Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dinner Time!

Food has been on my mind quite a bit lately, as I think about the logistics of putting on a Thanksgiving dinner for as many as 19 adults and 12 children. As much as I like to cook, that's a pretty daunting challenge. But I've also been thinking about food and eating in general as a result of reading a fascinating book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

In this book, Mr Pollan looks at America's culture of food by examining the history and pedigree of the ingredients of four different meals, in the process generating many interesting observations about where our food comes from and the compromises we make in taste and quality in exchange for convenience and quantity. Can we have "organic" food on an industrial scale? What sort of life does a "free-range" chicken actually have? Is the bucolic picture on the package of food a true indication of that food's actual source?

I won't bore you with the conclusions, some of which I don't agree with myself, but Mr Pollan's baseline observation is sound: if we need to feed huge populations, the faustian bargain we make is to depend upon industrial-style and scale food production that may, in fact, contribute to some of our health problems.

There's a very interesting discussion in the book about American "food culture" (such as it is). Mr Pollan suggests that there's not really a distinctive "American cuisine," largely because we are a nation of immigrants. Each successive wave of immigrants brings its own food culture with it, and as a result we have restaurants which feature French, Ethiopian, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Indian (northern or southern), Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Salvadoran, German, Indonesian, and every other type of cooking you can think of...but none that boasts a distinctive, definably "American" style. In part, this may be because we don't really "cook" as much as we used to. When I was a child, most mothers stayed at home and cooked meals while the fathers went to work; today, particularly in ultra-expensive areas like Washington, New York, and so on, both parents have to work to make ends meet, and there isn't much time left for things like home-cooked meals eaten as a family. TV dinners, ready-made meals picked up at the local supermarket, fast food, and pizza delivered by Domino's or Papa John's are the new American cuisine, often eaten on the run or in shifts as the members of the family come home from work or school and zip out again to other activities.

I'm one of the very few men I know who actually enjoys cooking and is pretty good at it. It wasn't always that way, though...I remember the time I accidentally burned the pork chops that were the only thing I had in the house when my boys were visiting...Matt looked at the charred lump on his plate, looked up at me sadly, and said, "Daddy, when Mommy makes pork chops, they don't get black." It was a wake-up call to clean up my culinary act.

I love grocery shopping, and I think there's something great about turning a bunch of raw ingredients into a fragrant, well-presented meal. My father is a very good cook, too, and I've picked up a lot of pointers and good recipes from him over the years...maybe it's genetic. My daughter is an excellent chef and baker, and both of my sons are capable, if not great chefs. I hope it's something that will be passed on to the grandchildren.

Well, I could go on about food ... and I will another time ... but for now, I need to cut this short because it's time to start fixing dinner. I'll let you know how it comes out!

In the meantime, I strongly recommend you read The Omnivore's Dilemma. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate the food you eat and what it takes to get it to your plate.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Bob said...

Oh come on Bill! You know there are no good Mexican restaurants in the DC area.

one good-cooking male omnivore to another...

La Chanson de Phoenix said...

This is where I am glad I live in a rural area where a lot of local goods can be purchased.

Amanda said...

I was wondering about that book in your Crazy Eights list. It had an interesting title and sounds interesting too. I'll look out for it.

John said...

When our kids were young and Chris was at home, we had home cooked meals every night. Our house hold joke was that Chris' idea of a two income family was John with a part-time job!

As the kids got older and Chris went back to school and then to work, we began eating out more often. Today it is a rare occasion that we find ourselves at the dinner table (only about twice per week). Some of that has to do with the fact that I work a couple of evenings per week and it's easier to grab something for two than prepare a meeal, but for the most part we've just gotten lazy.

I like to cook but don't do a lot of it and certainly nowhere near the scale of Chef Bilbo. Chris hates it when I cook--not because the food is bad, because she cleans up as she goes and I end up with stacks of pots. pans, bowls and whatever to be cleaned. She's kind of a neat freak.

The book sounds like one that we'd both enjoy. I'll have to check it out.