Are we good cooks or does our prowess with tabbouleh rest merely on our ability to read recipes and follow My Hello Bag instructions?
Is the ability to identify delicious potential in a good-value cut of meat lost in the annals of Edmonds, Holst, or Beaton?
If we finally got to compete on Master Chef would we be stumped by a mystery box that was bereft of freekeh and ras el hanout?
The pressure to deliver the trifecta of good nutrition, restaurant quality plating aesthetics, and originality is growing.
Little Samphire and Sumac won’t settle for sausage, peas, and mash, regardless of how much truffle oil you drizzle on the potatoes. We’re embroiled in the age-old pursuit for novel ingredients. Brought to our kitchen table by Nadia, Chelsea, 5% Simon and Yotam.
The speed at which we acquire these new ingredients has increased drastically over the last nine hundred or so years, but the social currency provided by these aromatics is the same as it always has been. Trending ingredients are the stuff of conversations as we one-up our pals with the latest flavour, hoping that they won’t gazump us with a sprig of something uber-fashionable from their garden.
The global spice route is now a spaghetti junction of in-coming new discoveries.
Zatar! They exclaim, brandishing organic, boneless, skinless, chicken thighs. Harissa! The leg-o-lamb wavers respond. If you’re still using curry powder it’s probably best to keep quiet. Shove that tub of Empire Mild to the back of the herb ‘n’ spice drawer. Tuck it behind the two-year-old mixed herbs.
In the midst of fashion, consumerism and celebrity culture we stand at our stoves researching what we should eat and how we should cook it. The human condition is unique amongst animals. Unlike every other species we have given up on our instincts. We’ve been encouraged to be distrustful of decisions based on instinct. All except the recently acquired instinct to ‘Google it’ or read a book about it.
This isn’t confined to food and cooking. Collectively, removed as we are, from our natural environment, we rely on the most up-to-date gurus to tell us ‘How To Everything’. Our culinary repertoire is full of other people’s recipes. Not only do we gobble up their latest ideas, but we also lean on their third party expertise to validate our culinary offerings. “Oh this? It’s from Chelsea’s latest book”
So are we good cooks? Maybe.
If we’re cooking we are doing a good deed. Following recipes and opening 23 tiny packets of delivered ingredients is OK. It’s better than not cooking. If the process facilitates sitting at a table and sharing a meal with family, flat-mates, friends, or strangers then we are cooks and cooks are good people. We are contributing to the fabric of our immediate community.
We are, however, a long way from where it all began around communal fires and we’re a long way from having a connection to the soil, bush, and ocean. We may never rekindle that connection.
What we are, in large numbers, is bad shoppers.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be bullied into shopping as instructed or coerced to. Often because we don’t know what to buy. Often because we’re swamped with bad food in supermarkets.
My definition of bad food is food with an ingredients list. Particularly a list of more than fifty characters. Especially ingredients that don’t sound like food. Often we don’t shop well because we shop for the ingredients to a particular recipe. Resulting in half jars and half packets left to die a slow and painful death in the back of the pantry.
The home science skill of finding a bargain in the meat cabinet and then knowing what to do with it is a dying art. In its place is the cooking-by-numbers culture driven by aspiration and hobbyists, and celebrity food writers. It’s food porn gone mad! Not only are we ogling images and descriptions of exotic ideas, but we’re also getting carefully over-wrapped packages delivered to our doors, full of the wherewithal to get hot and sticky in the privacy of our own homes.
So what if we do love the celebrity food writers and their ‘new’ recipes and the home-delivery services? Well, aren’t we just the Guitar Heroes of the kitchen? Are we picking up skills or are the recipes dumbed-down to such a point that it’s 90% assembly and 10% heating?
Will we have learned anything from our experiences that will merit passing onto the next generation? I doubt it.
And of course that’s not the point. If we learn sound cooking techniques, then the industry of hip cookbooks, food-porn mags, and ready-to-cook meals dies.
So let’s mix a little more ararat with our humus and drizzle another bottle of pomegranate molasses and rejoice that we are a long way from those primal fires.