Parents Need to Eat Too

Dear Michael Ruhlman,

Dear Michael Ruhlman,

I like you. I like your work—you’ve got a knack for explaining difficult cooking techniques in ways that make sense to almost anyone. And Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking? One of the smartest not-a-cookbooks I’ve ever read. But your assertion that people who cook from scratch, quickly, are somehow supporting the processed food industry is way off base. In explaining why, onstage at the IACP conference, you called “bullshit” on the notion that Americans may be too busy to prepare a leisurely meal, you wrote:

Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. It’s the wrong message to send. These editors and producers and publishers are backing the processed food industry, propelling their message. What I say to you magazine editors and producers, to you Rachael Ray and you Jamie Oliver and your 20 minutes meals: God bless you, but you are advertising and marketing on behalf of the processed food industry.

Really? You really think Jamie Oliver is helping out the very people he rails against on a daily basis? By offering a healthy, fast, from-scratch alternative to processed food, he’s somehow helping mega-corporations to sell that very crap? I’d argue—and so would he, and countless other people, I imagine—that what he’s doing is providing just about the only viable alternative to processed food.

Because for most of us, not having time to cook isn’t a conscious decision. We’re stretched too thin, with work (i.e. jobs we need and can’t just quit because we don’t want to work so hard, as you suggest when you write, “Working 12-hour days is a choice.”), families, and life itself. I do choose to spend my time cooking and writing about it, but many people I know don’t share my passion. Many of the people I’m working with lately are new moms and dads, who are struggling every day to find a way to feed themselves well, and healthfully, without resorting to takeout. Right now I’m writing the Quick Suppers chapter of Parents Need to Eat Too, and I’ve got more than 100 moms, all of whom have babies at home, testing recipes with me. These women aren’t choosing to be busy. They genuinely are busy. They have infants hanging off their bodies and toddlers sticking hands in the toilet and jobs that keep them away from their children for too many hours each day. These women want to cook dinner; they just don’t have the time, or the energy, to spend hours doing it.

My mom-testers and I live in the real world, where being overwhelmed by life commitments is just part of our day. It would be nice if we could afford to slack off on some of them, decide not to finish that TPS report and risk losing a much-needed job (or in my case, submitting that chapter and blowing a book contract), but that’s not going to happen. So instead I’m working with them to figure out ways to fit making dinner into our ridiculously busy schedules. I don’t consider this supporting the processed food industry. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

Yours truly,
Debbie Koenig

OK, readers, your turn: What do you think of Ruhlman’s argument?

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. What a perfect response, Debbie. I could not have found better words (well, other than some 4 letter ones). Thank you for representing the parents you are writing and cooking for so well.

  2. I couldn't agree more with Jesse. If I could spend all day cooking, I would. However, life takes over so it's nice to have resources to get healthy, quick, meals on my family's table.

  3. Not having a TV I don't know exactly how Rachel Ray cooks, but isn't she kind of the 2000's version of "add a can of Campbell's soup*" school of "cooking"? If that's what he's railing against, I can understand. But cooking dinner from scratch in 20 minutes isn't hard, I do it practically every night. (Oh, unless Ruhlman counts frozen organic peas as "processed" in which case he's crazy!)

    *My mother totally cooked like this.

  4. Martha, I'm not a huge RR fan, but I'm pretty sure she starts from scratch. I seriously doubt that many of her recipes are ready quite as quickly as she claims, but that's another story. Sandra Lee is the semi-homemade "chef," and she makes me want to puke.

    Jesse, Taryn: Thanks! The elitism in his argument is what really gets me. As if being busy with work & other obligations is a choice.

  5. I just read what he actually wrote, he's crazy! I love to cook and sometimes spend hours on a meal, other times 10 minutes, both are real cooking with love. Getting people interested in cooking via quick recipies can only be a good thing. Maybe he's just being provocative for the PR…

  6. Funny that you say that, about being intentionally provocative. I actually wrote that in my post & edited it out. Should've left it in!

  7. I think you're spot on in your reply. His article is clearly a rant – imbalanced and full of sweeping generalizations, that alternative viewpoints like yours are sorely needed. I'm not a parent and I (thankfully) don't work 12 hour days, but there are definitely days when a 30 minute meal is all I can handle and provides as much satisfaction as a chicken that's been in the oven for an hour.

  8. I work full time, have one of those hands-in-the-toilet toddlers you speak of and I still cook dinner most nights of the week. It's a choice I make. My house isn't sparkling and I haven't seen the treadmill in months. Again, a choice…. so in that respect, Im with MR.

    I am on the fence about ppl like RR and Sandra Lee. I dont like their style, but they make cooking approachable for a lot of people and I think that's ok. I haven't seen a can of "cream of" soup in my house in years, but a campbells casserole with real chicken and real veggies still beats takeout chinese in the healthy factor, right!?

    I think what bothers me is all the judgments being slung around (on all sides – moms are not all incapable of cooking nor or people who dont cook awful). Live and let live, I say!

  9. All the cooking I do on weeknights is 30 minutes or less, unless its something from the crockpot.

    I do like Rachel Ray. I have found her meals really do cook in 30 minutes or less…sometimes it takes more time if you need to do a lot of prep or veggie chopping but the cooking is always under 30.

    I do think quick home cooking often relies on convenience foods like frozen vegetables, boxed salad greens, peeled and deveined frozen shrimp, jarred sauces and salsa, pre-shredded cheese, dried pasta, purchased tortillas, etc. And what is wrong with that?

  10. Amy, I agree–you cooking every night, and perhaps sacrificing something else to do it, is definitely a choice. But Ruhlman's taking it further than that. He's arguing that by choosing to cook something quickly, even if it's a lovely piece of fish & a quick salad, it's somehow supporting the big Food Inc monsters. His argument, at least as far as I'm reading it, is that if we're not willing to spend an hour or more cooking, we may as well not bother. As if the only *good* cooking is, literally, slow cooking. And on that, I call bullshit.

    (Ann, I love your list! I'd even go so far as to add things like–horror!–Success brown rice.)

  11. Didn't read his article but do think most people have some idea in their head that "real cooking" takes hours and please… Maybe you spend a few minutes in the morning mixing a marinade or putting stuff in a crockpot, maybe you don't. I do like to cook, and probably spent an hour total of cooking time on dinner tonight but it was not all hands on and I can frequently do it faster. Dinner was miso-marinated chicken thighs, roasted potatoes and creamy leeks (from the omg Jamie Oliver, it's my daughter's new favorite vegetable!). So I picked her up from school, mixed up the marinade and threw the chicken in, then went back to work upstairs. Yes, I work from my home so that has its advantages but I could have done this the night before while cleaning up from dinner. When I stopped work at about 6pm, I chopped the potatoes, mixed them with some oil and herbs and started roasting. chopped the leeks and cooked them, then threw the mixture in the oven, then breaded and browned the chicken on the stove, then threw it in the oven. Okay, the miso was probably packed by BigFoodInc but that's about it for processed.

    Of course during this time my daughter and her friend were mixing up 2 gallons of homemade lemonade to sell at a fundraiser for school. From scratch! (I'm blessed with 2 lemon trees.)

  12. You echoed my thoughts when I read his rant. I was so surprised when he mentioned Jamie Oliver. I'm not a RR fan, but I have seen enough of her 30-minute meals show to know that most of them does not involve processed food. The food may not be gourmet, but they beat he hell out of processed food.

    It's sad that the value of home cooking that he wants to get across gets lost in elitist rant. I work many hours, but don't have kids, and I love to cook. Even if I have time to cook, sometimes I don't have the energy to make a 3-course homemade meal that I would love to have every night, or even a carefully made risotto for lunch. Sometimes I even go so far as to boil ramen noodles and top it with stir fry vegetables. Why not? It's still good food. If I don't have time and energy to do all that, I can't imagine having a family with kids to attend to. It must be nice to have the luxury to cook for hours, but it sure isn't the case for everyone and it definitely is not just a matter of choice. I just hope that before he blames anyone, he takes a look at where they're all coming from.

  13. He's bonkers! Yes, and publicity-seeking, too, I reckon. How frankly bizarre to put roast chicken on a morally superior footing to stir-fried chicken!

  14. I'm not sure why he brought up Jamie Oliver – it doesn't really bolster his argument. I may be in the minority here, but I think that Ruhlman has a point. I work with a ton of people who I swear think that it takes hours and hours and hours to cook a meal and would prefer to watch TV.

    I absolutely do not think that roast chicken is morally superior to stir-fry – some dishes just come together quickly. But I do think that both are FAR better than a Lean Cuisine.

  15. Jeanne, I think what you're saying actually goes *against* Ruhlman's point–if all those people think it takes ages to cook anything good, then isn't convincing them it's possible to cook deliciously AND quickly the first step? Ruhlman seems to want to skip that step & get people to go straight to caramelizing onions for 45 mins, etc. That's the part I think is nutso. Baby steps, people.

  16. perfect response to a slightly insane argument. Sandra Lee is the one who uses all of the processed foods to "make" her meals and some other food journalist got it right saying that if she can encourage people to get into the kitchen and start trying, that's a big step. Once they learn that it isn't that hard, they can start walking away from the processed foods. We have so much going on in our lives, sure I love the idea of sticking a chicken into the oven to roast for an hour, but it isn't realistic most days with swim lessons, play groups etc. Michael Ruhlman should have gotten his facts straight before making such outlandish comments. I avoid processed foods at all costs, but speed is definitely of the essence.

  17. Well said, Debbie! It's easy to rail against things when your profession is food or cooking. I don't know if Ruhlman is out of touch or not, but I suspect he's taking an intentionally extreme stand to draw attention to processed food. If not, he's just horribly insensitive to what us everyday people have to deal with.

  18. Clearly this guy is just trying to come up with an attention-getting argument that doesn't repeat what others have already said in the slow food/locavore movement. But he's come up with a really dumb, irrelevant argument. I feel kind of sorry for the guy.

  19. Bravo, Debbie!!

    The best chefs and cooks in the world know cooking well is all about doing as little as possible to let each ingredient sing. Sometimes that's 3 hours of braising and other times, it's 10 minutes of prep.

  20. I love cooking and I am all for spending longer on meal prep during the weekends. But to get food on the table during the week? When my kids have 2 sports each plus music, art, Hebrew school etc and I have to shuttle them around? I am all for easy and healthy. Why does he think that has to take a long time? It doesn't. I make lots of meals in less than 30 minutes. Good ones. Your response is perfect Debbie.

  21. I do agree with jeanneeatsworld in noting the irony of people who'll watch cooking shows, but think it's too much trouble to cook. Crazy. Maybe since I don't have a tv, I have more time to cook.

  22. Here, here! I think the cooks/chefs who do quick meals are offering people an alternative to fast food. A lot of those folks would pick up a pizza or order Chinese if they weren't convinced they could do something quick from scratch for less.

  23. I get what he's saying to some extent–that it's the focus on certain types of ingredients in the recipes (example a can of this + a box of that + a bag of this = dinner). That said, there are also plenty of quick and easy sites and shows and articles that are not focused only on processed foods. One of my fave quick and easy dinners is the baked potato. Just stick it in the oven. It cooks while I do other stuff. Done. And there's nothing processed about that.

  24. How could he start out with an essentially good point and go so terribly wrong??? Love your response.

    I agree with some of the other comments that he's just being provocative. Ruhlman says his issue is with people who say they don't have time, but WHO BENEFITS from railing against simple, quick, healthy cooking? He blew his already tenuous argument by railing against Jamie Oliver, who has used his fame for good in his campaign for healthy, practical food.

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