Peeled onions for sale beside unpeeled ones. Has it really come to this?
I am not opposed to the recent growth of pre-prepped ingredients. I understand why, for instance, a home cook finds it tempting to buy pre-cut vegetables or packaged stocks, especially if he/she is typically pressed for time to prepare meals. But while it is understandable to buy a bit of mise en place to help out with a meal or fill your pantry, I wonder what kind of price we pay for leaving most of dinner’s prep to someone else. (see: Everything But The Cook, Julia Moskin, NYT.)
There is clearly a trade off between paying for someone to do a craft’s work and developing the skills to do it oneself. I don’t begrudge the home cook her choice. And the convenience food industry, in part, has grown out of her hard won and not-to-be-forsaken right to step out of the kitchen and do other things with her time.
But what’s interesting about these new meal services is that they don’t force cooks to choose between purchasing a complete meal or preparing it from scratch. Further, they position themselves, as Ms. Moskin says, in that “sweet spot somewhere between the bunch of asparagus and the finished asparagus-stuffed salmon,” between, in other words, homecooking and dining out. They justify their higher prices by comparing the quality of their recipes and ingredients to restaurant meals. This is smart, optimistic, and worthy of our attention. But I wonder, is giving someone an entire mise en place—even an upscale one—a valuable assist, or an expensive crutch?
The idea behind these boutique concepts is that home cooks can take pleasure in the process of executing a meal, so they can eat the way they want without the stress of creating for themselves. I don’t take issue with this. But further claims they make to lasting instruction and saving money are a stretch.
Sure, there is a relevant difference between a reheat-and-serve meal and one that you assemble from pre-prepped raw ingredients. But the latter, by consecrating the recipe as rule, providing only exactly what we need to make one specific dish, does little to get us closer to knowing about any one particular ingredient, the general application of good cooking technique, or another culture’s cuisine. Execution alone may have some value, like does painting by numbers or assembling do-it-yourself furniture, but services that aim to eliminate work and waste by providing exactly what you need and how you need it, are not only relying on a false idea of what is wasteful (true frugality is not purchasing a single clove of garlic individually wrapped in plastic; it is about making do with the ones we have on hand), they leave no room for error or inquiry.
For example. In peeling onions for a tomato sauce, I might wonder for a moment what the sauce would be like if I roasted the onions first. This simple thought might not have occurred to me if I unsnapped a container of presliced ones, proceeding apace with my efficiently laid-out, well-scripted meal. I might not actually stop to roast the onions, but the inquisitiveness the prep process allows will have residual effects. At the very least, it adds to the store of ideas I’ll call on in the future, when faced with onions, sliced or not.
Doing one’s own prep—even for a meal that is scripted—can be more than forced grunt work (and for some people, it is pleasurable); it is itself often a key step in practicing improvisation, to cook off-the-cuff. And culinary improvisation, the easy ability to toss together an unplanned, delicious meal, IS what people by and large, still want most to learn.
While it’s often useless to talk about the ways “things used to be,” it might serve us well here. “Back in the day,” cooking was not a discrete task to be performed three times a day (or, more realistically, a few nights a week); it was a continuous, sustaining process that began with sacrificing livestock at sunrise and grinding grains to flour.
This homesteading model is outdated, sure, and the solution, of course, is not to put women back into the 24-hour kitchen lock down. Instead, we need a flexible model of cooking, an individualized and personalized system of re-stocking ourselves well, cooking from what we have and not by recipe, and succeeding despite one’s experience or skill level, no matter who does the work or when or how much. My opinion is that even cooking services which involve the cook but replace all of the prep are doing nothing about working toward this goal.