The Digest

The Myth of Easy Cooking & Other News

15th October 2017

Words: James Hansen

Also in this week’s food writing round-up: finding refuge at a California watering hole, a forgotten TV chef and a cultural history of restaurants

Elizabeth G. Dunn traces the history, mythology and bad faith of “easy cooking” at The Atlantic. Referring not to cooking that is easy but to the cookbook industry promising simplicity in exchange for money, Dunn investigates the coincidence of America’s growing cooking culture with the promise of easy mealtimes. As food culture takes off, easy cooking can’t keep up; more chefs than cooks are writing the books – suddenly a “speedy salad” takes half an hour. Cooking from scratch is at times a privilege difficult to access and an ethical yardstick impossible to measure up to – the cultural capital of cooking fresh can come at a price too high for many, and is in need of reevaluation.

In homage to Marina O’Loughlin, who makes the move from The Guardian to The Sunday Times this week, a dive back into one of her stinkers: Paesan, London. Selected not for its usual scalpel-edged put-downs – “as compacted and dun-coloured as Findus’s finest” – nor its lacerating conclusion – “As one paesan to another, I’d like to say, do please vaffanculo” – O’Loughlin’s paean to Paesan’s cynical failure is here for its kindness. If the role of a restaurant critic encompasses a moral duty to praise those who produce something genuine and delicious and skewer the inhospitable, pretentious pretenders of this world, then this rejection of fawning over trends is just one indication of her dedication to the cause.

Trisha Thadani and John King write on an unremarkable bar in Mendocino County, California for SFGate. “On a typical evening, McCarty’s Bar in this small community north of Ukiah could be doing anything from serving a handful of regular customers to hosting a reggae concert or ’80s night. But on Thursday, the watering hole served another function: informal evacuation center for people displaced by the Mendocino County fires, with donations pouring in from locals.” The bar is fundamentally a place of hospitality – drinking hole, eatery and gathering place all at once – and Thadani and King are alive to how this changes, but also stays the same, when disaster strikes. “It felt like any other evening, with plenty of chatter and good spirits. The difference was the aluminum cartons of food donated from local restaurants and the donated clothes piled atop the pool table.”

Laurie Taylor explores the cultural and social meaning of restaurants over time for Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4. Joined by critic and columnist Giles Coren and author Christoph Ribbat, the trio trace restaurants’ journey from Paris to London, and their “complicated places” – “a German waiter explaining a French menu to English guests” around 1900. Ribbat responds to the notion of guides to eating out, while Coren reflects on writing about food without writing about food at all. Stay for Dr Jessica Paddock’s fascinating ethnography of the farmers’ market.

Mayukh Sen remembers America’s Forgotten Television ChefJoyce Chen, for Food52. Sen looks back at her 1960s TV show, Joyce Chen Cooks, designed to present her native Chinese cuisine to America’s home cooks. While inflating duck skin with a bike bump for crispness (way ahead of its vogue with young white chefs today) and having to dub chiao-tzu dumplings “Peking Ravioli” to make them palatable to her viewers, Chen’s legacy is at once essential and diminished – in step with the instructional genre that made Julia Child famous, but two steps behind due to America’s all-too ubiquitous media biases: “There is then the unavoidable fact that Joyce was a foreigner with a heavy accent. Child was not.” Episodes have since been digitised to view online today, as a stamp collection putting her alongside James Beard and Child circulates. With Chen more visible than ever before, it remains vital to remember why it took so long.

Image: Carl Kleiner / Agent Bauer / Forsman & Bodenfors

Posted 15th October 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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