Why Don’t People Cook?

Last night my wife had an early dog-training class, so I threw together a quick early dinner for us. I poached a chicken breast, cooked some pasta, and made a sauce of caramelized onions, mushrooms, chicken breast, olive oil, garlic, a splash of sherry, a little parsley, freshly-ground black pepper, and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. From turning on the burner to serving the dinner took just under a half hour. I opened no cans, took no prepared food out of boxes to put them into the microwave, and had complete control over the fat, sodium, nutritional content, and flavor of what we ate.

As I put the pot of water on to boil for my pasta, I thought “I’m sure it will come in handy for something.” That’s a reference to one of my favorite little cookbooks, Edouard de Pomiane’s French Cooking in Ten Minutes. It’s one of the handful of cookbooks (along with The Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking) that I think every serious cook should have.

It’s a charming little book. Here are the first few paragraphs:

First of all, let me tell you that this is a beautiful book. I can say that because this is its first page. I just sat down to write it, and I feel happy, the way I feel whenever I start a new project.

My pen is full of ink, and there’s a stack of paper in front of me. I love this book because I’m writing it for you. It’s nice to imagine that I’ll be able to let my pen go and you’ll understand everything it writes down. My ideas run on faster and faster—I’ll be able to say everything in less than ten minutes.

My book won’t even be ten pages long…It’s going to be ridiculous…Worse than that, it will be incomprehensible.

A more scientific approach will make things clearer, so I’ll start by telling you everything you should know before you start ten-minute cooking, even if all you’re going to do is boil an egg.

The first thing you must do when you get home, before you take off your coat, is go to the kitchen and light the stove. It will have to be a gas stove, because otherwise you’ll never be able to cook in ten minutes.

Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What’s the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee…

You see?

Pomiane is dated now. Today’s electric stoves are much better than they were in France in 1930 when the book was written. And today there are an enormous variety of frozen vegetables and any number of other time-saving gadgets.

I still find Pomiane inspirational. It’s full of ideas and for harried working people ideas for tasty, nutritious things to eat that can be prepared in ten minutes are always handy.

11 comments… add one
  • Jimbino

    Here in Rio de Janeiro, we eat well. Rice, beans, pasta, chicken, beef, fish and pork. We make our own bread, and we harvest banana, jackfruit, persimmon, avocado, lime and other fruits from our yard that has 22 varieties of fruit-bearing tree.

    Fresh water comes from an artesian spring.

    Still, we can’t get decent peanut butter, whiskey, or wine. Cachaça at $6 per liter, however, keeps us from revolting.

  • Modulo Myself

    I taught myself to cook in my mid-twenties. Once I learned, a simple meal in thirty to forty minutes became pretty easy. Something like, grilled chicken, roasted cauliflower with garlic and a salad. But it took me some time to learn how to move and work in the kitchen and also to have confidence that everything would be cooked. Some people don’t cook, I think, because they can never do the small things with confidence.

    Luckily I learned as a single person. I feel that learning to cook while you’re cooking for another would be way more difficult.

  • michael reynolds

    Making puttanesca right now, actually.

  • jan

    Dave, reading last night’s menu, you just threw together, made me hungry!

  • PD Shaw

    There are some decent current cookbooks on cooking a meal within 30 minutes, such as those of America’s Test Kitchen. Having ingredients is always an issue. My wife does all of the shopping and demands a list once a week. If I need to stop and pick something up on the way home, it might be a half hour trip on its own. Sometimes use the slow-cooker, so the preparation time is in the morning, if pressed for time in the evening.

    I very much doubt my cooking skills are anywhere near Dave’s, but I took an interest in helping my mom in the kitchen. All directions and alchemy and results. My sister didn’t. When it came time in middle school to choose Home Economics or Shop, she choose Shop — my sense was that it was about avoiding gendertyping. She married an engineer that liked to cook.

  • But it took me some time to learn how to move and work in the kitchen and also to have confidence that everything would be cooked.

    There’s nothing like cooking 300 breakfasts a day, six days a week, over a period of years to hone your skills. Add to that regular dinners for 150 and the occasional dinner for 500 and you’ve got the basics licked.

  • Having ingredients is always an issue.

    As I’ve said before, I love my neighborhood. My regular grocery store is about eight blocks away and there’s a Whole Foods a block and a half away. I’m a daily shopper, buying just what I need on the way home from whatever. If I’m missing something, I can dash over to WF and back before the water boils.

  • steve

    I am a bit jealous about the Whole Foods. We live out in the sticks a bit. However, when our garden is yielding, we have plenty of stuff fresh and available.


  • I cook all the time (well, most of the time). I can throw together a good meal in the time it takes to cook the pasta or, if I’m lazy, even less than that.

    But I’ll also take several hours to make a good braise that I can divide up and freeze for later use.

    And I love my pressure cooker. It can knock hours off of things like oxtail or short ribs.

  • But I’ll also take several hours to make a good braise that I can divide up and freeze for later use.

    One of my most memorable meals was cassoulet for 300. The tremendous advantage to the very large quantity is the possibility of using a lot of different meats.

  • Andy

    I don’t have nearly as much time for cooking now, which is unfortunate. We eat a lot more pre-prepared and semi-prepared foods now. We use our crockpot and rice maker quite a bit. Still, it’s not too difficult to let some meat marinate through the day and cook that with some pasta when we get home.

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