What’s So Elitist About Cooking From Scratch?

I’ve updated my sidebar to include some more good cooking and humor blogs — the previous list had some excellent resources for activism and sources, but not as much for inspiration. One of my favorites is Shauna James Ahern’s Gluten-Free Girl, and not just because I went to college with Shauna and have fond memories of playing casual tennis with her (I played very badly, but was at least enthusiastic).

After years of being ill, and growing increasingly desperate with her condition, Shauna was diagnosed with celiac disease, or gluten intolerance. Most people hearing a diagnosis of a food allergy or intolerance might react with impatience or fear; “What am I going to eat now?” is one of the first questions to come to mind. And that’s a fair question for someone who has to eliminate gluten from her diet, since it is found in a huge number of processed foods, and is a linchpin of culinary standards such as bread, pasta, pastry, and sauces. But Shauna’s approach was not to mourn the things she could no longer eat, but to focus on the things that she can eat — to find out every last one of them and celebrate them.

This is no small number of food offerings. Fruits, vegetables, a large number of dairy products, grains such as quinoa and rice and barley, meat, eggs, poultry, fish — those are vast categories. You’ll notice that they are mostly whole foods. You can find processed foods that are free of gluten. But you have to be very diligent about reading labels, not just to find small amounts of hidden ingredients but also to know if the processor uses the same equipment to handle foods with gluten; the cross-contamination can make a sufferer sick. So Shauna has not just learned how to cook healthful, delicious food from scratch; she has made it a mission to teach others how they can do the same. Of course her primary concern is teaching people how to eat gluten-free, but her guidance can benefit anyone who wants to learn more about cooking with whole foods. She has a book out and a second one on the way, and her blog offers excellent advice and tips.

And of course since blogs are what they are, it’s her blog that has attracted the inevitable commenters who charge her with elitism. She points as I did to Mark Bittman’s “Minimalist” column from last week, of recommendations about building a better pantry. Shauna notes with surprise that several responders called him out of touch, elitist, and condescending — comments she has also seen on her own work. “Why are we snobs if we want to cook the way our grandmothers did?” Shauna asks.

I wonder that myself. To be sure, the majority of the responses to Bittman’s column (253 last I checked) were thoughtful and engaging; people offered sound arguments for the use of canned beans, debated the merits of different varieties of tomato paste, and cautioned him never to boil miso (boiling destroys the paste’s unique microorganisms, and its flavor). But some people were angry and defensive.

One poster writes, “Why does it always seem to me that writers of these articles don’t live in the real world? Sure, I’d love to simmer vegetables for half an hour to make a stock, but then my family (two working parents, two kids in school) would wait an additional 30 minutes. As for dried beans, what happens if I forget to soak them overnight or while I’m at work? Oops. No chili tonight.” Of course, there are lots of people who argue that you don’t really have to soak dried beans, but I think the more important point is that Bittman is not saying that you have to do every from-scratch step on a weeknight. “Cook a pound once a week and you’ll always have them around (you can freeze small amounts in their cooking liquid, or water, indefinitely),” he says, which even a careless reader should not be able to interpret as “you may only cook your beans from scratch even on a weeknight.” And of course anyone can forget to thaw the ingredient for a particular night’s planned dinner; having a variety of pantry staples on hand makes it easier to come up with a plan B rather than just cussing and ordering pizza.

Another respondent says, “For those of us with small children and smaller budgets, this list fairly oozes elitism. As a divorced mom of two, I would love to buy lemons, fresh parsley and renew my spices every year — and when I win the lottery, I’ll get on that. These aren’t practical suggestions. In some cases — eggs, oatmeal — good food can be cheap. But in almost every other case it’s out of the reach of regular people.” I don’t know where she’s buying lemons and parsley; at my overpriced neighborhood grocery store, lemons are usually 2 or 3 for a dollar — in the coldest months they might peak at $1 each —  and parsley tends to peak at $1.50 a bunch. That doesn’t seem like “win the lottery” pricing to me. As for spices, it’s true that if she buys lots of the little glass bottles at the grocery store she’d have to spend a small fortune to turn over her spice collection, but that’s a bit like stocking up on milk for a family of four by buying half-pint cartons. A far better option is to order spices in bulk online (good sources include Atlantic Spice, Penzeys and Frontier); Shauna notes that her family’s latest restocking run to Market Spice in Seattle set them back a whopping $22 for enough spices to cook for their family of three AND test new recipes for a cookbook in the works.

One particularly irritable commenter says, “I have started thinking of Mark Bittman more as the ‘Fascist’ than the Minimalist. His ways are right and if you don’t do it his way, you’re just not with it. Sorry, Mark, this is a great list if you’re a single guy who cooks for a living and has the funds and time to do it all. But for those of us with families, those of us on a budget, and those of us with little time most of the time to cook, you’re dissing all the things that make it possible for REAL people to cook good homemade meals. Which is what I do just about every night when I come home from work and my husband and 2 girls want dinner on the table!” Testy, are we? I can’t help wondering, if this poster is so virulent in rejecting fresh parsley, dried beans and genuine grains in her cooking, what exactly is her “homemade” cooking like? Because if it relies on mixes and boxes, I’m sorry, that isn’t homemade.

Also, why do so many readers seem not to grasp the distinction between suggestions and orders? Or to consider that they can adapt these ideas to their own situation? One poster takes snarling exception to Bittman’s recommendation to buy six lemons a week, noting that four would be bad by week’s end. Um, there are two easy ways around that: Either buy fewer lemons if you don’t actually need six, or store them in the fridge. (Seriously, I have a pretty inadequate fridge and I’ve never had an uncut lemon develop mold in under a week. Which is not to say I’ve never neglected a lemon to the point that it did grow fuzz—but that’s another matter entirely.) And to be clear: Bittman doesn’t say “You have to buy six lemons a week”; he says, “Try buying six at a time, then experiment; I never put lemon on something and regret it.” Big difference.

Again, most of the responses to the column were more thoughtful, though none quite so perfectly echoing my thoughts as this one: “For the record, in the time it took me to read over 200 comments on ‘The Rising Cost of Citrus,’ ‘My Love Affair with Beans in a Can,’ or ‘Elitism v. Convenience in the Kitchen,’ I could have planned a week’s worth of meals, drafted a grocery list, checked my bank balance to make sure I could swing an extra lemon, tracked down and/or ordered hard-to-find ingredients on-line (if necessary) and buckled down and finished my work project so I could leave by 5:30 and hit the grocery store. If I hadn’t taken the time to post, I probably could have whipped up something quick for dinner, too. We’re not rich, nor do I have oodles of extra time, and I’m not cooking for four, but last night we had a nice homemade pizza, and tonight we’re having the meatballs & sauce I pre-made over the weekend. Good times. It’s not that you don’t have time. It’s that you choose to spend your time differently.”

And one last thought on elitism. Who is more elite: a family farmer working 16-hour days and driving three hours round trip three days a week to sell his produce at a city greenmarket, or a corporate vice president of marketing for a processed-food conglomerate? What and whom are you supporting with your choices?

6 Responses to “What’s So Elitist About Cooking From Scratch?”

  1. Sally says:

    I have to say that I find Bittman’s tone a little snotty, and I suspect that’s what most people are reacting to here. He strikes me as having a tendency to suggest that his way is the *only* way, and anyone not making the same choices is somehow lacking.

    On the other hand, Shauna is not remotely elitist, she’s all about inclusion and figuring out what works for *you*. My guess is that someone who gets all snitty about Gluten Free Girl is really projecting their own dislike of cooking. And while I can identify with that, being a recent convert to the cook at home school of thought, I’m also a big fan of owning your your own issues and not blaming someone else for your choices. Which is what it sounds like these commenters do.

  2. Samantha says:

    For me, the crockpot (I have three, and used to have four) has been a great way to get my pantry to work *for* me. In one of my crockbooks, the author wrote that she thinks of her crock as a little old lady who stays at home and cooks for her all day.

    I think pointing out, as Shauna does, “This is what works for me” is a good way to have a conversation and not a monologue. Sounds like “experience” or “research” and not “advice” or “orders.”

  3. Jenny Islander says:

    Reminds me of a story Carla Emory tells in her Encyclopedia of Country Living. Seems that back in the ’70s, her neighbors considered her some type of subversive because she baked her own bread . . .

    I cook from scratch because we have to watch our budget and I am not going to waste money on corn syrup solids that could have been spend on actual food. And I rarely spend more than half an hour standing in the kitchen.

  4. Lexica says:

    It’s odd to me to hear Bittman denounced as being fascist or some kind of One-True-Wayer. So many of his recipes fall into what I call “non-parametric cooking” (take a handful of this, a dollop of that, add as much of this other thing as you like, and cook until it’s done) — any time one of his columns like “101 easy summer meals” is published, the criticism is that there’s not enough detail in the directions!

    And most of his recipes include something along these lines (copied from the recent citrus salad recipe): “I like a squeeze of lime, but lemon is also fine; a pinch of cayenne or a sprinkling of black pepper is all right but not essential.” So, either lime or lemon is fine; cayenne or black pepper or even nothing at all is fine. How is this fascist and controlling?

    I suspect that part of what’s going on is defensiveness from people who do think they ought to be cooking from scratch but aren’t doing it; rather than consider what changes would be possible in their own lives to boost their scratch cooking, they instead lash out. For some people, “another option is possible” gets interpreted as “the way you are doing it is WRONG and you are a BAD PERSON”… when all that was actually said is “another option is possible”.

  5. mumimor says:

    When I was a student, I lived in a really poor neighbourhood. Really poor. All the apartments were tiny, two room homes, without baths and with a kitchen the size of a cupboard. No central heating. A lot of the residents were single mothers, often with several children in these cold, damp dumps. The women were working long hours when they weren’t on welfare. It wasn’t even romantic for a student.
    The corner store was owned by a Turkish immigrant, and he would give all these single moms credit towards the end of the month. But at some point, he decided to run a free cooking class, to teach these women how to live on a budget while using fresh and healthy products. He was seeing these families living from take-away the first ten days of each month, and then spagetti with ketchup bought on credit at his store for the rest.
    His principle was that everyone needs meat, vegetables, grain and fruit. But by following the seasons, buying oil, grain and beans in bulk, and cutting down on the beef (not omitting it), every one of “his” mothers were able to stick to budget, while providing nutritious food for their kids. Yes, it was more time-consuming than take-out. But the relief of being clear of debt and being good moms was worth it for them. (And they grew into a little community, helping each other outside of class). Elitist? nah….

  6. Catherine says:

    It is just a matter of right budgeting. You can eat delicious foods even a small amount of money.

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