by Amy Trubek, author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today
Let’s celebrate American cooks. Each day, the hands of many clean, chop, stir, knead, season, and work in other ways too, solely on our behalf. As has always been true, we rely on them to be nourished. But in 2017, just who cooks may come as a surprise. This is not your grandmother’s day of celebration. We now spend over 50% of our annual food purchases on food made outside the home. Americans cook at home, sometimes, but to find today’s everyday cooks, we might also need to look elsewhere. In restaurants, commissary kitchens, bakeries, school cafeterias, and other locations across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people wake up each morning, go to work, and make our meals (and snacks and side dishes and bread and cakes) every day, rain or shine.
The gradual meeting of these lines does not need to fill us with dismay. It might be tempting to take our new normal and to extrapolate that culinary skills and knowledge are in decline, that we have moved to a situation of culinary impoverishment. But should we? My friend Mark is an accomplished baker. He knows how to use wild yeasts, create a sourdough starter, and shape and bake crusty, flavorful loaves of bread. He learned from a master baker trained in France, and now he is teaching his teenage children too. I had one grandmother who loved to cook, took pleasure in making meals, and I inherited her handwritten recipe cards. I had another grandmother who was an indifferent cook, maybe even a hostile one, an ambitious woman whose world was circumscribed. She probably would have agreed with Peg Bracken, a feminist and writer who published the popular I Hate to Cook Book in 1960. As Bracken said, “Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them. This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned through hard experience that some activities become no less powerful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” My grandmother Ruth would have said, ‘hear, hear.’ My grandmother Katherine would have chuckled, and gone on to make her famous rum cake. Perhaps there have always been engaged and indifferent cooks, but now the former can make meals for the latter. Peg, Ruth and Katherine might be amazed at women’s autonomy when it comes to everyday cooking. Perhaps we should celebrate that.
So, on the occasion of National Cooking Day, thank all the cooks in your life, at home and beyond. Try to peek into the kitchen of your local, favorite restaurant, or go talk to the lunch ladies in your child’s school cafeteria: share recipes, swap stories about a failed batch of cookies, teach your neighbor a favorite family dish. Celebrate cooking, wherever it happens!