People Can’t Cook

My kitchen

Photo: This is where the magic happens. Food magic.

I have a kitchen again. I mean, I had a kitchen since I moved in to my current flat at the end of April, but I needed to give it a thorough cleaning and take an inventory of all the cooking implements (and assure myself I wasn’t going to cause an explosion with the gas oven). Now everything is sorted out. I still yearn for a nicer set of knives, but I can at least cook meals for myself.

I was talking to my mother a few weeks ago about Jamie “Brilliant” Oliver and his current zealotry about cooking. Oliver’s basic deal is that there are huge swaths of people around the world who, according to him, don’t know how to cook and are killing themselves with prepackaged food loaded with sugar and fat. Oliver’s shows get great mileage by parading these people in front of the camera as a grotesque sideshow (“oh wow they’re so fat!“) and portraying himself as a forsaken cooking Jesus who needs to teach the world to cook again before Betty Crocker crucifies him.

I don’t like the shows that much but I do think Jamie Oliver is doing good work. However, I think up until the point J-O had his epiphany he was actually part of the problem. Jamie Oliver and the Food Network are one of the main reasons that people don’t cook.

Capitalist society is driven by a semi-secret meritocracy. If you aren’t really good at something some people will judge if you do it. Like, if you can’t hit four octaves with your voice people don’t believe you can sing. Or if you can’t paint with the skill of Picasso or Da Vinci then why paint at all? Get back to work. Work makes you money, painting doesn’t give you shit if you suck at it.

This is, of course, bullshit. If you look into the lives of successful artists, authors, etc. you see that they spend a lot of time working really hard on projects that often fail miserably. Many other projects get thrown out instead of seeing the light of day. Successful artists work hard. This fact isĀ elidedĀ in the view of the secret meritocracy, though. These people appear naturally gifted on TV, and the people who are only middling are simply not visible.

Cooking used to be a thing you do. A necessary step in transforming raw food ingredients into easier to eat end products. (Fact: cooking, boiling, broiling, and such are all about making food more mushy and easier to eat. Taste is improved as a side effect.) But now if you turn on the Food Network you see top chefs creating insane dishes with exotic ingredients, prepared using expensive and elaborate machinery, turned into works of art.

Then the secret meritocracy kicks in: if food is art then only good chefs should cook. If you are not an expert chef then why are you cooking? Get back to work and leave the cooking to someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. Clearly Chef Boyardee can make better pasta than you because Chef Boyardee is a corporation that makes money making pasta. If they sucked at it they wouldn’t be in the market. YOU are not in the market, ergo your pasta SUCKS.

This is why when you tell people that homemade food from fresh ingredients tastes better than prepackaged food and food from many restaurants, some people don’t really believe you. How can that be? You’re not a chef. Even worse is when you tell people that cooking food at home is cheaper. That’s capitalist proof that it must suck, right?

Jamie Oliver understands a lot of this now. His more recent shows have developed the “whatever” school of cooking. He had one series which seemed to be recorded in a shed where he took whatever fresh veggies had poked out from the garden that day and made food. Quantitative cooking was the enemy: how many potatoes in the soup? How many ya got?

But it’s a catch 22. Jamie Oliver is a skilled chef, therefore if he does a show where he’s just randomly mashing veggies in a bowl to make slop viewers will still think gee, that slop must taste amazing.

Jamie Oliver can’t make the world cook, but we can. If you can cook, cook. Cook with others.

And maybe once the world is cooking again they will start to paint, or write books, or do all the other things they used to do before we taught ourselves things were only worth doing for the money.