The Middle Class Cook

Occasionally, I like to vary the types of posts here at Macheesmo and try new things. While I primarily post recipes, sometimes I also like to flap my philosopher wings and start a discussion.

A common statistic used to site the health of the economy is the status of the middle class. If it is growing then that is generally seen as a positive thing. If it is shrinking then the average salary difference between citizens is growing, which is bad. That’s a pretty basic summary, but you get the idea.

I’ve been thinking recently how this idea could be applied to a subject like cooking. Would you rather have a society where most people are average cooks or one where there are huge swings in people’s cooking abilities: a select few have great expertise and most can’t turn on a stove.

To me it seems like a nation of average cooks would be an alright thing, but maybe I’m a kitchen socialist.

What is a Middle Class Cook?

A middle class cook is someone who has enough kitchen skills to follow a recipe and make a pretty decent meal on any given day. They might have a few specialized dishes that they can make from scratch, but the middle class cook relies on recipes and trial and error.

The Upper Crust

Meanwhile, an upper class cook obviously includes most trained chefs. I have a friend that I would consider to be an upper class cook even though he isn’t a trained chef. He works in a restaurant, makes a bunch of stuff from scratch – including corned beef and bacon, and he is French (ha!). Being French is not a requirement, but a desire to learn more about food is.

Is Rachel Ray an upper class cook?

What’s an oven? Like a microwave?

The other side of the spectrum would be the person who knows practically nothing about food prep. Ironically, sometimes these same people are sometimes the pickiest eaters.

It is very much a goal of mine with this website to hand these individuals the tools to get in the kitchen!

The benefits of a cooking culture

Are there benefits to a culture where more people cook more often? I think so, but I’m a bit biased. If people are more knowledgeable in the kitchen I would argue that they will also be:

  • Healthier. It easier to cook healthy meals than buy healthy meals because you have more control over ingredients.
  • Wealthier. Stop giving your money to processors and restaurants and get in the kitchen!
  • Happier. When I cook I feel better and happier. It can’t just be me.
  • Safer from zombies. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You will want to know how to cook when zombies attack.

A cooking revival. I really want there to be a cooking revival in our country. With the success of mainstream cooking shows, thousands of cookbooks released every year, and even more websites devoted to food, a part of me says it is happening.

And yet McDonald’s still posted a rise in sales last quarter in U.S. restaurants…

What are your thoughts? Do you think the middle class cook is disappearing or just starting to grow?

11 comments on “The Middle Class Cook

  1. Thanks for the comments!

    @Kar I read the brooks article yesterday, but the article on the biggest loser is very interesting. "Almost any kind of cooking you can produce in a kitchen is healthier than fast food." Couldn't agree more.

    @Mike I think you are definitely right about how people pick a relationship with cooking and stick with it. The question is how do we convince people to change that relationship???

  2. I believe that the middle class cook is starting to grow, but it is still in need of help and a push. My decision is based on watching my grown children struggle with the decision to order take out or cook something at home. Cooking at home requires a well thought out plan, organization and time. The fast food industry plays on saving time as well as having healthier than before items on the menu. The biggest test to this question is to maybe ask the children.

    I love that there are more and more produce stands popping up and that there are so many recipes available to choose from, but I came from a home that made everything from scratch. And I Love to cook.

    The changes are that my grandchildren love homemade macaroni and cheese over KD. This is minor but a start.

  3. Love it! I think that this is a timely conversation given our economy and the health of our nation. I am not sure that cooking at home will solve all of our countries problems but it couldn’t hurt.

    What’s funny is that I thought you were going to be writing about these two NYT articles the first by Brooks who wrote yesterday that, “Dazzling personal consumption is out. Middle-class drabness is in” and a second article which ran this morning about the tv show which explains that “contestants climb a steep and brutal learning curve in the kitchen, since they have to do all their own cooking.” This said, I think that you’ve really hit on something and I hope to see more and more of this conversation over the next few years.

    I also hope that more men pick up a pan and turn on the stove–cooking isn’t just “women’s work” as you’ve been proving post after post.

  4. Interesting article. I think the disparity between the cooking have’s and have not’ is growing and oddly enough both groups are increasing in size. Maybe it’s just when people are in their twenties they make the decision on what kind of cook they will be (lower, middle or upper) but I feel most people I know either spend time in the kitchen or always eat take out.
    Just basing this on my own anecdotal evidence but I think the so called “Upper Crust” is a niche and the “Middle Class Cook” b/c of cable TV and the internet is skewing towards that niche.

  5. Nick:

    Dating someone interested in cooking probably pushed me into it so sex seems to work. Good luck on that!

  6. I totally agree that this is a really important conversation to be having right now. There was an article in the Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/dining/04loser.html) this morning with some interesting statistics that seem to indicate we are heading toward greater skill disparity. The story mentions a pilot program to fight obesity in Britain that requires school children to learn basic cooking skills.

  7. Hey what a swell topic!

    Ok, first off, though I am among the few and the not so proud that do admit to (kind-of) liking Rachel Ray, I will be the first to say that she is not an upper crust type chef. She does, however, live in NY and works for FoodNetwork, both of which supply her with insanely enviable resources and supplies with which to easily become an upper crust chef. I am at a loss as to why she hasn’t pursued any professional training, and has focused mainly on expanding the RR empire- anyone, no matter how well off, can always stand to know a bit more. And who doesn’t love learning new things?

    I am 23. I live in Birmingham, Alabama with my boyfriend and a cat who has a bad attitude. And let me tell you- if it weren’t for the fact that there is a Whole Foods here, I wouldn’t even be able to purchase decent parmigianno reggiano. Food blogs make me jealous everyday- all these awesome cities to live in for the culinarily inclined- Here, with 15 Wal-Marts and a Piggly Wiggly to choose from, I get frustrated sometimes, but despite this, and my lack of training, I consider myself a middle class cook.

    I cook almost everyday- and if we eat out, it is never at McDonalds. Can’t even remember the last time I had it. It is very odd to me, that in this economy, somehow the McDonald’s “value menu” actually makes people think that they’re saving money. Being able to cook is such an essential skill that so few even seem to desire, much less actually have. And no, I don’t buy most of my groceries at Whole Foods- that would negate the whole saving money thing- but if you shop smart- get the basics at a regular place, and go fancy on your cheeses, or organic meats, then your budget will remain static. For most who are used to eating out all the time, you realize that you’ve been spending twice or even quadruple what you could’ve been paying if you’d been cooking.

    I started cooking about two and a half years ago- and it was only because I decided I wanted to drop about that “freshman 15.” My parents were divorced when I was 11, and I haven’t seen my real mother since (long story), and my step mother cooked, but I never really included myself in the process, or was even interested for that matter. I went to college and lived off ramen and pizza for two years until I realized that all my pants didn’t fit anymore. Enter… Rachel Ray.

    So that is why I defend her so- to this day, I can only credit one person with all the culinary wisdom I have- and that’s her. I ran across 30 minute meals by sheer accident, and somehow, that annoying voice, and her lame code names for things pulled me in – and after watching a few, I thought- maybe I can do this. Everything I knew about cooking, when I first started, came from her. Slowly, my kitchen came together. When I first started I had 2 nonstick pans, one soup pot, a few spices, a spatula, and that was about it. I went through some type of transformation- within about a year, I considered myself a full blown cook. I’ve moved on from RR now; after all, there are so many things that can’t be cooked in 30 minutes, but it was her that turned me into what I am now.

    I said all that to say this- the cooking middle class is definitely not growing by leaps and bounds- I have so many friends who, albeit love what I cook, are in no way interested in knowing how to make it themselves, and I’ve gotten use to being asked for recipes, only to be told that they’ll have their mother/sister/spouse make it for them. I say Whatever. If I can do it- as deprived as I feel, here in southern squalor, then anyone can do it. But- seeing the growth of the food blog community has given me so much- dare I say- Hope. Cooking used to be all we had- there were no damn McDonalds around 100 years ago. The technological advance has brought us so many amazing and innovative things, but making convenient food less nutritionally sound and generally harmful to the human body is neither. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the human condition to favor convenience, than to seek out a challenge. But I do believe we, as a species, have conquered so much more difficult and demanding issues.

    Though we should be on guard, “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” (t.s. eliot, for those who don’t know, or copyright activists- you can never be too safe.)

    No great change will ever happen quickly, but I believe that the food blog community eventually will play a big part in increasing this middle class. Slow and steady- macheesmo- we must show the world the true peril of Not Cooking! And yes a cooking revival, in my opinion, is long overdue.

    And I chalk up most of my general pessimism about being surrounded by a bunch of non-cooking and some crappy-cooking folks (putting a frozen pizza in the oven is NOT cooking) to the fact that I live in the south, and there is simply not the same sheer concentration of people, nor the awesome urban community here that you might find in NY, DC, LA, or anywhere within a 50 mile radius of. Definitely not saying that the ratio of creative/intelligent/generally motivated is any different here- contrary to popular belief, here in the south we do wear shoes, there aren’t chickens running in and out of the house and we’re not all married to our cousins.

    Ok, now that I’ve written a response longer than the post itself, I’ll stop. Oh and yeah- social Darwinism will be in full effect when zombies run amok, cause cooking will be a deciding factor in who lives and who… gets eaten…BUM. BUM. BUM.

  8. I try to cook every day. What helps out a lot is eliminating the ‘easy’ foods. I never use a microwave, and limit hot dogs, ramen, or chicken patties. That kind of forces me to cook on the stove. I really enjoy cooking every day. I learn something all the time. Plus it gives me conversation fodder for my parents. I can pick their brains about what I did wrong on a certain recipe, etc.

    -Nate

  9. I think this is the best of times for everyone regarding cooking.

    The mediocre cooks, (which I aspire to be), learn a great deal from the more skilled cooks. The recent wave of food blogs, extraordinary food photography, very detailed cookbooks & cooking shows are so well timed. The realization that home cooked meals are so much more budget friendly & the availability of all the info to assist the home cook.. well, it’s a match made in heaven.

    Fast food burger & taco joints will always do well with the much younger crowd, especially since the current generation of youth don’t have the exposure to a lot of home cooking & skills. We are in transition from the both parents working/no time to cook families to the 1 or both parents being home & learning to stretch their budgets families. As difficult as that is for some people to make the adjustment out of necessity rather than choice, the lessons learned will bring us to a healthier lifestyle.

    I only wish that people receiving food stamp assistance were given instruction on how to stretch their food resources & make healthier choices. I know the cost of fresh fruit & vegetables everyday is out of reach for such a budget, but a little help learning to make & prepare better food choices would benefit the families on so many levels. Perhaps some of the food bloggers could reach out to the family services centers in their area & offer their time and resources in this area. I’m sure some of the publishers would donate appropriate cookbooks for such a cause. Get right on that, ok.(giggle).

    Thanks for asking & taking in our responses.

  10. Wow. Thanks everyone again for the fantastic comments.

    @Natalie. I definitely wasn’t intending to discredit Rachel Ray. Just asking a question. I think she does a great job at what you described: pulling people into cooking. I can only aspire to have the same affect on people.

    @Nate. That’s a good tip about eliminating the easy stuff. Sometimes when I’m in the market I’ll pick up something that i’ve never seen before and try to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes it ends in disaster, but it is always education.

    @Val. Food education is such an under discussed issue. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the tools to succeed. I may actually look into your suggestion as it is a very good one.

    Thanks for the great discussion everyone.

  11. oh hey- i didn’t realize i talked so much about her- i knew you weren’t trying to discredit her! I just really like the topic- plus sometimes i feel the need to explain why i like her so folks don’t get the idea that i’m some lame RR fan who doesn’t know anything about true culinary skillz. and plus- since no one else taught me as a child/young adult, i kind of like to give credit where credit’s due.

    i really like the discussion-al post though. i think you should make them a regular. i promise not to write a book next time! lol

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