On Friday, I had the chance to talk with Pete Wells, the editor of the New York Times Dining section, about his last "Cooking with Dexter" column, which is online here and in the Sunday New York Times Magazine tomorrow. I wanted to post this yesterday, but Santa Maria had an important conference call for her work, and I came home early to take care of Nina and Pinta. We sat on the stoop while I roasted a chicken upstairs, and we had a great time in the balmy sunshine. Here's a copy of my discussion with Wells. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly had fun talking with him, and I was honored to have the opportunity.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I’m so sorry to see your “Cooking with Dexter” columns come to an end. They’ve been an enjoyable part of Sunday since their inception, two years ago. I’ve always admired your writing and the mouthwatering (and advanced) meals you pulled off. You’ve done an fantastic job making grilled spatchcocked chicken and coq au vin, for example, as well a raising a six-year-old who can pronounce “mise en place” and who can bake! You’ve done an amazing job.
A: That's very nice of you. Although I'm not sure Dexter can pronounce mise en place yet. I'm trying to keep him normal, you know?
Q: I can't pronounce mise en place myself! That's what my wife is for. She's much better with foreign languages. Your last column really struck a note. The comments on the Times blog show how much people will miss your monthly dispatch, friends have mentioned how sad they are about your departure from the space, and Corby Kummer of The Atlantic recently tweeted that it was a “heartfelt, beautifully written, era-defining piece about parents who really and truly have no time to cook.”
A: All those comments have been really wonderful to read. There are even some from people who have no children, which amazes me. I have always said that I'd never read my own column if I were still single.
Q: People are very interested in who is in the kitchen now. We're at a crossroads as a society. There's a power vacuum at the stove, and men, for the first time in history, are really starting to cook. That's what my forthcoming book, "Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families,” is all about. My only concern about your recent column is that it may scare working people off from cooking at home.
A: They should be scared! It's hard to pull off. A lot of the commenters on the article itself, as well as the comments on a separate blog post I wrote, had some concrete strategies for getting dinner on the table after a day in the office. But not one of them said it was easy.
Q: Oh, I know it's hard to do. It's always been hard. There’s an old saying in the military, often attributed to the U. S. Second World War field commander Omar Bradley, that “amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.” I think it applies to parenting as well. Success in the kitchen as a working parent is about the shopping and provisioning. You are in a special situation: You are at the very top of your profession, and ironically, you spend almost all your time, as the editor of the Dining section, getting other people to cook, yet that time away from home has made it hard for you to cook yourself. And food writing itself presents a special challenge, you can’t just write about what everybody likes to eat all the time—and that’s at odds with feeding a family, which is mostly about making what everybody likes to eat all the time. Do you think the need for you to come up with something exceptional for each column complicated your home cooking experience?
A: I don't know if it complicated the home cooking experience, but that's probably because I tried not to "cook for the column" if it didn't feel natural.
There were some recipes for the column that came straight out of family dinners, and some that the kids never tasted at all. There were quite a few that only my wife and I ate. I wasn't trying to do a "kid food" column.
But there was a bit of tension there, because very often the most successful family dinners were the kind of thing you wouldn't give a recipe for. I love leftovers, or to be more precise, I love using up leftovers. I feel clever and virtuous as I empty the fridge, and that makes the food taste better. To me at least. I doubt the kids get any special satisfaction out of eating three-day-old vegetables.
So there were a lot of dinners that I thought were absolute home runs: we all sat down together and had a great time; we ate a reasonable hour; we didn't spend a ton of money; we were very waste-not-want-not and frugal; and it all tasted great. But you couldn't type it up and publish it in the New York Times, you know?
Q: Yes, that's what I mean by the difficulty of writing food writing. So I need to ask you about something you said. In the column you wrote that “We are people who don’t have time to cook or—I particularly enjoy this phrasing—the people who say they don’t have time to cook. Because of us, society is coming unglued. Our children are eating processed foods and fast foods, and it’s making them fat and sick.” But the truth is that kids are getting fat and sick. According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. There’s a diabetes epidemic; The CDC has projected that as many as 1 in 3 U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue. This is directly related to our diets: Over the past 40 years the restaurant industry’s annual revenue has grown from less than $40 Billion to close to $600 Billion. We are eating out too much and eating too many processed foods. Don't you think?
A: Well.... People are just trying to survive, you know? I mean, you can look at all those numbers and say, "Those awful parents, they're killing their kids!" But if you're a single parent, or if you and your spouse both work full time, you really appreciate anything that makes your life a little more manageable. And processed food can do that. Fast food can do that. There's nothing wrong with getting something quick from a restaurant, nothing wrong with buying from the frozen-foods aisle. Sometimes, though, I read things and hear things that seem to say parents who take these shortcuts are failing their kids, and adding to society's health care cost burdens, and so on. And I don't think that's fair to parents who are up against the ticking clock and a shrinking family budget.
As I tried to say in the column, Fast food and processed food are not bad. Bad fast food is bad. Bad processed food is bad.
Q: Oh, I agree. Last night for dinner I had jar marinara sauce, pasta, and a bit of mozzarella, all processed foods, to one extent or another. And I was so grateful to have those in the house when I hungry. However, I don't think we can get to better processed foods without doing more cooking, and here's why: commercially processed foods play on our worst instincts. They are full of fat, sugar, and salt for a simple economic reason: so that we will consume more of them, and the producer will make more money. When we cook at home, we can control the ingredients, eat more sensibly, and develop healthy palates in our children. For example, it's very hard to find a commercial jar sauce without added sugar.
A: I don't know that much about the economics of the processed food business but I do know that the market drives almost everything. And if there's a big market for better stuff, that's what we're going to get. Yes, there are technological limitations, and if you're trying to make a food shelf-stable and lawsuit-proof you will do things differently than I would in my own kitchen. But if enough people want more healthful fast food options, sooner or later, somebody's going to figure that out, and I think you're seeing that already. Same with processed foods. Maybe even more so with processed foods.
Q: I don't want to take up your whole afternoon, but I do want talk to you about one last part of your final column. You say in it "Without question, I also needed something more traditional: a wife." Isn't this whole thing about cooking for the family a matter of division of domestic labor?
A: That answer could take up a whole afternoon. Those four words--"division of domestic labor"--probably account for half all divorces and most of the marital arguments.
Q: Yes, it's something no one wants to face, but hunger has a way of focusing the mind. Society is in the midst of a major transition that began with the civil rights and women’s movements of the sixties. We have made major gains. There’s now an African American president, something that was unthinkable in much of the country a generation ago. Women make up a majority of the American workforce, for the first time in history. This level of change brings unexpected consequences, and one side effect of women’s great advances is an erosion of the domestic arts. As you point out “In many families, there is nobody around to do housework of any kind, including buying and preparing food.” I think men can take on more of those roles. To do so, I think there needs to be an honest discussion of what that means, and a way to share tips and methods, much like you did with your follow-up post soliciting advice from readers.
Oh, and there's a somewhat hidden benefit to the man. Did you know that studies have shown that when the man does domestic work around the house, including cooking, there's a higher reported level of sexual satisfaction on the part of the woman?
A: After my wife read this last column, she said, "You're having a male post-feminist moment." I had no idea what she meant. So she explained that post-feminism was when women got the things they'd been demanding--like access to jobs, mostly--and then looked around and say, "Hey, this still kind of sucks." Because they were still the primary caretakers if they had children; because their husbands were still getting paid more; etc. The male equivalent of that might be, "Hey, I'm helping out around the house more than my father ever did; I spend more time with the kids; I can cook and clean and change diapers. All of which is wonderful and rewarding. But at the same time, my job is more demanding than my father's ever was. I work longer hours, there's more pressure, I'm expected to be looking at email and answering my cell phone 24/7...
So yes, men can take on more of these roles, and have. But paradoxically, maybe, it doesn't mean that life gets any easier for anybody.
Q: That's the paradox of modern life. Everybody works more. I don't see how it can improve unless we (men) get better at executing the mundane aspects of it. The idea that cooking is drudgery is not new. I found a 1907 letter to the New York Times published under the heading “Women Enjoy Cooking: A Pleasure, Not a Drudgery, Once the Art is Acquired.” The writer of the letter advocated schools to teach cooking. I think we need something along those lines now for men. Not cooking schools, not television shows and their mise en place, but some kind of instruction in the basics of running a household. Like learning how to shop for the week. Passing the old knowledge down to the new practitioners.
A: I mean, you could look at it and say, "Wow, both parents are working, and both parents are responsible for childcare and house work. That's wonderful." Or you could say "Gosh, both parents need to work and both parents need to take care of the kids just to keep a family afloat? What's going on here?"
Q: The sad truth is that for most Americans, both parents do need to work to support the family. My goal is to help them manage their houses and eat better while they do it. There's a huge profit driven industry that doesn't necessarily have their best interests in mind. Processed foods will certainly be a part of it. Home cooking needs to be a bigger part of it, too. I think having less could be a part of it, but that sounds down-right un-American. Cooking can be a simple pleasure in these crazy times.
A: That's funny about that letter. But the idea that everybody can enjoy cooking if they just learn how to do it--I don't know. Some of us enjoy it and some people just do it because they have to. It's not everybody's cup of tea. You can teach them how to do it but you can't make them like it.
Q: That’s the truth. I know men who will never cook in their lives, and they don't care to ever do so. They are mostly older. Younger men are more apt to cook. This discussion could go on forever, and you are welcome to continue it, but I'll leave you with one last question: What are you making for dinner this week that you are excited about? It doesn't have to be something you’re making tonight. Cooking a few times, even one time, a week is a real achievement. I don't think we have to hold ourselves to such rigorous standards. A little change at a time. Your sons are learning that men can run the kitchen. That's an achievement in and of itself. Any last meal, so to speak, you want to share?
A: Ha! We're going out tonight and leaving the kids with a sitter, so they can eat furniture varnish for all I care. (I joke. There will be something fresh and delicious, made by my wife before she goes out.) Tomorrow I'm making crepes. Maybe shellfish crepes for the adults, and ham and cheese for the kids. I bought some buckwheat flour from upstate New York just for this purpose.
(Image © John Donohue/ The New Yorker Magazine 2007.)