"What's for dinner?"
Whether in-person, by midday email or a 3pm text, it is the question of our times. We ask or are asked it every day and often we struggle to answer.
Many of us see cooking as a chore. For some it's a hobby. For others it's an expression of love. For others still, a means to an end.
Depending on the day, cooking can be any of these things to any of us, but too few of us see cooking for what it really is – the everyday practice of life. Cooking is an ordinary and necessary part of living that doesn't need to be fetishised any more than breathing, nor feared more than taking a shower.
One thing this pandemic has done for our home cooking is expose how our understanding of cooking is out of sync with how we live. We're cooking more than ever, but the dishes we make and the foods we choose to eat aren't well designed for it. A couple of months in and many of us are getting sick of cooking, and it's entirely understandable.
Even bolognese – our saviour in isolation – is a dish that takes a dozen ingredients and a couple of hours to make properly. Even in big batches it's not a dish that was ever intended for everyday cooking but to us it's our baseline. We've lost sight of cooking and eating simply, and it's a problem that started long ago.
In the early 20th century, developments in technology allowed food to be prepared and preserved in new ways, on an industrial scale. Much of this innovation took place in the USA, and it became a world-leader in the new industry of processed food.
Fuelled by government subsidies in electorally strategic US states, local farms and diversified ecosystems gave way to factory-farmed monoculture. But now instead of eating corn as corn and soybeans and soybeans, those plants were able to be turned into sugars and fats and assembled into foods that barely resembled their sources.
These new foods needed a selling point and at the top of the list was convenience. Of course, to make the proposition of convenience more compelling we had to be convinced that the traditional ways of cooking were too hard.
Like an infomercial for a retractable extension cord that begins with some gormless idiot nearly strangling himself with a normal extension cord, the central premise of convenience foods was that cooking normally was an impossible task. In an increasingly busy society where we all feel time-poor, it was a powerful message.
Soon consumers were stuffing themselves full of foods crammed with sugars, fats and preservatives in volumes unheard of in human history. Did our lives get any better for it?
Despite how this may sound, I don't intend this as an assault on processed food. I love a packet of chips and an ice-cream as much as the next person. I adore cheese of every slice. I'll happily sprinkle MSG into a dish (don't start) and I had SPAM for dinner just last week. Treats and snacks have always been part of life.
Adam Liaw's Economy fried noodles with SPAM (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
My point about processed food is just to illustrate how our relationship with food changed without us even realising it.
We all think we don't have time to cook, but is that really true? We're a nation that can watch two-hour episodes of MasterChef every night but can't spend a few minutes to actually make dinner.
I find it hard to imagine that a homemaker at the turn of last century – with no washing machine, no dishwasher, no electricity at home and perhaps five kids running around – had more free time to cook than we do today.
You can't blame this on gender equality either. More women are in the workforce, but our collective experience during this pandemic should put paid to the idea that stay-at-home parents are just swanning around watching daytime television.
The problem is we've been sold the lie that cooking is both difficult and unimportant, so we no longer think of it as a priority for our time. We find time to wash our clothes, shop online and binge watch TV, but not to cook.
We have to stop seeing cooking as a problem when it's actually a solution.
We want good health but surely any sensible plan for that starts with understanding what you're eating. Good health isn't going to turn up on your dinner table from a corporate boardroom, a factory conveyor belt or on the back of a delivery scooter.
What about work-life balance? We work all day and then say we don't have time to cook, but what do we think the 'life' part of that expression is? Cooking is quite literally the everyday practice of life. The 'life' we're craving happens in kitchens and around dinner tables every night.
Think bigger. What about the economy and national security? We are an agricultural nation. By some estimates we produce around three times the food we need to feed ourselves and that's a metric that's vital for our security and our economy.
As trade wars and sabre rattling leave our export markets exposed and vulnerable, there's never been a better time to buy Australian. By and large, we do: 89 cents out of every dollar we spend on food is locally produced. What we import is mainly processed and out of season. If you cook with fresh, seasonal ingredients it's likely that every dollar you spend on food stays in our community.
"What's for dinner?" might seem like a simple enough question, but the answer is much more important than we might think.
- Adam Liaw's Quarantine Cooking columns
- Recipe: Steak and avocado salad with fried garlic vinaigrette (pictured above)