The Radical Act of Cooking

Issue 220

On the subversive virtue of sharing a meal with friends, loved ones and comrades

Peter Rugh Dec 19, 2016

There are few things I find sadder than watching someone eat fast food alone. It’s a lonesome, melancholy sight. Don’t get me wrong; I too have been that sorry SOB on the Q train, chomping a greasy slice of pizza under the Transit Authority poster reminding riders they’re not in a dining car. I’ve been that soft-bellied, long-faced man you’ve spied through the windows of a McDonald’s at 11 p.m., working an apple pie into his mouth through a single-serve box.

I’m not sure whether it’s a family that prays or one that eats together that stays together. My mom used both expressions interchangeably. Growing up, my folks always tried to make sure we were all seated at the same table in the evening.

Shrimp scampi, stuffed peppers, apple pie and, like many Irish-Americans of a bygone era, ham and cabbage are among the recipes my mom mastered. Much of what she fed us she picked up either from her mother or the copy of the Joy of Cooking she received as a wedding present three-and-a-half decades ago that still sits, stained and tattered, on top of her refrigerator. My dad specializes in steak. He also bakes bread.

My parents shared the kitchen labor as best they could, with my little sister and me begrudgingly lending a hand. I don’t want to give the impression that either were master home cooks, making every meal from scratch. The smell of Old El Paso brand taco seasoning and those crunchy corn shells heating in the oven still makes my stomach growl with sentimental hunger.

As much as I envied friends whose parents allowed them to eat microwave ramen in front of the television, I now understand that those meals we shared were crucial in helping us tough it through the hardships that came our way from beyond the dining table. If I was suspended from school or my dad lost his job or we were in the midst of packing our bags to move to another city, pausing, having a conversation and sharing sustenance kept us both sane and together as a family, which amounted to the same thing.

The dinners we each contributed to were the most rewarding. I learned meals can be a labor of love, cooked collaboratively and shared equally; that mashed potatoes taste best when those Idaho spuds are salted with a couple drops of sweat.

These days my parents are divorced but all of us still get together over the winter holidays and for a few days during the summer. We argue. We grate on each other’s nerves. We eat in peace.

Today in our busy-busy lives, cooking and eating with others is a radical act.

“Satisfy your craving for zero human contact,” read ads for the restaurant delivery service Seamless, attempting to appeal to the cynical side of New Yorkers. “Cook when you’re dead or living in Westchester,” reads another.

As Matt Phillips reported in Quartz in June, Americans are spending more money annually dining out, $54.857 billion, than they are at grocery stores, $52.503 billion. Ironically, television is awash with cooking programs. The Food Network and the Cooking Channel have stretched the culinary arts to the limits of absurdity, serving up a 24-hour barrage of competitions where judges force participants to prepare three-course meals with ingredients like candy corn.

Not that there aren’t thought provoking food programs out there, but it’s one of the great contradictions of our time that we are flooded with food entertainment even as we cook less and less.

Ingredients too are hyper-fetishized. Boutique grocery stores aren’t just for Manhattanites anymore. Most of the cornfields where my family lives in Northwestern Illinois have been replaced by big box stores, but there are at least two Whole Foods markets within a 20-minute drive that offer exotic items like flax milk and vegan sugar — yuck!

During the Great Depression, eating for many Americans wasn’t so much about taste as it was vitamins. Milk was thought to be a super-protein and we put it in everything. Canned food wasn’t looked down upon. Rather it was considered a miracle of modern science.

In the Atomic Age, our meals highlighted our mastery over nature. We were fond of trapping our meat in gelatin. “Jellied Chicken Salad,” for instance, was a “men’s favorite,” according to a recipe card from Betty Crocker, circa 1971. We went on a tear for dinner and dessert blends too. “Chicken Liver Mousse” with cognac and hard-boiled egg, “Prune and Marshmallow Coupes” — exotic dishes that emphasized American ingenuity over the drab cuisine of Soviet Russia.

“There is nothing in this world more political than food,” as Anthony Bourdain is fond of pointing out, “what people are eating and what they are not eating.” Or even more to the point, “Who is eating and who is not.”

“Food is the first thing, morals follow on,” as Bertolt Brecht put it.

Those of us fortunate enough to have access to food can put our morals where our mouths are. We can support local, sustainable farms and fisheries. Sure it can sometimes be a little bit costlier than eating flavorless Monsanto grub, but maybe we can try eating a little less in return for ingredients that are healthier and tastier. Most important, we can cook with and share with others. The flavors on our tongues will act as a balm against alienation.

A cousin of mine is an executive chef renowned for his scallops. I asked him once what makes his so special. “Nothing,” he said. “I just fry ’em.” For $10 you can purchase a pound of scallops fresh from Montauk. Fry them in butter with a little thyme for about four minutes on each side and you and a loved one can share a meal that would cost $40 a head — if you are lucky —in one of Manhattan’s fine dining establishments. My point is, some of the best food is often simple and you deserve it. Why should the rich be the only ones who eat well?

Here at The Indy, we’re going to continue to cover struggles for communities to have access to healthy food, for farm workers to achieve justice, for a healthy environment and economic equality; in short, all the politics that revolve around our plates. But we also want to write about food itself, as a corporal extension of our politics. I would be wary of activists who don’t care much for a good meal if I were you. Same as I’d be wary of activists who don’t care much for literature or sex. It’s a sign they don’t care much for life, and that’s what we’re fighting for.

Click HERE to read some of the recipes Indy readers sent us.

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