to a friendís suggestion that I add a page about cooking to this site, I made up my mind right away to follow the writerís golden rule and stick to the cooking that I do in my kitchen. I would write as a cook, not as a reporter or a scholar. Self-taught, my grasp of culinary fundamentals isnít very firm, and I think I had better resist the impulse to serve up researched explanations for the strange chemical experiments that put dinner on the table. The danger of luring innocent readers into regarding me as an expert looms unappetizingly. 

 There is one preliminary matter that I must look into:
Why do I bother to cook?

Because I must eat.
Because I ought to eat properly.
Because I like to show off.
Because Iím a warm and caring person.
Because I like to.

And the answer is:
For the sake of conversation.

The sharing of food distinguishes conversation from confrontation, discussion from argument, and the relaxed exchange of impressions from debate. The pleasure of good talk is one that I prefer to take in the shade of a good pretext, and nothing beats dining for keeping the hands busy and the mind idling along nicely Ė excepting, of course, smoking, which Iím not about to take up again. The pleasure of tasty food harmonizes with the weighing and considering matters of personal taste that underlies all good talk. Nothing invigorates me more than a good conversation launched at the table.

As it happens, I do like to show off and I am a warm and caring person, but neither explains going to all the trouble that cooking entails.

Letís consider the alternatives.

Going out. Perhaps itís time for me to acknowledge my passionate allegiance to the culinary tradition that Catherine and Marie deí Medici are said to have brought with them from Italy to France and that Elizabeth David and Julia Child translated into modern English. I will steal a phrase from F. R. Leavis and call this the Great Tradition. All other cooking is exotic, and while I like the occasional exotic dish I cannot go very long without missing the essential ingredients of Great Tradition cooking, which the great chef Escoffier once identified as Ďdu beurre, du beurre, du beurre, et du temps.í

No more than four or five times a year do we visit those great restaurants where the bill effortlessly floats to about $300 for two. Even if cost were no object, such dinners would in no way be alternatives to dining at home, because itís impossible to hold forth on the snares and wickedness of the world against the distraction of sublime flavors. At the quick and inexpensive end of the spectrum stand the corner coffee shops that seem increasingly peculiar to Manhattan. There are several of these in our neighborhood, two of them right across the street. From a gustatory standpoint, however, their offerings belong under the rubric of takeout.

This leaves a very broad range of restaurants that nevertheless have one thing in common: the cookingís no better than mine. Weíve found one or two that go about this mediocrity with a befitting modesty as to price, but with a regularity that dents the whole pleasure of going out, Iím reminded of the rule of thumb whereby restaurateurs multiply the cost of ingredients by five to arrive at the cost of the dish.

Going out usually involves eating in a room full of strangers, often noisy strangers. Many people, especially people living in Manhattan, find a charm in this connection that suggests a desire to avoid the rigors of conversation by simply shouting it down. Give me a hushed temple of gastronomy patronized by elderly millionaires any day.

Ordering in. Ordering in is a sign that things are not well, an indicator of illness or great fatigue. Only when youíre sick and/or tired can you overlook what travel does to food. Aside from a handful of impervious dishes, most food cannot bear the insult of ten minutesí jiggling in a closed container. The plastic domes that keep cheeseburgers and French fries warm also steam them, making the rolls soggy and the fries limp. More exalted dishes suffer more abyssal degradation. For it to be palatable, you have to be too far gone for conversation anyway.

Ordering in, moreover, only works in Manhattan and a few other densely-populated places. It makes even less sense to do the transport part oneself, only to end up with the same disappointing results.

Frozen food. Once upon a time, there was a wondrous marvel called the microwave. You slid a block of frozen food into it and pushed a few buttons. Mere minutes later, dinner! It was all so exciting that Barbara Kafka wrote ĎThe Microwave Gourmet,í a weighty new approach to everybodyís favorite dishes that reveled in glass dishes and plastic wrap. When buying a microwave, customers sought reassurance that the appliance would hold a full-sized turkey, but I like to think that no one ever tried to roast a turkey from scratch in one. 

What happened? The microwave remains an indispensable piece of equipment, only not for cooking dinner. Among other sins, it queers fats. Conventional cookers are really easier to use in the preparation of fresh food. As for frozen food (aside from simply parboiled vegetables, which are often as good as anything in the produce department), it shares with canned and other packaged foods the drawback of having been embalmed. While not toxic, the fluids and powders involved in Ďprocessingí food and so arresting its decay are not quite taste-free. Also unsurprising is the tired taste of most packaged food. In short, convenience food is demoralizing. Of course you can get used to it. Iíve read that the only explanation for the persistence of rationing in Britain, for eight-odd years after V-J Day, was the (then) British mistrust of flavor./p>

Ergo, I must eat well at home.

Which isnít quite what was to be demonstrated. Would I persist in the kitchen if I could afford to hire a professional chef? If I could afford to hire a professional chef, Iíd be working from such a different screen of options that any answer I ventured now wouldnít mean very much. Of this I am sure: it would be very nice not to have to wash the All-Clad pots that nothing will induce me to run through the dishwasher. (August 2001)

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