Mary Beth Albright: The Value of Home Cooking

Our most primal urges, our most ecstatic moments, our basest hungers are programmed deep in human biology. Now they are also buried deep in our smartphones.

Between restaurant food photos, sustainable-seafood apps, and the Internet of Things—which automatically orders milk when you’re low—food today is irrevocably entwined with technology, and technology is both the greatest hope and the greatest challenge for good food’s future. Likewise, food is technology’s best opportunity to deliver authenticity, because no matter what technology promises, real food to please the palate must be the end product. In a high-tech age, one of our greatest hungers is for authenticity, and nothing is more authentic than what we eat in private moments.

Food porn—all those glossy, glazed, gooey photos enticing viewers to practically lick the screen—is aptly named. Like its lascivious counterpart, it raises expectations of what fundamentally human experiences should look like, even for amateurs trying to follow along at home, frame by frame. These higher (often unattainable) expectations drive the paradox of an explosion in food media with a decrease in actual cooking. Disappointment at not making food porn-quality food at home, combined with the disappointment that we actually have to chop our own carrots rather than finding them magically pre-chopped (as on a cooking show), drives us to cook less and alienates people from food.

Yet home cooking scrappily persists because, although it is an art, it’s a practical art, and everyone’s ancestors participated in it in some form. Food and cooking are in our genes. And we crave stories about food and cooking as much as our ancestors did when they communicated around fire pits. Even with the dearth of people who actually cook as a result of watching cooking shows, more people have cooked from food media than have painted from watching Bob Ross craft his “happy little trees.” Although I do love me some happy little trees.

But cooking is in danger of becoming a lost practical art as people are increasingly alienated from it. I didn’t learn to cook until I was in my 20s, quite deliberately, and I know that experiencing food insecurity in childhood affects appetites for the rest of your life. I care about food because I strive to transform a potential weakness into a great strength, and the “good food” movement can do the same with technology. My son is six years old, and he will grow up in a technologically advanced food world. I want the inevitable technology to shrink, rather than speed, alienation from food, so my writing will explore how to marry technology with the good food movement. Because the more we’re alienated from food, the more we’re alienated from who we truly are biologically.

And as we examine feeding a planet approaching nine billion, remember that each of us will experience, individually and personally, the strong convening power of food, and that the world is a better place when people are fed good food. Every week, my family gathers friends for Sunday suppers in our home, to slow down, blow off steam from the week, and fortify ourselves for the trials of the days ahead. It’s our modern fire pit. My son relies on and loves these gatherings, and I know they wouldn’t have the same power if they were, say, weekly volleyball games. Around the world, billions gather on Sundays or Saturdays or Fridays for a similar Sabbath meal.

I’m a food lawyer and no stranger to competition. But I know of no more competitive—or more generous—industry than food. When I get paid for legal work in whole pigs or crates of peaches (if you need some jam, let me know), I know that food is, beyond a meal, a product of someone’s life, a platform to tell stories of neighborhoods, citizens, culture, art, politics, science, and health. Technology can, and must, enhance that, and I hope you’ll be a part of this conversation with me.

Now you know something about me; I would love to know why you care about food.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.

Comments

Comments (1)

  1. jEAN | dELIGHTFULrEPAST.COM (May 12, 2014)

    Yes, food is many things “beyond a meal.” Your Sunday suppers are a fine tradition, one that will come to mean even more to your son over the years. Food is a way to forge bonds with friends and family, to keep our particular heritage(s) alive and to establish and carry on family traditions. The power of food, beyond its traditional value, cannot be overstated.

    As a food blogger, I contribute to the glut of “food porn” but hope to inspire, rather than discourage, home cooks. It is sad that a “cult” has arisen around food and that food snobbery is rampant. And, please, do not ever ask me about food trends! I have yet to figure out why anyone would care about which foods are “in” or “out.”