Making The “Meat and Two Veg” for Sunday Dinner and Why it Matters

by Amy B. Trubek, author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Making Modern Meals cooking book coverThe discipline of anthropology has always paid close attention to everyday life, relying on ethnography as the method par excellence. Observations of how we live work like a microscope of the social. Anthropologists take notes on the small and telling details because each one means something, revealing our values, our perceptions, our social selves. Everyday life certainly matters. In this telling, food, for anthropologists, should be a matter par excellence: everybody eats. And to a certain extent this is true. Anthropology, of all the social science disciplines, probably contains the broadest and deepest set of fine grained studies of the complex and contradictory relationship humans have with food. Over the past ten years, a number of ethnographies have looked at the significance of special ritual meals, the meanings of an artisan product, food ways as means for social distinction and social power, the global journeys of ingredients, and more, all resulting in fascinating analyses.

But we have yet to give food its due, especially given the commitment of anthropologists to everyday life and everyday experience. What about all the processes involved in answering that mundane and necessary question addressed fifty years ago by Mary Douglas: What should we have for dinner? As David Sutton, a committed ethnographer of cooking points out, even in Douglas’s famous consideration of the British meal, in this brilliant analysis of the structure of her meal why was “no concern expressed about how the ingredients might be assembled, processed and cooked to create these dishes (“Cooking in Theory” in Anthropological Theory, 2017)?” It is tempting to focus on the finished product, the object of consumption as what matters most. But there is more to put under the microscope. There is eating Sunday dinner but there is also making it. What items must she purchase in order to create the two veg on the side? Where did she get her ingredients? How did she learn how to make that roast? Over the course of my research on everyday cooking in the United States, I realized that so much tacit knowledge stays just below the surface, buried, rarely the focus of attention. What is known but not understood is the next journey anthropologists of food should take. The tiny, the trivial, the barely conscious are in fact grand, powerful and significant. As I witnessed, while dinner gets made – and planned, and eaten, and cleaned up – so to do our social lives and social selves.

Amy Trubek author cooking Making Modern MealsAmy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.

Cooking as a Chore in Modern America

excerpted from Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today by Amy Trubek

Making Modern Meals cooking book cover

Carol, who is in her late twenties, is a single professional living in urban Boston. Her kitchen does not resemble Laura’s cavernous room; it is a small galley space where every item is neatly stored in cabinets and all surfaces are kept clean. She admits that she is a planner in all aspects of her life and certainly in her approach to preparing a meal. She likes to host dinner parties on the weekends and clearly enjoys the entire process, from creating the menu to shopping and cooking to hosting the event: “If I’m having a dinner party on Saturday, I plan my Saturday so that I can clean the house, clean the kitchen, get all my stuff ready, go food shopping, make sure that I have everything. . . . I kind of have a timeline.” Carol is documented preparing for a dinner party; she wants to share her love of hospitality. Carol proudly displays the printed menu for the evening’s dinner, and then goes on to display what she calls her tricks of the trade. One is a baked brie appetizer: “The secret to this is you don’t buy the baked brie they sell to warm up, you just buy a wedge, slice some apples and put that in halfway through: heat it for twenty minutes, put in the apples, and pour on maple syrup.” She serves this to her guests and then continues to prepare the main dish. Another of her secrets is spending money on ingredients: “This is a $40 bottle of olive oil, which makes a huge difference.” She prides herself on her engagement with cooking, which she characterizes as being important to her social life: “When I cook for others I take it very seriously. I put a lot more time and love into it.” She enjoys all aspects of preparing a meal when it is a special event: “I love doing it, and I love the display. . . . I spend a lot of time prepping.” She likes being known for being a good cook, but she aims even higher: “I think my next step is to be more creative in what I’m doing. It’s one thing to be a good cook, but I want to be really creative.” She actively engages in the process, figuring out a good recipe, testing it before she uses it at a dinner party, shopping at multiple stores (e.g., Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Russo’s) to get the best ingredients, and setting up her house. In fact, the excitement of the process of making a meal for more than sustenance—the adventure of cooking, in a sense—is her passion: “The part about cooking that I love is seeing something I’ve never done before come out. I guess I like the final product.”

Carol acknowledges, however, that not all domestic cooking is about adventure. When she is by herself, the type of cooking she does is generally different: “I will throw a salad together, and I will do very simple things for myself.” When she’s just cooking for herself, she shops once a week and doesn’t plan ahead. She also sees that her love of cooking for others relies on the fact that these meals are special events: “I think I wouldn’t love it as much if I had to cook for my family every single night, but [I enjoy it] because it’s more of a novelty.” Her sense that cooking can, in some circumstances, be more of a chore than a pleasure comes from seeing her mother’s relationship to cooking change over the years: “I just never saw my mom loving cooking. I never saw her just love to cook. There were always five of us running around. . . . The food was always awesome, but I don’t think we truly appreciated what she gave us.” At another point, Carol both identifies with her mother’s burden and distances herself from it: “She cooked every night, and she was an awesome cook, but for her it was a chore. . . . I think it’s a generational thing.”

Ultimately, Carol’s articulation of her own identity as a cook is intertwined with her social relationships. These are between her and other cooks but also between her and a group of eaters. She understands she is not obliged to these eaters, although as she attests, her mother was not so lucky. As the contrast between Carol’s passion for cooking and her mother’s sense of drudgery reveals, cooking skills and knowledge, especially when categorized as a chore, cannot easily be extricated from the Gordian knot of social expectations. Cooking can all too easily develop a negative connotation, or at least a sense of ambivalence. Women often talk about their mothers’ cooking with a twinge of regret; although cooking can be an expression of nurturance, it certainly isn’t always. Carol intuitively makes a distinction between her planned dinner party—an event enhanced by the labor of thoughtfully making a meal—and her mother’s daily social responsibility to make a meal for her family. She sees the complexities of the ties that bind when making sense of her relationship to cooking.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the following definitions for the word “chore”: “1. the regular or daily light work of a household or farm; 2. a routine task or job; 3. a difficult or disagreeable task.”4 Defining cooking as a chore seems to make a lot of sense at first glance. It is certainly part of the regular work of a household; the fact that we must eat to live makes cooking a necessary daily activity and thus could easily be considered routine; and this regularity and necessity can certainly make it disagreeable, if not difficult. What a dictionary definition does not make explicit, however, is that the symbolic meaning of all chores are not equal. Cooking is not the same as sweeping or taking out the trash because the end result is not household cleanliness or order. Making a meal merges certain types of household tasks, webs of social relationships, and needs for nourishment and nurturance. Categorizing cooking as a chore is tempting, and it is common in contemporary American discussions of the task, but perhaps Carol’s point that cooking can be a chore but can also be much more needs to be examined in more detail, especially in terms of what cooking means to nurturing social relations.

Amy Trubek author cooking Making Modern MealsAmy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.

Celebrating Today’s Cooks on National Cooking Day

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.

This graph depicts the share of household food expenditures in the United States, food at home versus food away from home. Over the past fifty years, there has been a steady decline in money spent for food prepared and consumed at home.

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!

Amy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.