I can sense when the question is on the tip of someone’s tongue. By now, the cocktails have turned watery. The tinkle of forks has softened. The conversation turns away from news, friends, or families, to cooking. “So Rachel, what do you and Adam like to cook?” I squirm, glance to the side and exhale a feeble response. “Oh you know, we like to experiment.” And then, with raining salt down over the zucchini pasta I’ve put in front of them, someone will inevitably pipe up: “Oh, I have some great homemade recipes for you to try.”
Growing up in the 80’s, homemade food in my household was a given, not a lifestyle choice or marketing ploy. It was a matter of economics. There was homemade spaghetti sauce, which my mother, a homemaker, would set to simmer all day long in the faded flowery crockpot. There was pumpkin pie, a buttery foundation cradling deceased Halloween decor that had been excavated, stewed, and frozen for future consumption. And then, of course, there were homemade cinnamon rolls, a Christmas morning special.
But for the most part, homemade, as a reality, was boring. At worst, it was embarrassing—especially on meatloaf sandwich days. So after reading a recent Modern Love column in the New York Times, a tale of healing and rediscovery in the kitchen, I couldn’t help but consider how our attitudes surrounding domesticity, and its current post-feminist, Etsy-fied flavor, have changed our appreciation and definition of what constitutes a home-cooked meal. Now it often seems that the self-congratulating term implies something much more special than day old meatloaf and flaccid green beans.
Homemade is the new organic. And while the idea is as old as time, the connotation it carries—one of quality, wholesome goodness, and intentionality—feels fresh in an age where time may be the biggest luxury. Homemade may be one of the last things you can't fully fake (unless you’re Sarah Jessica Parker in a rom-com).
The resurgence of the homemade movement could probably be traced to a variety of cultural movements from the last decade: Facebook and other social platforms that give an audience to our meals, the proliferation of lifestyle-oriented blogs, food prices that have largely remained stagnant in the U.S. up until now, the increasing popularity of food TV and the rise of the celebrity chef, you name it. Ultimately though, I believe the foodie movement, a faction of the “big lumpy tent” of a food movement (as Michael Pollan christened it), has had the biggest impact on the way we perceive a home-cooked meal. For as The Hartman Group, a consulting firm explains, "foodies at the core of food culture cook (really cook) from scratch ingredients…they embrace a kind of peasant-inspired simplicity of cooking for cooking's sake linked with food experiences… "
This fascination with doing things from scratch, breaking down recipes in order to rebuild them, has spawned recipe blogs and platforms, like foodgawker, that allow you to swipe and paw at drool-worthy recipes you can replicate at home. At least, that's the empowering message baked into recipes for homemade pretzels, almond milk you strain yourself, and tofu feta and herb dressing. Try these 5 easy steps. “Homemade frozen yogurt has never been easier.” How could you not make your own peanut butter? But the glamorization of a home-cooked meal has raised expectations.
Instead, we are exhorted to try our hand at braised salmon with a colorful side of greens, quinoa salad with a spicy tomato compote, or a warm kale salad with cinnamon roasted vegetables—recipes that demand a variety of tools, time, and money. Never mind that we are working longer hours and women are still responsible for making the majority of the meals in the home. We are inundated with recipes extolling the virtue of seasonal finds from the local farmer's market, or the health benefits native to exotic oils—good things in their own right. Except for when they leave us exhausted and bowled over by a sense of obligation. Or worse, caught up in a game of one-upsmanship. The domestic sphere endorsed by the Food Network and women’s glossies has always had an aspirational element, yet suddenly, the stakes feel a whole lot higher. And my de facto offering of Brie and a baguette to the potluck table feels a little paltry.
Home cooking has become warped by our fixation on doing it all and having it all—even in the kitchen. The impetus to project confidence and domestic prowess has overtaken the reality of living a homemade life. And a diversity of voices are drowned out by gourmet food blogs. Do you cook for your family in order to save money and offer up a more nutritious meal? Good for you. Do you find it therapeutic to dedicate an afternoon to pureeing your own homemade soups? Get to it. Or do you embrace a go with semi-homemade rather than “from scratch,” so that you have time to watch the season premiere of The Walking Dead before heading to bed? There's a seat at the table for you as well.
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