Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Time Out

I’ve just been having a go around in email with a friend about cookbook authors and recipe times. We were kvetching about Food Network celebrity chefs and how phony they are (more on that topic another time—I could go on for DAYS about my loathing of Food Network shows and their celebrity chefs). But the thing I think I find most aggravating about a lot of cookbook authors is that they vastly underestimate the amount of time it takes to make the recipe.

Let’s start with that darling of speed cooking, Rachel Ray. I’ll spare you my catalog of her various other sins—looking like she's twelve years old, saying “yum-O,” calling extra-virgin olive oil “E-V-O-O” and the like. She’s made her name on “30 minute meals.” I believe I’ve made two or three of her recipes (way back when I was duped into buying one of her cookbooks—never again!) and they took at least 45 minutes to make. A thirty minute recipe should not take forty five minutes. If the premise of your book is 30 minute meals, then you should deliver just that. And what's more, the recipe produced a meal that wasn't even very good. I guess she feels that if dinner is going to be ready in 30 minutes, you'll eat it and you'll like it, by golly.

I read an interview with her in the Washington Post some years ago, and when quizzed on the timing issue, her rather lame response was that some people might not chop as fast as she does. Yeah, and I’d like to add that some people may not have little Food Network kitchen fairies chopping for them, either. I’ve been told there are thousands of websites the gist of which is “I hate Rachel Ray” and that these sites point out that her 30 minute meals are miraculously made in exactly 30 minutes on her show. Right, that’s the idea, you say. No, no, I mean she puts an uncooked item in the oven, and twenty seconds later she removes the finished product. I’ve never seen her show (I’d rather give myself a lobotomy with an electric carving knife), but this is what I’ve heard the “We hate her” sites go on about (among other things). And I can believe it—it’s TV after all—but it’s not doable in a home setting. And yet people snap up her cookbooks and buy her line. And for not-very-good food, too.

There’s also the “Desperation Dinners” pair. These women, if you’ve never heard of them, promise a complete dinner in twenty minutes. They tell you straight up that you’ll be cooking for the whole 20 minutes—no time to sit down and put your feet up while something simmers or bakes—but you’ll have dinner pretty fast. I’ve made quite a few more of their selections (they’re not terminally perky like Rachel Ray, so I was willing to give their book more of a chance, I guess) and these recipes take more like 30 minutes to make. Plus again we have a similar situation to that which I encountered with Ms. Ray. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest rating, I would have to give these recipes a 10 for Most Boring Meals Ever. Maybe even an 11.

I must even (lightly) slam my dear, beloved Donna Hay for doing the same thing. She has several books that promise meals quickly. Most of them don’t guarantee a time, but there’s one that offers 10 minute, 20 minute, and 30 minute meals. Again, I’ve found that the 10 minute ones are more like 20, the 20 more like 30, and the 30 more like 45. In Ms. Hay’s case I’m way more apt to be charitable (amazing how much easier it is when the person is likeable, and not an irksome TV personality), and I know I probably don’t execute the prep as fast as she does. I also know from pictures I’ve seen that she has a 20 gazillion megaBTU stove that probably puts out 9,000 times more heat than the Kenmore in my rented house. And she may also cut things into smaller or thinner pieces than I do, thus reducing cooking time. Still, since Ms. Hay’s food is absolutely outstanding (99.9% of the time—she’s had her duds), I’m prepared to continue making her recipes, even if they do take a little longer than she says they will. The additional time is worth it for really good food.

The thing that I think sends me most around the bend about all of this is our national obsession with speed. It has to be faster, quicker, take less of my life. Why? No, I don’t have three hours every night to make dinner. But for something as important as eating, I can come up with an hour or forty five minutes to make something. We look at the process as something to be gotten through quickly so we can get on with life. But what’s more important in life than sitting down and enjoying your family and friends? You chose to spend the rest of your life with someone, or you’ve invested the time in developing a friendship bond with someone, why not take the time to create a pleasant meal and sit down and enjoy it with them? We’re in such a hurry to move on to the next thing that we don’t enjoy where we are and what we have. If we could slow down and derive some enjoyment from planning what to have, buying the ingredients for it, making it, and eating it with our friends and family, we’d all be better for it. We probably wouldn’t eat as much, nor as much of the food that has been labeled as “bad” by society. And as an added benefit, Rachel Ray would be out of a job, and therefore out of my face.

It pains me that right now my kids get microwaved food because I have to come up with dinner for them in under 10 minutes (you bring two 15 month olds home from daycare and see how long it takes before they want dinner—no, don’t, I can tell you; it’s 7 minutes, tops). But I refuse to have it always be so. I’m not saying that I have any fantasy that my kids will, at age 8, willingly dig in to seared duck breast with dried cherry-port sauce over gorgonzola polenta or anything like that, but I do like to think that someday we’ll all be able to sit down to something like roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and a vegetable, and I won’t have resorted to some Rachel Rayified version of it that uses commercial bottled seasoning because I don’t have “time” to measure out and mix up a combination of half a dozen herbs. Am I dreaming? Maybe. But if I have a goal, I have something for which to strive, at least.

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