The Paradox of Cooking Shows

"There are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves."

I've just started reading Cooked, Mike Pollan's new book, and the above quote, sitting right there on page 3, jumped up and slapped me in the face.

If there are so many cooking shows on TV, so many cookbooks and cooking articles offered up by our media, and soooooo many food blogs and food websites out there, how can it be remotely possible that people now cook less than ever?

And yet it's true. Pollan cites survey data indicating that American households spend, on average, just 27 minutes a day cooking, less than half what we spent in the 1960s. Worse, today, many households define "cooking" in a way that's generous to the point of utter meaninglessness. I'm sorry, but making a sandwich or microwaving a bowl of canned soup ain't cooking. It's just... not.

As a culture, we're replacing actual cooking with vicarious cooking. But why?

One theory: watching someone else cook is a lot easier than actually cooking. Better still, watching gives you a vague feeling of participation that suffices for the real activity. You don't even need to get up off your couch.

Not to mention, there's only a fixed amount of time in a day, right? So if you squander an hour in front of the tube (even if it's watching Guy Fieri make obtuse comments about somebody's chicken wings) that's an hour stolen from your day that you could have spent... cooking.

Hmm. It's getting kind of late and I'm hungry. Guess I better order takeout.

Yet all the benefits of cooking (learning kitchen skills, being closer to your food, understanding the nuances of a good diet, saving lots of money, and so on), only come your way if you actually practice cooking. It's a skill. It's no different from learning a new video game, learning the various features of your latest iThing, learning the plot arc of your latest TV show, or any of a number of other activities we (passively) spend our time on. If that's how you define learning.

Ironically, cooking--at least the way I teach it here at CK--is quite a bit easier* than these other activities. Either way, however, it's clear that these passive, consumption-based activities are increasingly crowding out more valuable, productive practices that we could learn with this time.

Yes, clearly, not everyone has time or resources to cook every night, and yes, cooking does involve a bit of a learning curve (although it's not that steep a learning curve--for example, I pride myself that most of the recipes featured here at CK can be made with minimal cooking skills, in under 30 minutes, and for a mere $1-2 per serving).

But the real conclusion here is how easy it is to confuse watching something with actually doing something. And that holds true for much more than just cooking. We've got to stop watching other people do things and start doing things ourselves.

Readers, what's your view? Why do you think people are cooking less than ever?

* This could well be a function of my general incompetence at both technology and video games. Your mileage may vary.

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Anonymous said...

people get the same satisfaction watching that they do with doing - in all things: sports, cooking, traveling, porn, etc. (Sometimes more - I can't afford to go to Paris France so maybe it would be more satisfying to see a travel show about Paris that to go camping at the lake for vacation.)

Steve Tallant said...

This is something that I've noticed for some time. There are 2 things here, IMO. First, the nature of cooking shows have fundamentally changed. I remember being enthralled with early PBS cooking shows from Julia Child, Martin Yan, Jacques Pepin and Ming Tsai. These cooking shows were "in the weeds" of cooking, showing all elements of prep, detailed cooking steps, and instruction on technique. Basically "clinical" cooking. And for someone like me, awesome. For the general public, boring. Today's cooking shows are largely food music videos, and really entertainment, not education. The focus is completely skewed.

The second big impact is "big food". Go into a grocery store and see what percentage of floor space is dedicated to "fresh" food versus aisles of boxed, canned and frozen food. Staggering. In my new "Super Gigante" market, they cater to a largely immigrant Hispanic, Asian and Indian customer base. I'd say over 50% of the store is dedicated to "fresh" foods.

Daniel said...

Anon: Yes, agreed. I just wonder how we went from "doing" cooking to "watching" cooking, and THEN we somehow went from watching cooking to thinking that was a sufficient substitute for *actually* cooking. It feels to me that last leap is the most dangerous.

Steve, great comment. You're right, these shows have changed. On some level I guess they've become more produced and professionalized, but along with that comes rapid video cuts, fabricated dramas, moving camera, etc... all the stylistic stuff that supposedly creates better "entertainment." I hadn't really thought about it that way.


chacha1 said...

I don't necessarily agree that the population as a whole has gone from thinking that viewing food TV is a substitute for cooking.

I think people enjoy cooking shows because what's being done is something that is a) more complicated than most people do at home yet b) achievable. It's not mountain climbing, or rebuilding engines. As Steve notes, these shows are also now being produced as entertainment.

Food Network and HGTV are the most-often viewed channels in our home, but we aren't gourmet cooks and we don't constantly remodel. To us, these channels simply combine the right ratio of entertainment to information (vs say Science, which delivers a lot of information but not a whole helluva lot of entertainment).

I don't know how Michael Pollan spends his time, haven't read his books and don't know anything about him; but as a professional WRITER I am guessing he has a little more control over his time budget than most working people. He should comprehend that, before he goes asking why other people don't cook.

It takes TIME to cook, and after the US-average 40-minute commute, and everything else the average US person has to be accountable for every day, ordering takeout and sitting down to watch Kitchen Nightmares might be considered a reasonable choice.

I work two miles from my apartment; my commute is still twenty minutes because of traffic. That is 1/3 the average of the L.A. commute. And I by no means want to cook every day.

Daniel said...

Another great comment. Thanks Chacha.

Regarding Pollan: I just finished "Cooked" the other day, and you could easily argue that Pollan only recently learned to "cook" too--depending on how much of a stickler you are on how to define "cooking."

A good chunk of the book is about Pollan taking a series of cooking lessons in his home kitchen (arranged with a professional chef), learning how to make bread (after studying with various breadmaking experts) and also attempting some major barbeque projects (again, with professional help).

After this process (which is a big part of the narrative arc of "Cooked") Pollan now REALLY enjoys "cooking"--by a far more advanced definition of "cooking." If you get what I mean.

I haven't written the review yet but you probably can see how this book could get pretty bloviating and tiresome at points. :)

Anyway, if anything this puts into (much more ironic) perspective your comment about how is it that Pollan gets to ask why people don't cook.


PS: Of course I'm ALSO asking why people don't cook. One could say the same about me too... :)

James said...

It's aspirational I think. Cookery shows are often more like travelogues now. It's entertainment & celebrity driven rather than teaching you real useful stuff.

It's really odd the times when I'm cooking dinner parties in people's homes and they are in another room watching food programmes while we're preparing REAL food.

Cheffy food shows and books can make food look complicated with long lists of ingredients and long preparation lists. People would cook a lot more for themselves if they realised how easy it could be. Know your ingredients inside out, don't be afraid to experiment and it's amazing what you can put together from the contents of your fridge and store cupboard.

We were lucky that we grew up in a family that grew everything in the garden - so I would sow it, nurture it and harvest it with my dad & grandad, go in the kitchen and cook it either with my mum or gran. I find this kind of thing very rare with everyone I meet. Someone today was trying to wash the 'black things' out of cress - not knowing that at the end of the stalk was the seed and this was perfectly edible. Someone else didn't know strawberries were called strawberries because you rested the berries on straw as they grew so they didn't touch the ground and rot. This disconnect between the food on your plate and its origin surely doesn't help. If you don't understand about where your food comes from why care about it? And like learning a language or maths it has to start from an early age - it should be like a foundation stone. While you're young you have the time to learn it anyway, then it becomes second nature by the time work-time takes over!

Another interesting point was made recently by a mother I met on the subject of baby food. She had pulverised whatever her and her husband were eating for her son when he was a baby - and consequently he had 'eaten' anything. But when they went on holiday abroad she had used jar baby food for convenience and ever since that point on he would only eat junk food - sausages, burgers, chips etc. So a lot of people watch these TV food shows - but in reality don't actually like REAL food. The high fat & sugar content of fast food & convenience foods in general fuels a craving. Maybe they should try a week on a raw food diet to compare the 'highs'.

Another thing now is this generation are children of the convenience food generation. The proliferation of convenience food over the last definitely 30, maybe 40 years means a lot of the current generation (Note - not all) has grown up with convenience food being ever present and marketed directly at you. This is what we have to fight! You could argue cookery shows are just another facet of the convenience food culture - feeding a desire temporarily, but leaving a long term hunger.

Lastly - it is rather annoying that there is far more money to be made by being a TV chef making food that people will never eat than actually making real food that people DO eat (and enjoy!). Just saying!

Daniel said...

This is an excellent comment James, thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Marcia said...

For sure it's a time thing. I love watching cooking shows. Before I learned to cook, they were instructional. Think: Saturday morning Food Network (used to be a series of shows). That's what taught me to cook.

But now? I leave work, pick up the kids, get home at 5 ish, then deal with a hungry baby. Cooking is a serious challenge. Yesterday was frozen breaded chicken cutlets and frozen broccoli (baked and microwaved).

That's not to say I never cook. This weekend I made tri-tip in the crockpot (tri tip, salsa, black beans), made homemade refried beans in the crockpot, and made a big pasta salad. I also washed and chopped various items - carrots, watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, blueberries, shredded cheese...for snacks during the week. I made bean burritos out of the refried beans. From 5 pm until 8:15 pm I was either cooking, feeding someone, doing dishes, or packing lunches.

Next week I return to full time. That's 8 fewer hours a week to do...?? Hopefully I won't lose sleep or exercise.

chacha1 said...

Another thought on "why don't people cook" ... goes back to a discussion we had here in re the perceived distinction between food prep and cooking. (Which you actually touched on in this post.)

There are a lot of people, me included, who don't as a rule describe ourselves as "good cooks" because so much of we do is ASSEMBLY.

It does take a certain level of expertise with flavors, cooking times, etc, to assemble a dinner of broiled steaks and a sauteed vegetable. It also takes expertise to take a frozen Newman's Own pizza and dress it with (e.g.) sliced zucchini, extra spices, some thinly-sliced mozzarella & prosciutto roll, and balsamic tomato relish.

The first, most people would agree is "cooking;" but a lot of cooking purists would say the second is not.

It's like the person you linked a while back, Dan, who said ONLY cooking entirely from scratch could be legitimately described as cooking. I challenge her to produce a cake as good as my Drunken Mexican Spice cake - made from a recipe that starts with a mix.

Anonymous said...

Good article and comments.

Cooking as pure entertainment, wow. Same with travel shows. But WHY? Fine if you want to plan your next trip. But who wants to hear another person's explanation of why Santiago is so cool, without going to check it out for themselves?

Could be people aren't all that discerning, or are afraid to decide what's worth paying attention to. Watching TV cooking shows when live cooking is happening right in their own kitchen?? It's not 'real' unless a TV authoritytells them what's worth watching/learning?

Bottom line is that most people are followers, and settle for a simulacrum of life.

Rosita said...

I think that a lot of it is that many in the 40 and below generation (of which I am a part for at least a few more years) didn't grow up watching parents cook. (I am the exception among the majority of my friends in that not only do I know how to cook, but I actually do cook.) Anyways, I think part of the rise in popularity of cooking show is related to nostalgia of a past they would have liked to have had - i.e. coming home to mom or dad pulling dinner out of the oven instead of being a latchkey kid who made themselves box mac and cheese for dinner because their single parent was working late.

I do understand the time argument here, although I don't completely buy it. My husband and I cook a meal every night for our family (5children). We both work full time outside the home and we have a long commute. We are out of our house 11 hours a day. But this is a commitment we make for our family - other families choose to spend time on other things and I really am not judging them, just obvserving. Another reason this is possible is we both knew how to cook before we married and had children. So, we can prepare things much more quickly than someone who is really just learning to cook.

I think Steve's comment about the impact of "big food" highlights another major contributing factor. I don't think there is just one reason, but rather a lot of contributing factors that have lead to the situation we find ourselves in today.

I feel like I should add I "do" cooking, but I also really like to "watch" cooking - both for ideas and for entertainment.

chacha1 said...

Rosita, do you and your husband cook together? That's awesome. My Dad ran the grill once in a while, but o/w it was all Mom all the time.

Sally said...

I agree with Rosita.

In one of his New York Times articles that coincided with the publication of In Defense of Food, Pollan wrote that unlike France or Italy, we don't have a solid food culture here. The planning, preparing and consuming of a meal is not that important to us. Quality food is also not important to everyone. When something isn't a priority, you don't make time for it or put much effort into it.

From the blogs I read, I'd say that's changing. From my observations at the grocery store, I'd say it's not changing as much as I'd like to think.

When I was growing up (in the 1950s and 1960s), my mom, my aunt and nearly all of my friend's moms worked. They all cooked dinner every night, too. There weren't many other options.

But there were some things they didn't do: they didn't commute long distances and they didn't chauffeur kids here, there and everywhere to lessons, practices and games. They also didn't go to the gym to workout (there weren't any) or much shopping after work (stores were closed).

Although I fully intended to, I haven't read "Cooked" yet. I think it's because it doesn't seem to address the benefits of cooking or encourage people to get into the kitchen.

Marcia said...

You do have to make it a priority, but age is a factor. I used to cook a lot more, but then I had a second baby.

Cooking dinner with a one-year old clinging to your leg just doesn't work. I get home at 4:45, dinner is at 6, and I don't get a single break during that time - I am busy feeding the baby.

At least it's temporary. I kinda remember getting time to cook at around 18 months to 2 years.