Rachel Laudan

No, Cooking Isn’t Easy. 6 Reasons Why

“So, why does it matter that recipes marketed as easy often aren’t? A few years ago, I would have interpreted it as a harmless pretense—maybe even a good deed—to nudge people with the lure of simplicity toward cooking for themselves. Now, pulled in a million directions by the demands of a young family, I’m not so sure. Despite the much-ballyhooed increase in men cooking, women still do the lion’s share of the food preparation in this country. And the weight of expectation imposed by our cooking culture, which offers unrealistically complex recipes while at the same time dismissing them as simple, can be crushing.”

Three, no a dozen, cheers for Elizabeth G. Dunn for publishing “‘Easy’ Cooking Isn’t Easy” in the Atlantic .  It’s not fast either, as she points out.

And to her excellent article, I’d like to add six reasons why home cooking is a hard, time-consuming, painfully-acquired set of skills.

  1. You have to negotiate the modern supermarket. The average supermarket carries nearly 39,000 different items. What other task is so likely to create decision fatigue? The only way to survive is to block out most of the information screaming at you?  And the average time in a supermarket is 43 minutes, the average number of visits per week 1.5.  Add in travel time and you are talking well over an hour a week hunting and gathering for your basic supplies. Oh, yes, now you can have grocery delivery, true, but have you tried negotiating the grocery delivery web sites? Sloooow, until they have your history stored. When they arrive, you may find that they have substituted decaf tea for caffeinated that keeps you going through the late afternoon slump, that  vacuum packed lamb has gone bad, and that the endives are past their best.
  2. When you get home and unpack all that stuff from your shopping bags, you have to store it safely and accessibly. It’s not obvious that potatoes and onions don’t store well together or that potatoes don’t do well in the fridge. These things have to be learned. Storage accounts for another half hour a week, plus more time to get out the ingredients when you start on a meal.
  3. Then you need an extensive range of skills for even the simplest meal. I’ve been cooking for years so I just throw salt into boiling water by the pinch or the handful. Same for pasta and rice. I know how to peel and chop. All skills. Half an hour a day if you are lucky. Just for the main meal.
  4. You also need to know the properties of your oven, microwave, and other kitchen apparatus. I remember when microwaves first came in. No one had a clue how long it took to heat a cup of water, or that you could melt chocolate but not cook a steak, or what to do about metal utensils.  All that took time to learn. So does knowing how long the oven takes to warm and what flame is good for sauteeing onions, and even whether you have to remove the plastic wrap before putting leftovers to warm up (no for the microwave, yes for the oven. Don’t laugh. I’ve had family members ask this is in all innocence). All this assumes you have an oven and microwave in working condition.
  5. A mental inventory of recipes so that you can use all your ingredients effectively, substitute for ingredients you have forgotten, adjust to the needs and preferences of those you are cooking for. In the past, it was roast on Sunday, cold meat on Monday, ground up roast on Tuesday, chops on Wednesday, fish on Friday and sausages on Saturday but standards have risen. I am aghast at the hours I have spent accumulating this repertoire.
  6. And to wrap it all up, you need to know what is worth saving, what should be thrown out, and how to clean up the kitchen. Another twenty or thirty minutes. Even if someone loads the dishwasher, there’s usually another someone (the woman) who has, shall we say, to curate the murky contents of the fridge.

Only a fool thinks cooking is either quick or easy. Only the most dedicated finds it a rewarding challenge day after day.

I reckon that after many decades cooking, it still takes me a minimum of eight hours a week, probably more like twelve to twenty.  That’s one and a half to two days of work.

My first thought on waking each morning is what do I have to do to get dinner started. So add in more time for planning.

OK, so circumstances mean I cook at home a lot.

Please, though, let’s give home cooks (usually women) the honor they deserve.

And, give serious thought to the consequences.

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30 thoughts on “No, Cooking Isn’t Easy. 6 Reasons Why

  1. C. M. Mayo

    Hola Rachael,

    Yes! My personal Blazing Revelation of the Obvious for 2017 has been the crucial importance of a deep, very deep, and well-organized pantry. Until this year I had not kept a proper pantry– it was more, la-de-da, whatever struck my fancy and happened to fit in the cabinet (and God knows what was in the back there…). This year, with new and expanded kitchen cabinets, I got the pantry organized by category and am storing many items (pasta, rice, dried fruit, nuts, etc) not in lumpy-odd bags but in clear glass jars, and I have been keeping it stocked, and, above all (the glass jars and labels help), maintaining the organization. What an ocean of difference this makes! It has not only made cooking much easier, but it also makes shopping easier. (Plus I started using an Instant Pot, but that’s another story.) Your point is an excellent one, that cooking is not just about knowing fancy recipes, but something that requires multiple and not always easy-to-acquire skills– and those skills are, indeed, valuable. I am still trudging my way up the learning curve, but at this point, it seems to me that many of the most important cooking skills are simply organizational (managing the pantry, shopping efficiently, keeping any needed recipes handy, and ye olde mis-en-place). Thanks for blogging, your posts always get me thinking.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, a well organized pantry with items that match what you cook helps. But you hint at one other thing I forgot to mention. Being always on top of it and organized!

  2. Jonathan Katz

    I love this article! This really hits on a lot of points that I’ve made to people recently – that gaining a repertoire takes so much time and energy and mistakes. I’m 26, and I’ve easily spent thousands of hours already in the kitchen (I started cooking at 11) – much of it building up a repertoire.

  3. George Gale

    As you quite correctly note, Rachel, cooking requires that a very large, not to mention complex, skill set is required to appropriately take care of feeding the household. And you haven’t even *mentioned* BAKING, which is a whole nother skill set.
    I take care of the cooking here, and I starting to learn some elementary baking skills. It’s fun, but hard work–and sometimes the results aren’t worth eating. Oh well, I’ll win in the end! : )

  4. Linda Makris

    Rachel, This reminds me of my early days in Greece. It was from my In-laws [owners of a local taverna] that I learned the important distinction Greeks make between quickly prepared TIS ORAS [liteally of the moment] foods and MAGIREFTO FAGITO, literally “cooked food” which takes hours of preparation. In the Athens of the late 1960s most housewives didn’t work and would spend the entire morning preparing just one dish for the main mid-day meal. Only that was considered “cooking” as I learned when my mother in law would ask me what I’d cooked for my husband. When I replied steak or chops, salad, potatoes, steamed or boiled veg or whatever, she’d say, “Oh, you didn’t cook today.” After several rounds of this I thought either I’d misunderstood her or that my Greek was so bad she hadn’t understood me. Naturally I was more than a little upset. I thought my efforts at cooking were fine and my husband sure wasn’t complaining. Finally I asked him why his mother kept insisting that I wasn’t cooking. As it turned out, she was merely referring to the fact that my meals were TIS ORAS rather than one of the time-consuming Greek MAGIREFTO dishes. Only when I learned first hand what was involved in preparing a traditional Greek dish did I come to appreciate the real meaning of the verb “to cook”!
    As they say, “The Greeks have a word for it.”

  5. Amanda

    An excellent summary of just how much work and accrued knowledge is involved in cooking – and it’s made me tired just thinking of it. As mentioned above, baking is a whole other skill-set, as is gaining the confidence to use our many labour-saving devices efficiently (then cleaning them up after wards). Don’t forget the extra labour and consideration that goes into feeding infants and small children, while also ensuring a decent/interesting meal is on the table for adults.
    And don’t get me started on my huge and hugely out of control pantry.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Ah yes, children. And invalids. We tend to forget that now but it still very necessary.

  6. Crazy Chef

    All skills are hard.

    As a baby you’re not exactly born knowing mathematics, literature, or playing tennis. Every single skill in life is learned. And they’re all hard (some obviously harder than others and also some people have more aptitude for one over the other.)

    There seem to be several entirely unrelated concepts here:

    [1] Women bear most of the burden of cooking – sociological problem.

    [2] Eating is literally the only thing that humans need to do daily – objective fact of life.

    [3] People may or may not have an aptitude for cooking.

    Let’s not conflate the issues.

    Also, you expect marketing (“anybody can cook”) to tell you the truth? Who’s being naive now?!?

    The article is beyond absurd. Massaman curry? Panzanella? Beef barbacoa tacos?

    Now you’re just conflating “keeping up with the Joneses” with your non-existent cooking skills.

    (Two out of those three are using “leftovers” to further stretch a budget and they are totally “fast and furious” but you probably haven’t figured that one out!)

    You could just feed your kids bread, water, and cheese daily and they’ll still be fine. They may be bored to death but they won’t die. Calories are calories.

    Logic is hard, Barbie!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, Anthony, there are several factors that come together here so I would not say that they are unrelated. And if you don’t think that the current foodie media put pressure on whoever it is in the household, I think you are kidding yourself.

  7. scribo

    I agree, cooking is not easy! Then, why? For more than forty years now, I have been cooking dinner, and, to my surprise, all these years we have had food on the table each day at dinner time. How come?
    I think it is the challange that drives me; the optimal taste, the harmony of sweet, sour, beetter, salt, and so on … And the quality of the produce is more and more important to me, the way animals are treated, for ex, and it is a challange to find good quality groceries, that takes time.

  8. Cynthia Bertelsen

    Very astute piece, Rachel. I’d like to add that here, and elsewhere in the developed (for the lack of better word), shoppers buy ingredients already packaged – such as meat, ready-to-eat produce already washed (and if washing is necessary, then tap water usually suffices), etc., etc. Canned, jarred, and prepped goods abound. A pantry doesn’t have to be created with homemade stuff – it’s entirely possible to stock a magnificent pantry entirely from supermarket shelves, etc., etc. When I lived in various places, then called undeveloped countries, supermarkets did not exist, except perhaps in the larger cities in Morocco. So shopping happened on the street, in either formal or informal markets. I did the shopping because I wanted the right stuff and that was the only way to get it. It took about 2 hours, 2 or 3 times a week, less when I worked at consulting or other gigs, to get through the necessary haggling and posturing and carting big baskets back to my car. The trip home took on average 30 minutes. Unpacking everything, soaking fresh fruits and vegetables in a bleach solution to kill parasites and bacteria, cutting up meat/chickens into serving pieces, drying the soaked produce, packaging the cut-up meat and chickens, all this took hours. By the time I turned to the stove on market day – and I did all the cooking, too, even though I didn’t have to because I had household help, most of whom couldn’t cook very well, even though I tried sometimes to teach them – believe me, I did not feel like channeling Julia Child.

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  10. robyneckhardt

    I would suggest that there are some who have more of an aptitude for it than others …. just like any other creative endeavor. I don’t recall struggling with my first attempts at cooking (no my mother didn’t teach me at home, she never let me in the kitchen), or with negotiating grocery store aisles, or just picking up the skills required to throw together a meal. Which is not to say others don’t.
    I really do view it as learning a language, learning to paint, learning to do gymnastics, etc. There are just some skills that can only be learned to a certain degree, and people have varying aptitudes for learning or not.
    And then there is the matter of — does one enjoy it? If not, of course it is all harder.
    None of which is to counter your argument that Cooking is Hard. Yes, it is. But for some of us it came/comes so much easier than for others.
    We can all learn to drive. Some of us will never drive well, nor will we be relaxed behind the wheel. Some of us will never find driving to be easy.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Agreed. And I rather doubt that many in the past enjoyed it. It was just another of life’s chores. I think the idea that it is a fulfilling creative act is of recent vintage.

  11. Peter Hertzmann

    I feel that a word is missing from your title. Either “No, [___] Cooking Isn’t Easy…” or “No, Cooking [___] Isn’t Easy…” The word before “Cooking” being something like “great” or “good” and the word after being something like “well”. Cooking is actually quite easy, but good cooking is harder.

    As a culinary teacher of people who start winless than zero knowledge of the subject, I can tell you that people can be up and cooking very quickly. Their product may not be very good but it is edible. Good or bad, people have been cooking for millennia with minimum training.

    As a separate discussion, I’m happy to argue how modern recipes, starting in the 1990s, made cooking more difficult for beginning cooks who didn’t have the hands-on guidance of an experienced teacher.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Peter, yes, obviously most people throughout history have managed to feed themselves and that means a fair number of them have cooked. I think, in retrospect, I should have called this “kitchen management is not easy.” It’s not getting a single meal on the table that’s the challenge, it’s the doing of it day after day. And many of the traditional skills and constraints that governed that have disappeared.

  12. ganna ise

    Great Minds Think Alike. Recently I ran into a book from my childhood where a young boy imagines grand adventures and experiences the greatest of them all as he helps his disabled neighbor to boil potatoes (lots of Murphys law).

    I remember several books from my formative years describing girls barely in their teens suddenly having to become homemakers. Imagine, your Mom just died, your Pa and your little brother are hungry and expect you as the woman of the house to feed them, you are about 11 yrs old and armed with a cookbook written for experts, and microwaves, takeout orders, frozen fries, TV dinners, all that foolproof stuff is still waiting to be invented. (And dear Pa wants his dinner but would rather die than peel a potato because he probably fears his male parts would fall off while cooking.)

    However I loved these books. There were no brave Young Pioneers chasing Nazis and Capitalist Spies (blaaaah), no brave Soviet soldiers fighting the Sacred War (yuck!), these books were about real life. And I thought the girls braver than any Communist heroes.

    We do have it much easier now. You could feed your little brother, and probably your Pa too, on canned soups and fries with frankfurters and ketchup for a year before they notice something is amiss.

    Sadly, though, most cookbooks released here recently feature Mediterranean cuisine. ‘Grab some oranges from your garden’ sounds fine until you realize you live in the equivalent of Minnesota. Or there is the Scandinavian Chic, wild boar pate with baked beetroot mousse, and no home cook with any sense would attempt it after a day at work. So yes, cooking has become easier (yay, we have running water and electricity !) but glamorous cooking has not, and will not.

    And what is the point of producing a fake brabblerie a la bourlabah, overcooked, undercooked, substituted to ignominous death when we can make some fine oldfashioned roast with taters and sauerkraut. Or make up a recipe all by yourself and give it a good name. ‘Poor pig drowned in the Red Sea’, anyone?

    BTW some people cannot be taught to drive. They should not drive. Some of them would not drive. People with serious sight impairment, for instance, or with a hard case of ADD, or with anger management issues. So I suppose some people will have to starve, find someone to feed them, or learn to love cheap ramen.

  13. Crazy Chef

    I have quite a few comments to make – in spite of my snooty response above, I’m the perennial optimist.

    The kitchen is closer to running an army.

    And as Napoleon once observed, “an army marches on its stomach.”

    (I’ll give my credentials reasonably anonymously. I routinely work long hours in an insane industry in craziest city of them all – New York – and I still make a “proper” dinner every single day and I’m a man. I don’t have kids which does change the dynamic somewhat but I talk about kids below. I will freely grant you that I have both the aptitude and the passion for the subject – clearly seen from my moniker – but even people like me get bored of doing the dirty deed daily!)

    It requires organization.

    I’ll split it out into three categories – shopping, repertoire, delegation.

    [1] The pantry – correctly observed – it has to fit exactly what you need. Mine has Italian, French, Indian, Thai, Japanese. That’s what I cook.

    [2] A vast repertoire – sorry, as Euler once explained to Princess Friedericke Charlotte, “There’s no royal road to geometry” – and there’s “no royal road to cooking” either!

    [3] The classical mistake made by most amateurs – you don’t actually buy a bunch of stuff and then figure out what to do with it. You actually see what you have and buy “complementary” stuff which will enhance and propagate what you already have. In short, you keep buying “more”. It’s very counter-intuitive but it actually causes minimal wastage.

    [4] This actually extends to produce – just buy seasonal but you can’t do that if you don’t have the repertoire. Seasonal ironically means dirt-cheap. It’s actually not that hard to produce Michelin-star quality meals on less than McD’s prices after a long-day’s work if you know what you are doing.

    [5] Leftovers – this is a skill in and of itself. Very little goes to waste in my kitchen but it takes an almost steely cold-blooded level of organization and knowledge of repertoire to get there. (Very long topic here!)

    [6] Delegation – my partner or dinner-party companions know to expect, “Pick up some parsley” (or cilantro or cucumbers or a “dry Alsacian Riesling” or whatever.) Delegate away – “fill the pot with water and add salt to it.” They will live with it in exchange for an excellent meal. You don’t have to run it alone. You’re the head of the army and they are the soldiers. Be very clear about it. (This applies to kids specifically! – want home-made French-fries? Start scrubbing the potatoes and peeling them!)

    My great-grandma started us early. You want to know the way to a boy’s heart?!? Give them access to either a knife or a mortar and pestle. There’s nothing most boys love more than access to a cutting tool or pounding the crap out of something. Fun times! Except even I can see now that great-grandma was rather sneaky. ;-)

    [7] Cleaning comes under delegation too. Stack the goddamned dishwasher if you want a meal of that stature. Unload it too tomorrow morning. That goes for the kids too. Delegation!

    [8] Shopping comes under delegation too. If I know that my partner or friend is going to a certain place, I give them the list – text them these days – ask them to pick up stuff, and pay them the money later. Sorry, that’s just the price to be paid to have killer meals on a routine basis. Utter shamelessness is your best friend. (They never complain. They just get used to it just like kids. You gotta train the animals!)

    If you’re not as tightly-wound and organized, the only way to get there is to accept a certain level of financial “wastage” in the system. Pick your number – are you willing to waste 10%? 20%? 30%?

    What’s your number? Just accept it and move on with your life.

    I may or may not be writing a book on this very subject. ;-)

    It’s not all gloom and doom. Cheers!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      No, of course it’s not all doom and gloom.And I too manage to turn out very nice meals on a daily basis plus coping with eating restrictions that my husband has. And so do many people I know. Your comment, though, just confirms my original point: cooking involves more than just wandering into the kitchen and standing facing the stove.

      1. Crazy Chef

        My friends are perennially amazed how hard their kids work in my kitchen.

        I even have the entirely idiotic name of “Mr. Commander Boss-Man” given to me by my nephew which has caught on with the kids.

        I treat them like adults and they absolutely peel my cucumbers, pick my cilantro, and wash my potatoes.

        Mr. Commander Boss-Man seems to have no problem in getting the kids (+adults) to get the work done and they get their Michelin-star quality meals in return.

        Oh, and it’s more precise and stranger than that. My friends are always like, “Why will my kid happily eat prawns in your house and not touch them in mine?”

        And I’m always like, “That’s because I don’t coddle them. They eat what the table is eating and I don’t force them. Plus, I don’t overcook them like you.” ;-)

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          I am always fascinated by the ways people run their kitchens. It seems that you do import and adapt the professional kitchen model.

    2. ganna ise

      You are right. My children have been recruited ever since they could crawl after a runaway potato, so now I have young cooks confident and comfortable in the kitchen. Dear husband was not paying attention to what he ate when we first met, now he is suggesting dishes, shopping like a pro, obeying my orders at the stove, and beginning to know what to do based on how it smells. And we all think cooking together is fun.

      So I can yet sit alone in my kitchen, wrestling with some ungainly onions, singing The Internationale transposed to minor through tears and snot (there are never enough tissues) but most of the time it is fun. Good planning, and fun.

    1. Crazy Chef

      Like, DUH!!!

      I’ll say it again – DUH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Isn’t that the whole point of academia? Isn’t that like their job? To tease apart these subtle threads?

      Jeebus!

      1. Rachel Laudan Post author

        Anthony, I think the fact that the piece caused quite a stir when it first came out speaks to the fact that this needed saying. The mythology of the home cook is hard to dislodge.


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