There's a war going on. No, not that one – or that one, or that one. This war features spud missiles and whisks, not drones, and it's happening not in some dusty foreign land but right at the dinner table. Although your dinner table may well be a foreign and dusty land, which is the point of this story.
Let's look at a recent assault in this war, launched in The New York Times. The good people at the Times, like countless doctors, public-health experts and celebrity chefs, want everyone to cook more. To this end, the Times has made available 16,000 recipes in its archive.
"Just cook," writes Sam Sifton, launching the Times' home-cooking manifesto. "That is the message of the moment, the act to embrace. Just cook dinner. It is a habit as easy to form as a bad one, and more beneficial by far."
Many people are time-poor, Mr. Sifton acknowledges, so he offers a modest recipe to begin with: Craig Claiborne's Smothered Chicken. Rich, delicious and "simple to prepare." Simple, that is, if you follow the instructions: Go to the market for an organic chicken, have your butcher spatchcock it, retrieve some homemade stock from your freezer (or low-sodium store-bought if need be, but for God's sake not the commercial-cube kind. What kind of monster are you?) Finally, place a handy brick or dumbbell (!!) on your chicken while cooking.
I actually like to cook, and I was rolling my eyes. This recipe assumes you have an organic market nearby, not to mention a butcher, not to mention a dumbbell, not to mention you have gagged your screaming children and put them in the closet while you prepare the accompanying rice and green beans.
This is just to say, perhaps in order to encourage home cooking we should think about how we fetishize food in the first place. No home cook's chicken is going to look like the picture in the Times. It is the Sophia Loren of chickens. My roast chicken tends to look more like Phyllis Diller, but sometimes it's delicious anyway.
Women – and let's face, it is usually women who are the foot soldiers in the dinner wars – often drown in this gulf between the real and the idealized. We've come to a pass where everyone knows, instinctively, that home cooking is healthier and cheaper, and yet the instances of families eating together regularly is declining. Developers often don't even bother to include dining rooms in plans for new houses. Microwaves come with "chicken nuggets" buttons for ease of reheating.
There's fascinating background for why some women continue to feel so oppressed by the dinner table in a new study by three sociologists from North Carolina State University. After hundreds of hours interviewing 150 women "from all walks of life," and watching them prepare meals, the authors conclude, "the idea that home cooking is inherently ideal reflects an elite foodie standpoint."
The study revealed that women were hindered by all the invisible iceberg hours under the tip of meal, including shopping, transport and cleaning. But they also suffered dashed expectations – imagining their delightful meals would be greeted by beaming, grateful Brady Bunch kids, they found the Manson family at the table instead. Seldom were their efforts appreciated.
Love and resentment are often strands of the same double helix, inextricably entwined. There's a reason filmmakers and novelists find the dinner table such a fertile ground for drama – look at the sublimely vile, liver-laden "Dinner of Revenge" served by the powerless mother in Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections. Preparing a meal is such a quotidian act, but so rich with symbolism. Perhaps we've overloaded dinner with expectation and symbolism, and that's the problem.
One of the subjects of the North Carolina study, a mother called Elaine, provided a lament that will be familiar to any woman who equates food and nurturing: "That's why I get so angry! I get frustrated 'cause I'm like, 'I wanna make this good meal that's really healthy and I like to cook 'cause it's kind of my way to show them that I love them, 'This is my love for you guys!' And then I wind up at the end just, you know, grrr! Mad at the food because it takes me so long." Sing it, sister!
The authors of the study suggest community meals and healthy food trucks as an alternative to family dinners, but I'm not sure it's time to throw in the tea towel just yet. Maybe it's just time to embrace our pale, un-dumbbell-pressed, Phyllis Diller chickens. Perhaps, as I argued in an earlier column, schools should reintroduce home economics, with kids learning how to make a food budget and a shopping list and some basic dishes, so that cooking becomes just another skill to take for granted, not a climb up Kilimanjaro every night. Boys and girls cooking together: Now there's a recipe for future happiness.