What even is the point of cooking at home?
This has been a non-question for most humans, because for most of human history, the only
person who was gonna turn this into this into this was you. “I prepare food because I want
to eat” — that’s been all of the reasoning most humans who’ve ever lived have ever needed.
From our hunter-gatherer life, to our agrarian life, and even into much of our industrial
life, the only person who was gonna feed you was most likely gonna be you or someone in
your immediate social group. But now, for people like me living in highly-developed,
post-industrial economies, “Because I want to eat” is probably one of the weakest reasons
for cooking, in my opinion. We live in a world where this chicken costs about the same as
this chicken from the same store. And in this world, I think it really pays to interrogate
why we would buy this one. Field trip to Oxford — not that Oxford — Oxford,
Georgia, where Dr. Deric Shannon is a sociology professor at Oxford College of Emory University.
He specializes in things like political economy and teaches a course here that’s quite relevant
to our discussion. “The sociology of food course that I designed
is a part of what Oxford College calls our theory practice/service leaning program. Part
of what my students do is work here on Oxford’s organic farm.” Look at this place — even in the middle
of February it’s beautiful. The apple trees over here are blooming, they’ve got all these
garlic and onions and cabbage going. But anyway, if you ask Dr. Shannon “What’s the point of
cooking at home these days,” the first thing he says is… “…because it’s an enjoyable and desirable
activity. Some people like cooking, just like some people like knitting when you can go
buy a sweater for cheaper than the materials that it might take.” Indeed, the first good reason for cooking
at home is: Because it’s fun. This is, in my view, an unassailable reason for doing
anything that isn’t particularly harmful to others, or harmful to your long-term fun-having
capacity. I recently put out a recipe for French macaroons
in which I encouraged people to loosen their expectations about how these things should
look. If you just care about how they taste, and leave the cosmetics up to fate, they become
as easy to make as they are delicious. But if you derive pleasure from working to
create cosmetically “perfect” macarons, I think that’s great — you have my blessing,
not that you asked for it. My argument is only this: If it’s making you
miserable to try to create perfectly round smooth domes with perfect little ruffled feet,
then stop. Make the ugly ones, or buy the beautiful ones. Also, maybe try to think a little more critically
about whether the things that you do really do make you happy. This is something I try
really hard to do, especially with regard to my creative work. Am I struggling to make this thing because
I enjoy the challenge? Good reason! Am I struggling to make this thing because
I’ll learn something valuable from the struggle? Good reason! Part of the reason I’ve spent
so much time and effort trying to recreate the New York-style pizza from my youth was
pure curiosity. I wanted to understand, on a tactile level, what makes that stuff taste
the way it does. Am I working to make this thing because the
end product will give me joy? Good reason! I think this chicken tastes way
better than this chicken. Am going through hell to make this thing because
someone will give me money for it at the end? You gotta paid, son! Am I slaving over this thing because it will
make someone else happy? Really good reason! Maybe the best reason. Am I killing myself on this thing because
I think it will impress someone? Hmm, not such a good reason, in my opinion. Look, this is a conversation about the meaning
of life we’re having here, so reasonable people are gonna disagree. But in my view, cooking
should be about nourishing and nurturing people, including yourself. It should be about giving
people pleasure, including yourself. And while you might be able to make yourself
happy by dazzling people with yours skills, I would question whether that’s in the interest
of your long-term happiness, or maybe your deeper, more meaningful happiness. And I would
definitely wonder if it might be pleasure that you are taking at someone else’s expense. This phenomenon was brilliantly crystalized
in the 2010 South Park episode… “Crème Fraîche.” I can’t play too much of it for you without
angering the copyright gods, but you should go watch it. The Hulu link is in the description. “Every time you watch cooking shows, you stay
up all night trying to copy what they made!” “Well I’m sorry if there’s something wrong
with me helping out with the cooking!” “Can I have a Pop-Tart?” So in this instance, the “harm” is relatively
mild, right? It’s annoyance. Randy’s family is annoyed that he is flexing on them rather
than providing them with the food they actually want to eat, and they are annoyed that he
is filling the house with misery and stress and dirty dishes in the process. Mild harm. I do think that there’s some more
serious, or pernicious harm associated with this phenomenon. “One of the things that sociologists of food
study is how a range of relations of inequality are embedded in our food supply chain, and
that’s not just buying — it also includes preparing, cooking, and so on. And it’s not
very difficult to find differentials in who has to cook and who gets to cook and when,
who gets prestige in the act of cooking and who doesn’t, and so on.” Right. Who is a “chef,” who is a “cook,” and
who is a “food service worker,” and is the difference people those people really as stark
as their different social and economic statuses would indicate? I don’t think it necessarily
is, and I think that when we cook to display our prowess we maybe reinforce the social
attitudes that contribute toward that inequity. At the very least we look like total tools. “Uhhh.” By the way, I want to acknowledge that I am
guilty of everything I’m decrying right here. I am hardly without sin, and I am throwing
stones — I’m throwing them right at myself. But anyway, if we’re going to talk about potential
harm to others, there’s way more concrete material we can cover, right? Like does cooking
at home do more or less to damage or deplete our planet’s biosphere and the people who
live in it? There’s an argument you could make that buying
prepared foods, from a store or from a restaurant, is less taxing on the world’s resources, simply
because of the economies of scale — the efficiency of mass production. “Well, I mean, there’s a few counter-arguments.
One, economists often-times view economic models as if humans are these, sort of, rational,
utility-maximizing machines. In which case, then, of course, it’s going to be cheaper
to buy something off of the dollar menu, in terms of both money and time, than to buy
an organic spread that you go home and good, right? But what if we talked about cooking
some set of processed foods that are super soy-heavy, right? The cost of cooking that
is gonna be quite different in energy, than the cost of cooking something that was organically
grown on this farm right here. Those calculations, then, are gonna look quite different. It might
be better for me to go buy an organic meal than cook at home a meal with processed goods
with, you know, a whole lot of mono-crap — mono-cropped…” Wait, what did he say there? Mono-what? “You know, a whole lot of mono-crap.” Sorry, I just think mono-crap is a pretty
funny Freudian slip. Because there’s an argument that says: A lot of the cheap prepared foods
we buy are not cheap because they’re economically or environmentally efficient to produce. They’re
cheap because they’re government subsidized. Like corn — corn is hugely subsidized here
in the United States. And while there may be legitimate policy motives behind those
subsidies — or totally craven political motives — it is also true that corn and
similar crops are heavy on calories but light on other nutrition, and yeah, they’re also
the big mono-craps — I mean crops. “Monocrop means that you’re trying to grow
a certain crop and, you know, that form of farming is designed in such a way to kill
anything that could get in the way of growing this single cash crop. That leads, then, to
losses of biodiversity and things like that.” So yeah, the environmental calculation is
tough, and science shows us how realty can often be very different from what you would
intuitively expect. Such is the case with the sponsor of this
video, HelloFresh, America’s #1 meal kit, whom I’ll now take a minute to thank. You might suspect that all this packaging,
recycled and recyclable though much of it is, would give meal kits a bigger carbon footprint
than cooking the same meal from a grocery store. But that is not true, according to
a 2019 study out of the University of Michigan. This is not industry-funded research. It was
paid for by the National Science Foundation. Looking at the overall supply chain, researchers
found that meal kits create less greenhouse gas because the pre-portioned ingredients
result in less food waste, and food waste is the big culprit. Am I being paid to say
that to you right now? Yes. Ads pay for content so that we don’t have. But it is also the
case that what I just said to you is true, according to this independent scholarship
from one the world’s top research universities. HelloFresh obviates a lot of the arguments
against home cooking. The easy step-by-step instructions and pre-portioned ingredients
take a ton of the stress and worry out of shopping and cooking, especially if you’re
not super-confident in the kitchen yet. Also, it’s a kit, and I always find kits fun to
do. HelloFresh is flexible — you can change your meal plan whenever you want. We’re still
on Calorie Smart. And in 30 minutes, I’ve got this super-tasty plate of lean protein
and veggies. Get you some at HelloFresh.com. Use code ADAMRAGUSEA10
for 10 free meals including free shipping. That’s HelloFresh.com, enter ADAMRAGUSEA10
for 10 free meals. That’s all down in the description. Thank you, HelloFresh. That whole issue of food waste leads to the
next good reason for cooking at home: Because it’s cheaper. Is it cheaper? It absolutely
can be cheaper, but it depends on what you’re cooking, and it depends on how much of it
you’re cooking, and it depends on whether or not you’re minimizing waste. Take coq au vin — chicken stewed in wine
— one of the great peasant stews of French cuisine. It’s a meal born of rural poverty,
not of courtly opulence, as is the case of lots of other French classic. You can totally cook this at home for less
money than you would pay at your local bistro, but not if you’re just trying to make one
or two portions. Efficiency is achieved with scale. In a restaurant,
they achieve scale by making a few different dishes for a whole ton of people every night.
In your kitchen, you achieve scale by making a big batch of one thing and eating many meals
from it, especially if you’re just feeding yourself or a small family. Or maybe you achieve scale by buying a lot
of one ingredient, and then making a bunch of slightly different meals from it. Regardless,
you can’t expect the same level of variety that you would get if you were eating out
at a restaurant for every meal, and you certainly can’t expect to follow every single recipe
to the letter if you want to eat cheaply. Like coq au vin is cheap to make, but not
if you buy the $6 bottle of Herbes de Provence that the recipe calls for and then push it
to the back of your cabinet and never cook with it again. You gotta get comfortable with using the fresh
rosemary you do have instead of the Herbes de Provence you don’t have. Or if you do get
the Herbs de Provence, you gotta get used to the idea of, down the road, using it in
that recipe that calls for poultry seasoning. Substitutions minimize waste, and minimizing
waste saves you money. That’s why good recipes don’t just tell you
what to do. They tell you why, thus empowering you to think for yourself, and you can be
like, “Oh, OK, I don’t have that, but I’ve got this other thing that could potentially
perform the same function.” That’s what’s really going to help you to cook efficiently
and to save money by cooking at home. End of Home Ec lecture. Let’s go back to sociology
class. The final, and perhaps most important reason
to cook your own food is to forge and maintain social bonds. “Some people use the term commensality for
people cooking and eating together. Food is related integrally to our sense of community,
and in some cases our sense of identity, which might be another reason why people would choose
to cook. ‘I can cook X thing in a way, and it expresses as sense of who I am, and it
fits the sense of taste that I was raised to develop, right?” Take me. I’m half third-generation Italian-American,
half general-issue Euro-American mutt — that’s my mom’s side. I live a thousand miles from
my parents and my brother and everyone I grew up with. Thanks to technological change, I
live my life very differently from how my grandparents lived their’s, and compared to
their grandparents, I might as well be a freaking martian. What keeps me clinging to the tattered shreds
of a cross-generational cultural identity I have left is food. It’s cooking. It’s the
things my dad taught me to cook. It’s the things I will teach my boys to cook. The stove
is the shrine where I convene with my ancestors. Laugh if you want to, but a big sloppy Italian-American
red sauce is the continuity of my life. Me, my forebears and my descendants — we’re
all meatballs swimming in that sauce. The sauce makes me feel not-so-bad about being
at the statistical midpoint of my life. The sauce is tangible evidence that something
of my grandparents’ life lives on, and that something of my life will live on. Yes, it
will change. It will mutate. It will hybridize. It will adapt as it should. Hopefully it’ll
get better, but it will go on. Cooking gives us those connections, to say
nothing of the connections that it helps us forge with other people’s cultures. That’s
why I cook at home. Tell me why you do.