Michael Pollan, one of the best food writers in America today, just published an article in the New York Times Magazine bemoaning the fate of modern cooking. He points out that despite the increasing popularity of the Food Network, people are spending less and less time actually turning fresh ingredients into meals. This, he argues, is bad for both individual and societal health.
I?ve read the statistics and I don?t doubt them, but here at The Spice House, it can be hard to remember how little interest most Americans have in the act of cooking. The staff here are excellent cooks, passionate and adventurous about food. Many of them have culinary degrees and extensive kitchen experience. Our customers are eager to share their favorite recipes and ideas, and will often spend half an hour debating the best spices to use with the latest ripe produce from the local farmers market. Those of us who work here spend our days in a rarified bubble of culinary experience, often forgetting about the apparently vast numbers of people who wouldn?t know how to use paprika or have never heard of Chinese 5 spice powder. We just don?t encounter them very often.
But we do occasionally get someone in our store who?s utterly inexperienced in the kitchen. Sometimes it?s just an in-and-out customer looking for a gift, but there are also people who wander in, drawn by our heady aromas, and sniff wistfully at our taster jars while admitting that they ?don?t really cook.? Perhaps they are part of the statistical 42% of Americans, as counted by market research company NPD Group?s data, who don?t cook meals at home. Or possibly they fall into the uncounted category who perform such activities as spreading butter on toast or washing lettuce for salad, both considered ?cooking? by NPD standards, but are unlikely to attempt more complicated dishes. When people flat out tell us they don?t cook, it?s tempting to wonder what they?re doing in a spice store in the first place.
What they are doing, according to Pollan?s article, is searching for the missing elements of culture and homeyness that our fast-food, prepackaged society is lacking. Whether or not you or even your parents cooked, humanity yearns for the warmth and familiarity of preparing ingredients and the alchemy of turning them into food. French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Richard Wrangham all argued that learning to cook and and eat together has played a stronger role in the development of civilization than even the written word. The very popularity of the Food Network and celebrity chefs seems to prove them right – even people who use their kitchens solely as a room to contain their fridges and microwaves crave more from their food experiences.
Harry Balzer, a researcher at NPD Group, is quoted in Pollan?s article as saying that there?s no hope for reversing the mass exodus from our kitchens, gardens, and farmers markets. He points out that, even if the majority of processed-food eaters wanted to move back to cooking, they are now a generation removed from those who knew how to cook. Culinary school is of course an option for those looking for a career in kitchens, but who?s left to teach the next generation of home cooks to dice, sautee, can, and bake?
Well, us for one. We?re incredibly lucky, at The Spice House, to have brought together so many people who care about food and cooking into one spot. We have an opportunity (indeed, if Pollan?s thesis is correct, practically an obligation) to spread our interest and experience. So if you?re part of the 42% or more who don?t consider yourself ?cooks?, we?re here to welcome you to the foodie world. Come in and start by smelling and tasting everything, and when you tell us you?re ?not a cook?, end that sentence with ?yet.?