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This is the 18th installment of "Eat This List" — a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.(CNN) — You should cook. Yes, you. Even if you don't want to.
This isn't like saying that you should learn Ovid in the original Latin for the enrichment of your soul, or requiring that you hunker and hone your julienne and demi-glace skills until you emerge victorious in a battle overseen by Alton Brown or Anthony Bourdain. This is about getting yourself fed and taking a modicum of responsibility for it.
You eat, right? Maybe even more than once a day? (Or even if you ingest some combination of nutrients solely through methods that don't require chewing, smoothies have to taste like something, don't they?) And I'm going to go ahead and assume that you'd like to continue living in your body for the next while. Assembling foodstuffs for intake without the intermediary of a drive-thru speaker, menu, or segmented tray and microwave is the ideal way to facilitate that.
Yet people object, throw their hands in the air and simply refuse. Here's why they're wrong.
1. "I can't cook."
You're reading this. You can cook. It may not be as soul-rumbling as your Nana's Sunday supper or make Mario Batali quake in fear for his job, but if you can follow a recipe (one that's tested — not from a random Pinterest page), you can get dinner on the table.
Recipe developers — at least the ones I know — are a proud, tenacious and skilled bunch and the last thing in the world any one of them wants to hear is that their recipe didn't work. So they test it again and again and again until it's virtually un-screw-uppable. Then, luckily for us, these recipes show up in cookbooks, or on extremely trustworthy websites like Epicurious, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, MyRecipes and plenty of others.
Worried your knife skills won't cut the mustard or your egg technique isn't all it's cracked up to be? How-to videos on Saveur, Cooking Channel and Better Homes and Gardens are the next best thing to having a chef standing next to you in the kitchen (minus the Gordon Ramsay-style screaming).
Start simple. Go slowly. Be OK with the occasional screw-up. You've got this.
2. "I don't want to."
I don't want to floss, wash my dog or pay taxes, but I do because I'm an adult and as such I do things for the good of my health and the pleasure and wellbeing of others. It is, as food writer Kim O'Donnel told me, "a way of taking part in the world."
There aren't a whole lot of things that everyone on the planet does, but eating is one of them. Most of the time it's for sustenance. Often it's for pleasure or community. Why not contribute to that?
Cooking is inherently a generous act. It's a gift of work and time, and often an expression of tradition and culture. Making a meal of your favorite dishes for someone is a way of saying, "Here's who I am, and I cared enough to share this with you."
If a microwave burrito and a greasy sack of cheesy tots sum you up, that's groovy. Otherwise just suck it up and learn to make a darned lasagna. (Everyone likes lasagna.)
3. "I don't have time."None of us do. There is the business of life to attend to: working, looking for work, studying, sleeping, frolicking, caring for the young and the old and the four-legged and the just plain loved. These things will all go better for you if you take two or three hours out of the 168 hours you receive from the universe each week to cut up some vegetables, throw some salt and pepper on a hunk of meat and stick these items in the oven with a pot of rice on top. Consider a hearty pot of soup or stew. Attempt the casserole of your choosing.
Make these things in large enough quantities, store them smartly and they will actually save you time later in the week when you stumble in from your busy day, stomach a-rumble, and can't wait for the pizza dude (or however it is you're feeding yourself — actually, how are you feeding yourself?) to show up. Just scoop, heat (or not) and like magic, there's a home-cooked meal on your plate.
No one is saying you have to do this every night (goodness knows I don't), but it's amazing how quickly cooking can become a habit, once you have a few staples in your cupboards.
4. "It's expensive."
Of all these excuses I hear in my capacity as a food editor, this is the one with which I sympathize the most.
When I moved to New York in 1996, I was hungry for my life to start — and just plain hungry to boot. I lived in steady, clawing dread of being evicted from my apartment, having my utilities turned off and losing the poorly-paying jobs I managed to stitch together. Despite the constant ache of my never-full-enough stomach, spending what little cash I had on ingredients at the grocery store seemed so incredibly remote and extravagant, when $1.29 would get me a fast food burger that would make the hunger go away instantly.
It caught up with me. I was exhausted, depressed and felt awful all of the time from the lack of basic vitamins and nutrients. A bout of sickness that should have been gone in a week dragged on for months because I just didn't have the strength to fight it off. That all changed when I discovered New York's Chinatown markets.
The neighborhood I lived in had no real grocery stores — just a few bodegas that sold snacks, phone cards, dusty canned goods and raspy toilet paper — but if I was willing and physically able (which wasn't always) to haul some heavy bags home on the train, my meager dollars and couch change went an awful lot further than a single burger. For me, cooking and health became inextricably linked. Having some measure of control over what went into my body gave me the power to overhaul the rest of my life, and I'll never take that for granted again.
If the issue is access to decent, affordable food to cook, you're right. It is too expensive and sometimes too hard to get to in many places, and it's up to those of us who are fortunate to have enough to figure out how to do better by you.
5. "I have better things to do."
Well OK then. Be that way. Miss out on the grateful smiles and coos of friends and family when you present them with a home-cooked feast (or at least a tasty side). Live at the mercy of restaurant hours and be unable to satisfy the craving for a dish that's not on the 2 a.m. drive-thru menu. Show up at the potluck with a box of store-bought cookies and some deli potato salad. Know not the thrill of wooing someone with some lovin' from your oven.
In the immortal words of hip hop star Jean Grae:
"You could even make some Burrata. Dear lord, you should make some Burrata. It's an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. Yes. Exactly.
Anyways, it's not that hard to learn how to make. I've done it. It's delicious and amazing and now you will know how to make cheese and THAT, is sexy. Make some Burrata and level up in life. People get excited when you tell them you make cheese. THEN THEY WILL MARRY YOU. OH!"
OH!, indeed. Get cooking.
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