One of the steady arguments you hear from the various foodie factions in their unceasing war on the poor and fat and the insufficiently food-aware is that cooking your own food is cheaper than eating processed foods, so why wouldn’t you? A lot of people are cottoning on to the fact that making your own food is time consuming to prepare (and time is money) and that fresh produce, meat and dairy is expensive and time consuming to buy, and that’s without going into the through-the-looking-glass world of organics and gourmet ingredients.
I myself do a lot of cooking. I think that food I cook for myself, with some key exceptions, tastes better than what I can buy in a store or restaurant, and is usually cheaper when I compare raw ingredients to the finished product. Fancy baked goods, cured meats and most snack cracker types of things are the exceptions, but they are also the exceptions in my menus. If we’re talking things sauteed, stir-fried, baked, broiled, grilled, steamed and seasoned, I can make it better and cheaper. I’m also only cooking for two people (and occasional guests), don’t have to deal with finicky appetites, medical conditions and/or weird work schedules. I can stir fry tofu and vegetables and not have the SU throw a hissy fit.
The other thing I have, though it’s taken some time, is a well-appointed kitchen. This is something that makes a huge difference when cooking at home. I have the appliances (major and minor), the pantry stocked with wonderful things, the utensils, the knives, the cookware, the bakeware, the timers, the kitchen towels, the serving dishes and the table settings that make eating home cooked meals a pleasure. My kitchen is pretty basic compared to the extravagance you see on cooking shows or read about in food and lifestyle magazines. I don’t have restaurant grade anything – I have Kenmore major appliances and a mix of no-name and brand-name counter top stuff. My knife set is good, but it won’t win any awards. My cookware is a set purchased at Costco. I have a few Creuset pots, and a bunch of cheap knock offs. The daily dishes are Dansk from our wedding back in the early 90s and are scratched, chipped and losing pieces. I have dozens of kitchen towels, plenty of pot holders, a whole crock of wooden spoons, several sets of measuring cups and spoons, and much glassware, mixing bowls, baking pans, plastic storage containers, table linens, and serving bowls. Much of what we have is inherited/gifted to us from the SU’s sprawling and generous family.
What I grew up with was quite a bit less. We had two pots, one small, one large. There was a dutch oven. We had two frying pans, both large. We had two cookie sheets. We had three wooden spoons. We had two knives, neither of them large or sharp. There was a single set of Pyrex mixing bowls, and a big stainless steel bowl. Our table settings were melamine for many years, then we got a present of Corelle (White with gold flowers – you know the pattern). None of our forks, spoons or knives matched. We didn’t have a table cloth. We didn’t have a table. We ate with our plates in our laps in front of the TV. We had a percolator coffee pot that you set on the stove. I’ve never lost my taste for industrial strength black coffee. Our cereal bowls were old Cool Whip tubs. The major appliances were always Kenmore, always second-hand. There were no cutting boards, things just got chopped on the counter. When my parents moved into their latest house, it came with a dishwasher that has never been used because no one in the family knows how to operate one.
What did this mean for what we ate? A lot of one skillet meals that was some variation on brown the hamburger, mix in the stuff, cook until the noodles are done. Fried hamburgers and a pot of rice (the small pot was literally called “the rice pot”). Mom liked green salads so we’d often get some torn up lettuce, a bit of grated carrot and Good Seasons Italian dressing, mixed up in the little cruet you could buy on special with the seasoning packets. There was usually green beans or corn, and often steamed spinach with red wine vinegar on it. Tater-tots cooked on the cookie sheet in the oven. Banquet Fried Chicken, also on the cookie sheets. TV dinners. Frozen pot pies. Mom’s macaroni and cheese. Hot dogs boiled in the pot, served on cold buns which sometimes had bits torn out to remove the mold. Grilled cheese sandwiches that were amazing. Cinnamon toast. Refried beans and rice. La Choy canned Chop Suey. Campbell’s soup, usually Bean with Bacon, which I hated. Nothing that required cutting or dicing on the dinner plate because that was hard to do when balancing the thing on your lap. We didn’t use napkins or paper towels because they were too expensive.
My family was thousands of miles away from any other relatives, we had no support network, and we had no wealth. Outfitting and stocking a kitchen to do “fancy” cooking was out of financial reach. We made due. We ate dull, boring, tedious food. Kentucky Fried Chicken was the fast food we got most often because it went the furthest, but that was a once a month at most treat. Once in a very great while, we kids would be treated to A&W or McDonald’s. We’d have Shakey’s Pizza and watch the old silent movies on the wall. Mom always took home a lot of paper napkins from these places.
To tell people who may not have a complete set of dinner plates, let alone a food processor or an immersion blender, that they can “just” go fix up fairly involved meals at home is arrogant. It displays class privilege. It assumes that the person of course has a completely stocked pantry and spice shelf, that they of course have a complete and accurate set of measuring cups ans spoons, that they have knives that can mince, graters of varying styles, enough pots to cook more than two things at once, a stove that works, steamer baskets, rolling pins, mixers, blenders, serving dishes, even pot holders that will protect hands from hot pots and pans. Are they drinking soda from cans because they don’t have drinking cups?
A well-appointed kitchen is a display of wealth. It means the owner has enough excess finances to be able to afford all this stuff on the off-chance that they’ll need to cook something that requires a fine sieve, a spring form cake pan, or a bamboo steamer. It means having the time to spend to learn how to use this equipment, to hunting down recipes, to traipsing from store to store to find galangal (just go to a local Asian grocer!) or sherry vinegar or lentils du puy. (For lentils du puy in San Diego, btw, try Fresh & Easy. “French Lentils,” good price, resealable bag.) Even a moderately well-outfitted place represents several hundred dollars of investment, which a economically stretched family may not have to spare. It’s not that they don’t want to, but that they have to be economic realists on what they can accomplish. They may only be able to afford used dishes from a thrift shop and kitchen utensils from a dollar store. Quality knives – a must if you’re going to do a lot of home cooking – can take an entire week’s pay after taxes. You try to finely dice a large onion or filet a fish with a $2.00 paring knife and tell me how it works out for ya, ‘kay?
Beyond the food itself, beyond the time to do the food prep, lies an entire home economy and infrastructure that is not a given for too many households. To tell them “Eat your own home baked, gluten-free, sweetener-free, organic cake,” is not going to go over well.