Convenience food

It’s not elitist to cook for yourself

May 30, 2007

In his bestselling cookbook How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition), Mark Bittman exhorted readers to stop ordering takeout and start cooking. Why? Well, for one, home cooking is cheaper. For two, it’s just as fast as waiting for that pizza to show up. And for three, if you’re of the right mindset, it’s simply more fun.

“Fun,” however, is not a word Peg Bracken likes in the kitchen. In 1960, Bracken had a bestselling cookbook of her own, the I Hate to Cook Book, written for all the harried housewives and incipient career moms of the day.

“This book,” Bracken wrote in the introduction, “is for those of us . . . who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.”

In his book The Solace of Food, Robert Clark calls Bracken’s book “a smart-aleck, plague-on-both-your-houses rejoinder to both home economists and gourmets.” The book, he adds, sold nearly three million copies. “For Bracken, cooking was neither interesting nor fun,” Clark laments. “Bracken’s food was good enough to keep a woman’s husband and kids out of her hair — and no more than that.”

How hard is it, really, to make pasta with cheese?

It’s true that many of Bracken’s recipes rely on cans of soup and packets of onion powder. But then, plenty of folks cooked that way then, and for that matter, plenty of folks cook that way now. Is a box of little quiches from Trader Joe’s really an improvement over a Swanson’s TV dinner? (OK, so maybe there’s fewer preservatives in the quiches, and maybe they’re even organic, but still.)

Some convenience foods are just that; canned tomatoes and stock, for example, are perfectly serviceable kitchen staples and save hours of labor. But how many of us rely on Annie’s mac’n’cheese when it’s just as fast to boil a handful of spaghetti and grate fresh cheese? Even Bracken knew this; her recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo skips the cream and calls for nothing more than egg noodles, butter, and Parmesan. Heck, she even tells you to grate the stuff yourself instead of buying that can of pregrated fluff.

Somehow we still believe that all packaged goods marketed as “convenience” foods really are convenient, saving us time and money, when often they do neither. But when we don’t know how to cook, we think these products will do the job for us. And people who do cook from scratch? Well, they must just have lots of time and money. Cooking, in this world view, is for the elite. Convenience foods are for the rest of us.

Martha Stewart has built an empire on the premise that time and money do not exist, that every woman everywhere is capable of creating the perfect soufflé and handstitched pocketbook. But Stewart’s latest offering, Blueprint, is a magazine aimed at a younger, trendier, and apparently kitchen-klutzy woman. Gone is the presumption of intelligence, replaced instead with earnest how-tos that could use a serious dose of Peg Bracken wit.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian ad

In the March/April issue of Blueprint, for example, a handful of nutrition professionals (all women) assert that the best way to eat breakfast is via low-fat convenience foods. New York City nutritionist Cindy Sherwin endorses Cabot’s 50-Percent Light Cheddar Cheese. “I’ve tasted a lot of light cheese, and I like this one the best,” she declares. (Perhaps it’s the lesser of many evils?) Pennsylvania nutrition professor Lisa Hark says she eats almond butter on whole-wheat bread for breakfast. Her preferred bread? Pepperidge Farm.

Meanwhile, Oregon dietician Elizabeth Somer reveals what she whips up for her family on weekends: pancakes or waffles made with Light Bisquick, omega-3 fortified eggs, and a quarter-cup of toasted wheat germ. OK, so the eggs and germ are fine, but the Bisquick? And Light Bisquick, at that?

(A box of Bisquick, by the way, is nothing more than flour, baking soda, salt, sugar — in the form of dextrose — and partially hydrogenated oil. The first four ingredients you should already have at home, and the last you should never have at home. Light Bisquick, to its credit, replaces the hydrogenated stuff with canola oil.)

Bittman would shake his head. In his recipe for Basic Pancakes, he writes, “Fast, easy, and fluffy, these pancakes should make you forswear boxed mix forever.” A bag of flour is just as easy to buy as a box of Bisquick, and the flour is cheaper and better for you. (You can buy unbleached flour, for example, instead of Bisquick’s bleached version.) But after years of Quick Tips and 30-Minute Meals, we no longer think of buying the basics as, well, basic.

In fact, despite Bittman’s insistence that cooking can be “fun,” many of us are inclined to agree with Bracken and shun the word. And maybe the word is wrong. “Fun” suggests play, which only comes with confidence. When you’re not confident, it’s easy to reach for the box of Bisquick in the belief that it contains powdered confidence. But confidence only comes with knowledge, which cooking with convenience foods doesn’t provide.

You want to rule your kitchen? The only power recognized there is knowledge, not Knorr-Lipton Alfredo Pasta Sides.

And fundamentally, Bracken and Bittman sit on the same side of the stove. As Bittman writes, “Everyday cooking is about preparing good, wholesome, tasty, varied meals for the ones you love . . . Your results need not be perfect to give you this gift, to which all humans are entitled.”

Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

Also on Culinate: Columns on planning for leftovers, shopping for bulk foods, and making a simple salad.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 30, 2007 at 10:52 AM PDT

Hey, I love Pepperidge Farm bread. I wish they had it out west. Low-fat cheddar, on the other hand, is indefensible.

2. by Caroline Cummins on May 30, 2007 at 11:50 AM PDT

True — most presliced loaves of bread at the supermarket are far worse, in the ingredients category, than Pepperidge Farm’s version.

Wonder Bread makes a whole-wheat loaf. Here’s the ingredients list:
Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, contains 2% of less of: soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate (to retain freshness).

3. by caleb on May 30, 2007 at 11:57 AM PDT

I have loved that Pepperidge Farm bread also, because it always tasted reliably the same, took a really long time to go stale, toasted well, and most of all for its unparalleled ability to soak up butter in a pan-fried grilled cheese sandwich. Hmm.

4. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 30, 2007 at 12:24 PM PDT

Caroline, where can I buy this “Wonder Bread”?


5. by Caroline Cummins on May 30, 2007 at 3:46 PM PDT

I believe ‘tis coming soon to a corner mart near you.

6. by junglegirl on Jul 8, 2007 at 12:50 AM PDT

When I was a professional cook my boyfriend at the time was terrified by the prospect of cooking me dinner, not comprehending that all I wanted was a home cooked meal made by someone who loved me. When he finally braved the challange (his challange, not mine) he was shaking in his boots. And me? I was thrilled and so happy to eat! It wasn’t even remotely gourmet, and of course I could have cared less! It was satisfying, nourishing food and it was made at home, from scratch, by him. What more could anyone want? (He later went on to attend the CIA in NY, crediting me fully with inspiration. AWESOME ! )

7. by Fasenfest on Jan 14, 2009 at 11:26 AM PST

Funny, I was just talking about this notion - how somehow it appears to folks that a desire to track back and deconstruct the principles, folly and misguided wisdom of industrial foods is somehow elitist. Clearly, all movements start slowly -- a few people taking initial step. But movements always filter down to the masses; if they are worth their salt (pork) that is.

What I know is that last year my neighbor across the street would never have dreamt of growing vegetables. Evidently this year’s food prices and endless taint has got her thinking. Did my offerings of fresh vegies push her to consider this? Who knows. But it did put a lifestyle and value system in full view which may not have been there before.

It is sad the way old wisdoms, renewed, must defend itself.

8. by Kimberly Wright on Jan 15, 2009 at 6:09 AM PST

I am SO out of touch; when did good old fashioned home cooking become elitist? Yes, my mother loved Peg Bracken’s book, but read it for the humor more than she used the recipes. When I first started cooking on my own, I bought a box or two of Bisquick, but quickly learned for myself that it was simpler to use the ingredients from which it is made. This was the 1970’s, so we didn’t yet know that trans fats were not part of the healthy diet; that only came to public attention in the 1990’s. Our attitudes to food are based in past experience and family culture, and it was economical, not elitist, to cook for oneself.

9. by CaptinMaple on Apr 13, 2011 at 6:31 PM PDT

What’s so great about Pepperidge Farm? I’ve been baking my own bread for years now and have found a Whole Wheat recipe that is mixed, proofed and baked in an hour and a half (usually yielding about three loaves). And it has a grand total of five ingredients. So what if I have to slice my own bread? Whatever happened to “We need more cooks, not more cookbooks”?

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