Is It True That People Don’t Cook Anymore?


A recent story by Michael Pollan in the New York Times magazine implied that the problem with Americans is that we actually don’t cook anymore—we just watch it on TV. He blamed it on the usual suspects, including our disconnection from where our food comes from, the corrupting influence of television, and a food industry that conspires to make us dependent on their processed products.

But then I thought about my own life and cooking arc, and can’t I help but wonder if there is a different cause for this trend—and, frankly, whether it’s even true that people don’t cook.

I grew up eating the yummy foods my mother cooked—although more often or not she was angry about something by the time we all got to the table. But who can blame her, since she had to have dinner on the table every night for a MINIMUM of seven people (my father usually didn’t call in advance if he brought guests home for dinner) at 5:30 sharp.

When I grew up and moved out and started cooking on my own, I’ll never forget when my father said: “Of all three of my daughters’ cooking, I would rank yours the last.” It didn’t matter that I was the youngest of them by 7 years; that comment stuck with me (as you can clearly see).

So at the same time I was learning to cook, and trying to feed one of the pickiest-eating children on earth (no cheese, no tomatoes, no peanut butter, no bananas, no cooked fruit of any kind, and definitely no sandwiches), I started to look for outside help in books, magazines, and newspapers.

What struck me most back then was how inadequate I felt. Martha Stewart constantly shamed me with perfection that I could never achieve. The New York Times always made me feel like the foods I enjoyed weren’t exotic, elite, or expensive enough. And every source I searched out made my local food specialties, cooked with love by big-armed ladies at church festivals (pierogies, haluski, and shoefly pie) seem like an embarrassment to humanity.

As a result, cooking for me became a private joy—an underground pleasure. I was afraid to share it with anyone other than my family and expose myself to their judgment. Slowly but surely, I learned to cook things that my family and I loved to eat, and to enjoy sharing it with them. I learned the old ways of cooking from my Italian in-laws. I studied food and went to local markets wherever I traveled—deconstructing tastes from my senses alone. I learned all on my own that simply prepared, fresh, local, and organic foods taste best.

Today, just looking at the popularity of recipe websites (including our own Rodale Recipe Finder), and even other people’s shopping carts at the local supermarket—and the consistently big crowds at my local farmers market—I have to disagree with Michael Pollan. People in America DO still cook. They just do it below your radar, because they don’t want to feel judged. They do it for their families, for picnics, for Super Bowl parties and holidays. They do it for love, not prestige. They may not do it all from scratch, and it may not be perfect—but why squelch our tender souls with criticism when we are all just constantly learning and trying to improve?

If my Dad were still alive, I know he would love my food. He would definitely be angry about the lard issue, but I wouldn’t have a problem disagreeing with him. At the end of the day, my kids and husband love my cooking and that’s really all that matters to me.

Do you think Americans still cook? Leave a comment below.

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20 Responses to Is It True That People Don’t Cook Anymore?

  1. Maya August 10, 2009 at 8:50 am #

    I live in one of the best restaurant cities in the world–NYC–and I still cook almost all of my meals. I do it because it’s cheaper, because I’m picky, but mostly because I like to use fresh, organic ingredients and cook the stuff my momma makes (that you can’t often find at restaurants, especially fancy ones).

    And I LOVE cooking for friends–it’s deeply satisfying to feed people–especially ones that offer to help with the dishes.

  2. Guinnevere August 10, 2009 at 9:48 am #

    I prepare almost all of my own food, being a raw vegan, and before that vegan, and vegetarian before that. I also prepare food for people with food allergies to corn, wheat, etc. I find it deeply satisfying, less expensive, and as Maya said, I can control the ingredients, flavor, dish eaten, and love that goes into it.

  3. Cheryl August 10, 2009 at 10:32 am #

    I do cook most nights, and I love to cook, but I also love to eat out! What a treat, to have everyone eating exactly what they want, to be waited on, to not have to clean up afterwards. I guess, on average, I cook 5 nights a week. One night I work, so my husband gets take out, and one night we go out to eat.

    It can be difficult cooking for 5 people. One vegetarian, one vegan, one hates tomatoes, one avoids gluten… it is frustrating at times. Also, I find myself driving my kids to various activities in the evenings, so sometimes I find myself crunched for time.

    One difference between my cooking and my Mom’s cooking is that I actually cook more from scratch and use more whole foods. My mom did a lot of cooking from cans and shake-n-bake and mixes and convenience foods, which I guess was all the rage “back in the day.”

  4. ! August 10, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    I barely cook more than pasta or chicken. Working full time, with 3 young, picky eaters and various activities and meetings to attend at night leaves little, if no time to cook. Had I more time on my hands, I would prefer to cook more. Even when I make crock pots full of stew or sauces to freeze and heat up, the kids barely touch it. sigh.

  5. Anonymous August 10, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    It is not true, Maria. I cook and I know many that also cook. Although I admit that sometimes it’s a chore after a long day’s work, I love putting a nice meal on the table. The problem today, is that there are so many convenience foods out there, fast foods, frozen meals, box meals, prepared foods, that many working moms (and dads) submit to the easiest, fastest way to get it on the table. The problem is that these foods are so unhealthy…fatty, loaded with sodium and calories.

  6. MPD August 10, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    Cooking has become a class issue. The poor (who are not from immigrant families who DO know how to cook) seem to have lost cooking skills along the way — more so than those from the middle and upper classes.

  7. MJS August 10, 2009 at 11:43 am #

    I don’t think it is as much a class issue as a generational one. Women work and have been raised on take out and fast food so much that they and their kids don’t like the taste of real food anymore. It is epidemic- we need mandatory cooking/nutrition classes in high schools.

  8. MMJ August 10, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    I for one enjoy cooking, I do not do as much cooking as I would like because my husband also likes to cook, so we share. I totally understand the pressures and frustrations of trying to cook a decent meal after working all day, (I too was a working, single parent for many years). I also think that the observations from the posted comments are also true. Society as a whole seems to swing back and forth between extremes. For a while we got away from whole food cooking and the basics (like having a veggie garden, etc) now the pendulum is swinging back to the basics including home cooked meals. This shift in “values” for lack of a better word seems to be tied to the economy. When the economy is in a downward shift, people are more apt to raise their own produce, can and preserve more and cook more at home. In economic good times, they tend to eat on the run or eat out more possibly because they are involved in more actitivies? Food for thought anyway.

  9. Margaret August 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

    Hi! I love to cook and am blessed to be able to live where I can have my own vegetable gardens, herb garden, berry patches, and a small orchard. We also have goats and chickens who, besides milk and eggs, provide manure to mulch our gardens with, which after the season is done, we rototill under for next year’s soil. So with the seasonal progression of organic fruits and veggies, and their availability to me, I am challenged anew with each newly appearing fruit or vegatable. So many times, we sit down to a meal and I say, “Just think, 30 minutes ago this was growing in our garden!” or ” Look at this, 3/4 of this food was produced right here!”

    I do have a suggestion for mothers of picky eaters I always insisted that the kids have at least one, “No-Thank-you bite of everything on the table. And gradually they became accepting of most everything we served. I think this prevents them from becoming picky adults who are really prisoners of their dislikes, and therefore uncomfortable in some eating situations. It also helps them learn to like some very nutritious and beneficial foods, for which their bodies will someday thank them with better health than their picky friends experience..

  10. Bing August 10, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

    I love to cook and I love to eat at fine restaurants. My husband and I hang out with 6 couples. All the husbands have been friends for a long time… from 40 to 58 years. Everyone has graduated from college so I guess we are middle class. Everyone except for two husbands cook. We eat most of our meals at home. Two husbands are the primary cooks of their family. Four wives are the primary cooks of their family.

    Each year as a group on we rent a house right on the beach. It sleeps 15, has six bedrooms a large living room, with a large full service kitchen, with dishes, coffee maker, blender, etc, parking for 7 cars, and an elevator to get to the top floor. We cook every meal except we will go to a restaurant for brunch on the last day when we check out to leave to go home.

    We are cooking.

  11. MLS August 10, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    I spent nearly 20 years in the retail food industry, much of it behind a full – service meat and seafood counter, and I would somewhat agree that people don’t cook. People from all walks, not just the poor. The reasons vary, but these were the most common:

    My mother didn’t cook and I never learned.

    Most common among women my own age (40-ish) Our mothers were the working women of the 60’s and 70’s who equated cooking with menial labor. Just another chore. Mixes and boxes and cans could be thrown together without much thought or time invested.

    I don’t have the time.

    Granted, some really don’t. But this was usually stated with a flip of the hair and a look that screamed, “It’s so beneath me.” And really, it doesn’t take any longer to make a little pasta from scratch than to open up a box of hamburger helper.

    No one at my house will eat it.

    The harried mother’s lament. I do feel your pain on this one. When they say “no one” they often mean husbands who are pickier eaters than the 3 year old. They too were raised on take out and commercial mixes and their palates are fixed on those flavors. Nothing turns a kid off a new food faster than to have a parent say, “Ewww, gross.”

    That said, the number of people learning to cook seems to be on the rise again. Economy, food network, greater availibility of ingrediants, and the loss of the stigma some members of the last generation attached to it have combined to make cooking an admirable skill again. Hopefully, it’s back to stay.

  12. Sherry August 10, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    Maybe the man who said Americans don’t cook is related to my husband. I love to bake and I also have collected a lot of cookbooks and recipes. I use recipes when I bake, but when I cook meals I just start cooking. Someone once said to my husband how lucky he was that I cooked. He said, “She never cooks.” I don’t know what he thinks has been going on in the kitchen for the last 35 yrs., but I know no one else has been feeding him. LOL I guess some of us have a different definition for cooking.

  13. Ron August 11, 2009 at 9:20 am #

    It seems the world is in a transition phase with cooking. In the past, men didn’t cook because it was woman’s work. Then women entered the work world and either didn’t have time to cook or felt they shouldn’t. A generation or two grew up on prepared foods. Today, many people realize the benefits of cooking from scratch, but so much works against us: advertising, habits and, for some reason unknown to me, kids’ extreme pickiness. And for many people, comfort food is no longer Mom’s homemade cookies, but processed foods they grew up on.

    But the benefits of cooking healthy, delicious meals are many. I know many people who cook often because of that. Cooking definitely decreased since, say, the 1960s. But fortunately it remains an important part of our culture. I predict it will pick back up, as people rethink it.

  14. Peggy August 11, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

    It has begun to seem to me that Americans aren’t cooking alot. More and more seem to be buying already prepared foods. The other day, I was in WalMart and was amazed at how many cases were filled with prepared foods. Yet I do most of my own cooking from scratch, and so do many of my friends, so I know it isn’t everyone who is buying it prepared. My reason for cooking my own is to ensure the nutrition I’m getting. I know I’m not alone!

  15. Sue August 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    I am one of those that does NOT cook. I work full time, I commute an hour each way. We leave the house at 6:30am and are lucky to get home by 9:30pm . We have homework, exercising of horses, chores, committee meetings, rodeos to perform at. I can’t imagine how it wll be when our 8 year old starts her own activities. We have a real home cooked breakfast on Sunday morning. The rest of the time it is a restaurant or something frozen. I would cook if I was at home.

  16. Anonymous August 11, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

    I love to cook, but as always time is the biggest issue. I am cooking more now (I am in my early 50’s) than before. I realize I love to cook for my kids, and we all just need to adjust to eating later so I can cook after getting home from a long day at work. Recipes are everywhere from all the cooking shows to the Williams-Sonoma catalog so it makes it really easy to try new recipes. Homework and other activities just need to be started earlier than before. I will have an empty nest in a year, and I hope I will continue to cook for myself. What I don’t like is doing dishes at 9:00 at night!

  17. Maria (farm country kitchen) August 12, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    I might consider giving up cooking if I could have horses to exercise and rodeo’s to perform at! 🙂

  18. Anonymous August 13, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    Hi Maria-Not only would your dad love your cooking, he would be so proud of the way that you rose to his challenge. We are still without a range (1 year later) so I am thankful for the grill. That has been the extent of my cooking!

  19. DONNA FROM DELAWARE August 18, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    Yes, Maria, people still cook, especially since the economic downturn. It seems that evereyone I know has started a home garden because of the prices of fresh fruits and veggies. I find it wonderful that their children are taking an interest in growing and preparing their own food. This is good for their health and well-being. It’s good for the mind, gardening, and helps to relax you. What pleasure I hear from everyone who watch their food grow and harvest it for a wonderful sit-downwith friends and family. I for one never liked cooking. Baking is my thing. I always thought of cooking as a necessary evil. Now I am starting to really enjoy cooking, everything from simple, rustic meals to gourmet. I have to watch out with the gourmet though, calories and all. I have to admit, Martha Stewart got me going, then my brother, who is an excellent cook, and last but not least, the Food Netwoork. Don’t forget Americas Test Kitchen on Saturdays on PBS!

    I think we as a nation cook in cycles. When the economy is booming, we eat out more or eat out to be seen and chic. I enjoy going out to a fine restaurant once in a while, but mostly I stay home and cook, cook, cook! My husband’s wallet appreciates this.
    I don’t even take my guests out to dinner. When our European friends and relatives stay with us, I cook in the European style, something that I’ve learned over the years and that’s really fun. My husband wants me to do more grilling. He bought a grill 10 years ago when we lived in Florida, and I’ve used it 3 times! I’ll try to start using it more now that fall is on the way. My deck is going to become the next hot eating spot in the neighborhood.

  20. Wendy from Vermont August 19, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I’ve always cooked no matter the economy. It’s just me and my husband (early 40s) and we live in a rural area, so take out or delivery are not convenient options. Even if they were we would still cook as we appreciate knowing what ingredients go into our meals-there is great local meat and produce available here. Also, we joined our community in a gardening project this year and have been enjoying our own wonderful eggplants, lettuce, chard, peppers etc. However-not to be denied some luxury-on the weekend we usually splurge on at least one dinner out and sometimes Sunday brunch. Many restaurants here are into supporting local agriculture. I guess for us it’s about eating fresh and healthy!

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