Written by Dila Sarikaya.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
As a child, I never gave much thought to the fact that my mom had a home-cooked meal set on the table for my family every night. That is until I discovered that most of my classmates went out for dinner nearly every night, something I found very bizarre. A restaurant menu could never compare to my mom’s cooking: flavorful, comforting, and diverse. It wasn’t until I realized that most people did not have the luxury of a home-cooked meal that I began to understand the importance of my daily dinners.
Many people don’t have distinct memories of their parents cooking in the kitchen. However, past generations are teeming with stories about the magic of food preparation. These kinds of stories constitute a niche category of memories for people; connecting to each other emotionally and physically—memories of sharing a meal and interacting with those whom we love.
This semester, I had to make a very sudden transition from a dorm to an apartment living situation. As the semester began, it became evident that my biggest obstacle would be food. Living in Jester East, I was a hundred feet away from a buffet of pizza, ice cream, and all the glories of a college dining hall. My new environment, however, encouraged me to begin meal prepping every Sunday night and purchase healthy products. The first week, I succeeded. I remember the exact meal I cooked: chicken breast seasoned with lemon pepper and cajun spices, oven-roasted potato halves, and a quinoa salad. I was off to a great start—until my schoolwork started picking up and life became chaotic.
Almost right on cue, my Cuisine and Culture of Central and Eastern Europe class with Dr. Christian Hilchey provided me with new inspiration. I was assigned the book Cooked by Michael Pollan, and it opened my eyes to things many intentionally ignore in society. Pollan points out that Americans do not spend nearly as much time preparing meals as they did in the 1960s, spending a mere 27 minutes a day in the kitchen. This is a shocking number, especially considering that millions of Americans watch over 45 minutes of food-related entertainment daily. Reading this gave me a peculiar feeling. Although I don’t really watch cooking shows, I do scroll through social media, enthralled by 3-minute cooking tutorials. Are my excuses about not having enough time to cook truly valid?
There are genuine reasons for why cooking is not such a defining art of our culture as it once was. Primarily, it has historically been viewed as a gendered task. In a whopping majority of households, women were the ones who tackled the hefty job of preparing meals for multiple people every day. Many women claim they enjoy having the unique ability to feed their families. I agree that spending time alone in the kitchen can be a wonderful space to clear one’s mind and create something very gratifying. However, as women started joining the workforce, they stopped having time to cook every day, leading to the fall of frequent home-cooked meals and the rise of processed foods. This was a great win and loss for society—the tensions of “who will cook” within American households was solved with the frozen food aisle and industries like “Wonder Bread”. The accessibility of industrialized food allowed the economy to boom, though America was getting sick.
The removal of natural ingredients and the addition of materials no one can pronounce in foods increased the rate of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. The freedom of no longer having to be in the kitchen due to sheer necessity created a system of enslavement to corporations, disease, and the restaurant industry.
The matter of whether one sees cooking as freedom or enslavement comes down to perspective. Is spending money on food that may not have been prepared in the most ethical way worth having an extra hour or two in the day? Many people think spending those extra hours working or studying is more valuable than cooking a simple meal. I, however, would argue that most of us spend that time doing anything but productive.
I have dedicated more time to the kitchen and, by proxy, to my health and well-being. I love the time in which I can be with my thoughts for an hour or so and eat something containing only the ingredients that I choose. It makes me feel more in touch with the Earth and my body. I encourage people, especially those my age, to try to follow a recipe or two. The feeling of being in tune with cooking culture may be surprising. As I prepare dinner on a Monday night, I am reminded that my mom’s daily meals did much more than provide me with sustenance. They provided me with enriching life lessons and the inspiration to continue the cooking tradition myself.