I’d like to end the year (or begin the year, depending on when you read this post) with some thoughts on cooking.
2014 saw the rise of home cooking advocacy from some of the food industry’s most public voices, including Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. I’d like to think that, as a food blogger, I played some small, positive role in the movement. It’s hard to tell, though.
Food blogging has morphed from a platform to share what we cooked for dinner the previous night (often photographed on chipped plates in iffy lighting) to highly stylized dishes with titles a mile long. A quick scroll through any of the food photography sites (like Foodgawker) sums up the story: food blogging has become a fashion showcase of food.
This is not a bad thing. It’s simply a thing.
Developing recipes is an enjoyable process. Arranging and photographing food on a plate is a challenging and satisfying creative outlet. And writing up the whole shebang and sharing it online with fellow food lovers is a fitting wrap up of the effort. I won’t be stopping anytime soon.
But I don’t want any reader to confuse cooking with food blogging. While all [or most] food blogging is cooking, not all cooking (thankfully) is food blogging. And it shouldn’t be. Meaning, the evening meal does not have to be a fashion show-worthy production to be important and worthwhile.
I worry about that sometimes. I worry that we food bloggers — not individually, but collectively (and most definitely inadvertently) — create a falsely raised bar that, over time, serves to keep folks from the kitchen, rather than running to it.
Take today’s recipe, Hoppin’ John Rice Bowls. From a technical standpoint, this is a perfect recipe for a day off from work (i.e., well-suited for the New Year’s Day preparation for which it’s famous). The recipe requires time, but not intensity, with the biggest challenge being to remember to soak the black-eyed peas the night before.
From a labor standpoint, a little vegetable chopping is all that stands between you and a very satisfying bowl of winter comfort food (and if you prefer to buy pre-chopped vegetables, there’s hardly any labor at all). The remaining requirement is simply patience as the black-eyed peas, veggies, and a juicy ham hock simmer quietly on the stove.
But, it’s not the prettiest dish while in the pot. In fact, the word “slop” springs to mind, until it’s spooned over a fluffy bed of white rice and topped with verdant scallions. In these photos here, I arranged, by hand, the bits and pieces that make the photo colorful and (hopefully) attractive. I got in there with my fingers and flipped several of the peas so that the “eye” is visible. I placed pieces of pink ham and red bell pepper dices with intention, as they would rather naturally want to settle down and hide between the peas.
I turned the bowl round and round in the light until I found its “good” side. There are white reflectors behind and to the right of the bowl, to cast a bluish light needed to counter the golden, late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the left. I nudged the spoons in the photo above I-don’t-know-how-many-times so that neither I nor my camera were part of the reflection.
But if I were a new cook making this recipe — or any of the dozens of versions that are hitting the interwebs today — and I looked in the pot at the end of cooking time, I might’ve concluded I had done something wrong.
Again, food blogging is the glittery New York fashion week extravaganza; home cooking is the real-life shopping-of-the-racks and fidgeting in front of the mirror to make the runway looks your own.
Circling back around to home cooking advocacy, I’ll add that on the heels of the many interesting presentations and articles that appeared this year touting the benefits of home cooking, there was (predictably) a bit of a backlash. The controversy is a good thing, though — necessary, even — as it gets us all thinking and talking things through.
If you haven’t followed the home cooking conversation, here are some excellent starting points:
- Mark Bittman’s informative and thoughtful presentation at the Edible Institute (video).
- Sam Sifton’s home cooking manifesto.
- Michael Pollan with tips for transitioning to cooking at home and cooking for picky eaters.
- Slate’s now infamous op ed rant on the “tyranny” of home cooking. And Joel Salatin’s clear-on-the-other-end-of-the-spectrum response.
- Plus two other well-written pieces that stand moderately in between (by Megan McArdle and Bettina Elias Siegel).
As a home cooking advocate myself, I do understand both sides of the story: home cooked food is better for us all around, but a strain on already over-scheduled schedules. Like so many of you, I work full-time, too (this blog is a side-gig-slash-obsession). There are days when the only thing I can manage in the kitchen at 7pm is the leftover pasta that’s sitting in the fridge, sticking to itself. I get it.
(Poverty, it must be noted, is an entirely different and far more complex subject, although it’s always dragged in to the home cooking argument, as Marcotte does in her rant. The absence of home cooking is the collateral damage of low-income wages; cooking is neither the cause nor the cure for poverty.)
My position is this: don’t view home cooking as an all or nothing proposition. One home cooked meal per week is better than none. Societally, we didn’t stop cooking and rush to McDonald’s in one fell, overnight swoop. It was a gradual shift that occurred over decades, and the reversal — both in thought and action — can’t be expected to happen overnight.
So please, don’t let the pressure of Pinterest perfection and over-zealous food bloggers (ahem, yo) be a reason to keep you from the kitchen. The Hoppin’ John Rice Bowls were pretty as a picture at 4pm when photographed, but then simmered on the stove for a few hours more, when they were haphazardly and very unphotogenically scooped into bowls and consumed with happy gusto at dinner.
Home cooking is not about creating magazine-cover or food-blog-homepage meals. Home cooking is about taking back control from a greed-driven industrial food industry that is, at best, indifferent to you and me as human beings. Home cooking is caring about what we put into our bodies for health and nourishment. Home cooking is about valuing (or relearning to value) whole foods and conscientious practices, from field and barn to store to kitchen to plate.
It is my hope in 2015 that more of us embrace home cooking — slowly but surely — as a worthwhile use of our time and energy.
Happy New Year!
Hoppin' John Rice Bowls
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 ham hock
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1/2 cup chopped celery
- 1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers use a mix of green and red, if you'd like
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 pound dried black eyed peas soaked overnight and rinsed
- 3 cups cooked white rice
- 2 green onions sliced thinly (for garnish)
- Heat oil in a 4 to 5 quart dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat. Add the ham hock and sear on all sides. Add the onion, celery, peppers, and garlic, and saute until soft, 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle the seasoning over the vegetables and stir. Add the peas and bay leaf, and pour in enough stock to cover the peas (you might not use the full quart at this point).
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle but steady simmer. Cover partially with a lid and cook for 45 minutes to 2 hours - check the peas at the 45 minute mark to test for doneness. They should be tender, but not mushy. If the liquid evaporates, add a small amount of stock or water. Remove the bay leaf and the ham hock - remove any meat and add to the black eyed peas.
- Serve over rice, garnishing with green onions.
Adapted from FoodNetwork.com