All good cooks are hedonists on some level, as the devotion to preparing food is driven by the desire to maximize the pleasure of eating. There is no shortcut to becoming a good cook. It takes hours of trial and error in the kitchen, which only those who truly care about what their food tastes like would bother to invest. It’s no coincidence that three top Western cuisines—French, Italian, and Spanish—hail from countries that take their meals seriously.
In most of France, all businesses are closed from noon to 2pm for lunch. The only establishments open are restaurants, which stop serving abruptly at 2. Just try eating out at 2:30 in Provence; no one will seat you. Though Paris doesn’t unilaterally shut down during lunch the way the other provinces do, their version of a quick lunch is a far cry from ours. If you work in an office, you duck into a nearby bistro for their casual three-course prix fixe, which may consist of a small salad or soup, followed by a choice of plats principaux (maybe a duck leg confit or a skate wing in butter), and then a small dessert (perhaps a slice of clafoutis or fruit tart). For a few more euros, you can add a glass of house red or white, which is not uncommon either.
Compare that with the typical lunch truck dash most urban-dwelling professionals in the U.S. now make. A recent article published in the New York Times, “Power Lunches Are Out. Crumbs in the Keyboard Are In,” describes how business meetings that take place in restaurants over a leisurely lunch are nearly extinct. Employees believe they no longer have time to devote to eating lunch and instead mindlessly scarf down take-out at their desks. One media executive cited the need to keep up with the constant news streaming in over social media as what has usurped his lunch break.
Are Americans busier than they ever have been before, or is it just that we either a) needlessly make ourselves busier because we pride ourselves on being too busy, b) have shortened attention spans and thus refuse to slow down, or c) expend so much time on social media that we have no spare time for the physical world?
In addition to feeling busier than ever before, we also have longer workdays, which truncate the span of time at home before bed during which dinner is prepared. And then there is the sea change in modern parenting. In All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior writes about parents whose time is dominated by their participation in their child’s education in an effort to secure their child’s future success. The author talks to parents who claim their dining table has been usurped by homework completed together, rather than devoted to meals eaten together, and that dinner is an afterthought—often takeout.
The irony of this all is that Americans seem to spend more time than ever before watching cooking shows, as evidenced by the seventy-one television chefs on the Food Network alone. It is not unusual to encounter Americans who faithfully watch one or more cooking shows, but haven’t the first idea how to prepare a decent meal themselves. The myth about cooking shows is that they teach people how to cook. In reality, watching other cooks may impart knowledge, but they do not impart skill. As in any art or craft, becoming a proficient cook requires practice, and only practice.
Taking time for food—time to learn how to feed oneself and others, time to experience and enjoy meals, attention paid to what one is eating and why—is a worthy cause. It is a commitment that contributes balance to life, promotes better health, and pulls us out of ourselves, granting us the opportunity to join the living world three times a day. The hedonists are onto something.