Leave it to the professionals

"Americans are being taught we’re too stupid to cook and it’s simply not true." This comes from Michael Ruhlman, a food writer, as he despairs over the dominance of cookbooks offering "30-minute meals" and other shortcuts. It's a provocative statement; what I think he means is that going out to eat or--especially--watching the Food Network presents an unattainably high standard for home cooking, and people are too intimidated to try. Seen from another angle, the seduction is that we're too busy to cook; after a long workday, nobody wants to spend (gasp) 45 minutes going from raw to hot.

Ruhlman wants us to be a little brave and creative, but Michael Pollan, seen on The Daily Show last night, wants us to just be healthy with his Food Rules. The idea here is "Eat food. Not edible food-like substances." Food your grandparents would have recognized. Fast food is an engineered product designed, in exactly the same sense that a car is designed, to be addictive. Fire up Netflix and see Fast Food Nation for a finely honed illustration of what Pollan wants us to avoid.

I think Pollan doesn't go as far as Ruhlman. Pollan wants to coax us back from the edge of a health care crisis; Ruhlman seems more concerned with our sense of power and engagement. Gaze in awe and wonder at Mario Batali's lobster crepe, or even a lobster from your local seafood restaurant, and it's easy to think it's beyond you. Leave it to the professionals.

I'll draw a parallel here (again) with the music industry. People don't much play pianos in their houses anymore. We're surrounded by examples of professional--engineered--piano playing making us feel too self-conscious to put our lowly hands to the keys. Leave it to the professionals. Stay away from the karaoke mic unless you really are Shakira.

I started cooking in college, when I left the dorm meal plan. I had five things I could cook, and at least three of them were awful. You don't know how many stir-fries I made with a quarter inch of oil in the bottom before I got it right. But it didn't take too much skin off my ass, it was healthy and frugal, and now I can make a passable risotto.

Somehow, the wonderful ubiquity of art and passion and craftsmanship offered up to our eyes by this modern age is corroding our willingness to do for ourselves. I don't know what the answer is - but I'm willing to write, even though every day I'm privileged to read writing far better than mine.