Is it bad that home cooking is on the decline? Should we accept the advice of Harry Balzer, the food-marketing analyst Michael Pollan quotes in his disturbing piece in yesterday’s NY Times Magazine: “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.” Personally, like Pollan, I don’t like that we are moving from a nation that prefers to watch cooking on television as a spectator sport than to do it ourselves. But why do I have such a visceral reaction to being reduced to a cultural dinosaur? Maybe it’s partly because living a Jewish life in the 21st century is as much a creative and meaningful “anachronism” as cooking meals at home.
Pollan points out how the new movie Julie and Julia emphasizes the way cooking empowered some women by providing an outlet for their creativity and that it’s significant that that Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out around the same time in the early 60′s as Betty Frieden’s Feminine Mystique. (For a wonderful account of the cultural convergence of these two iconic books, see Laura Shapiro’s Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America) Moreover, Julie Powell performs her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking some 40 forty years later and blogs about it in a kind of post-9/11 midrash on Julia Child’s work and life, to enrich her frustrating life and job with a meaningful vocation – immersing herself in “the tradition” to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art within a year.
Cooking real food according to a demanding tradition provides an outlet for our natural creativity, grounds us when we feel adrift, gives us pride in accomplishing something difficult, and further emotional rewards when we do it in community – for meals with appreciative family and friends.
It’s an old Jewish strategy, when relatively powerless to influence the public and political spheres, we exert our creative capacities in the domestic sphere, were we still have some control. This is the turn From Politics to Piety that the Pharisees made under Roman colonial rule according to Jacob Neusner’s book with that title, particularly through a system of rules for acquiring and cooking food that allowed ordinary Jews feel special, dignified – as if they were priests.
Cooking and food preparation, while rightly criticized by feminists for their historic constraining of women’s social roles and freedom of expression, have nevertheless also been at times ways for both men and women to act creatively and autonomously – particularly in Jewish history, though mostly for Jewish males. But also for women, like Julia Child and Julie Powell. And for me, a Jewish male, cooking has always been a means of autonomy and creativity. I started to cook when my mother told me “If you don’t like what we’re having for dinner, make yourself a hamburger!” (which I did)and the rest is history.
As a lonely and impoverished graduate student, I attempted a Julie Powell-like effort to cook my way through every recipe in Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. Though I didn’t come close to succeeding, and I didn’t blog about it (there was no such thing then – but I’m doing it now. Better late than never ), I would cook Claudia’s Middle Eastern meals for myself or a few friends because it made me feel like a person – someone worth making the effort for. I also loved the way Claudia Roden presented Middle Eastern cuisine as multiple variations on certain fixed forms, like the different Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan styles of spicing and coloring couscous. From that it was an easy move to shift to cooking kosher and vegetarian. Though I did not grow up in a kosher home, as a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I found eating kosher appealing because I loved the challenge and artistry of cooking kosher, of creatively adapting the dishes from cuisines I had grown up within the constraints of kashrut and come up with a tasty result. But best of all was finding a life companion with whom to share these joys of cooking. Our decision to make a kosher home together when we were just roommates eventually blossomed into a romantic relationship; Maia and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary at the end of this month. I remember the first time as a couple we had my parents in from out of town for a Shabbat dinner.
Our decision to keep kosher had become a point of tension between us and them because I think they felt it was sort of a rejection of their values. But at the meal they remarked, “I didn’t know that kosher food could so gourmet and delicious!” or something like that. So cooking helped me establish autonomy in my new family with Maia vis a vis my parents.
However, I wonder if it was easier for me to feel something ennobling and autonomous about cooking for myself and others, because I’m male and it didn’t come to me as an oppressive social role into which I was pigeonholed. On the other hand, I don’t think Maia feels that it’s her job to cook in our family because she’s the woman; we share the cooking pretty evenly. In fact I might do slightly more, though Maia tends to do more of the shopping. In any case, some of our greatest moments together have been our collaborations for Jewish holiday and Shabbat meals, cooking up together both food and texts for our family and friends. Cooking, especially Jewish cooking, has contributed tremendously to the quality of my life, of our lives. So yes, cooking is a Jewish issue, and I’m not just going to “get over it” as I see this powerful, creative life skill diminish in our culture. And we’ve got to get more boys in the kitchen – but real home kitchens, sharing the work, not the macho gladiatorial arenas featured on the Food Network. I think the Orthodox yeshivah home economics classes are definitely a step in the right direction.