Thursday, December 06, 2007

Eating In, Eating Out

I came across this (which is Grub Street’s critique of Bon Appetit’s attempt to court younger readers by changing its logo, and an overall assessment that BA was boring, dated, and for old farts) by way of this (which is Adam Roberts’ spin on the subject, discussing restaurant review blogs versus cooking or recipe blogs) today, and just have to toss my own two cents into the blogsphere.

I love eating in. I actually prefer it to eating out. Josh Ozersky says that magazines like Bon Appetit are intended for people who “have big houses and plenty of time on their hands.” I completely disagree. Bon Appetit (and its brethren) is for people who like to cook and eat. People who like to invite guests for dinner. You don’t have to have a ton of time on your hands (lord knows I don’t), or a big house (ditto), in order to appreciate food magazines like Bon Appetit.

How boring would the world be if everyone entertained in restaurants? How dull would gatherings be if they always took place on neutral ground? Half the fun of inviting people over is welcoming them into your personal space, the other half is feeding them. Food magazines provide ideas for interesting ways to do the latter.

Studies have shown that right after 9/11 people began eating out less and spending more time at home. I still do this, not out of fear, but out of love for my family, my home, and my friends. One of the happiest weekend days I’ve spent recently was a Sunday on which we ran a couple of errands in the morning, then had some friends and their twin daughters over for lunch. The kids ran around and played, while the grownups drank Mimosas, ate a goat cheese and caramelized onion tart, and a green salad. I can’t wait to get moved into my new house so I can do even more of that.

Houses today are even designed for people who want to be able to cook and entertain at the same time. Look at the open kitchen, the kitchen-great room combo that allows the cook to interact with the guests in the great room. Hell, look at kitchens that are big enough to entertain in. While I’m sure there are plenty of highly reflective appliances that never see a drop of grease, I know there are plenty that do.

Adam Roberts defends both positions (the eating out and the cooking in) by saying that while eating in may be warmer and more, well, homey, it doesn’t involve the potential excitement of eating out. While eating out, he says, you may have some really neat unexpected experience (he cites a case in which he saw Maggie Gyllenhaal having lunch with her mom). I’ll give you that, but that assumes that you care about watching celebrities eat soup. I confess I do not. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like eating out, but my reasons for eating out are that I don’t want to do dishes, not that I care about who I might see, or by whom I might be seen. I don’t mean to slam Adam—I agree with him that there’s something be said for both perspectives.

But really, given the choice, I’d far rather eat in. I think it’s much more satisfying. You get exactly what you want to eat, seasoned exactly the right way. You can take as much time as you want; no waiter will ever give you the feeling that s/he wishes you would leave so they can turn your table. The noise level can be whatever you want it to be; if you’re into loud music, no problem. If you want a quiet conversation, it’s easy to arrange. And I love food magazines that bring me a monthly array of choices suited to the season—ethnic, fast, elaborate, basic.

When I read a recipe, I can get a pretty good idea if I’m going to like it or not. If I don’t think I will, I won’t make it, obviously. While I’m cooking, I can then taste as I go along—does it need more salt? More oregano? The end result is what I want to eat, seasoned the way I want it. I’m in control of the ingredients. And if I’m serving it to someone, it’s so much more personal than buying them dinner. The time I’ve taken to prepare them a meal shows that I care—we’re all busy. We all struggle to find time to get things done. If someone uses some of their free time to cook for me, that’s very special. Picking a restaurant is thoughtful, of course—you’re taking the other person’s tastes into consideration and trying to find something they’ll enjoy—but it’s not the same as devoting your own time to preparing a meal for them; thinking about what they'd like, choosing the ingredients, preparing the recipe, then serving it personally and watching their reaction.

Which brings us back to magazines like Bon Appetit. They give me ideas for different things to make for any occasion, and the recipes are tested so I’m fairly confident they’ll work (human error is always a possibility—just look at my muffins). My brother-in-law and his wife are coming for Christmas this year, and I’ve been planning the menu for three months now. This is a food lover’s dream—guests for multiple meals! People who also enjoy food! Bring on the magazines so I can pick fun, new things for us to try!

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