The Case for Home Cooking: What We Lose by Eating Out and Ordering In

Straphangers in the New York City subway have been given a chance to think about their cooking habits during their commute. A food delivery website has posted ads on trains to promote its services. That is nothing new. As I commented in a previous post, the telephone is probably the most used appliance in NYC kitchens, which are often small and cramped. Many New Yorkers are often in a hurry, a lifestyle that tends to leave little space for culinary explorations. However, the delivery website is taking the conversation further. Slogans include: "Avoid cooking like you avoid Times Square" (with a drawing of a hot dog), "Cook when you're dead or living in Westchester," and "Cooking is so Jersey."

As a cultural commentator, I find these ads intriguing. As a home cook, I find them mildly annoying. I cook — almost every day — and yes, I live in New Jersey. I guess I represent all that the ad campaign authors deem uncool and out of touch with the true spirit of New York: hot dogs, tourists in Times Square, and those quirky suburbanites. I am probably not the target consumer in terms of age either. Yet, I do not mind ordering in. There is a Korean fried chicken shop in my town whose deliveries make me swoon every time.

The ads seem to willfully ignore that cooking and ordering in are not mutually exclusive. There are myriad reasons why one may choose to prepare food from scratch one day, cut some corners to cobble together a quick bite, swing by a take-out place, or order in another day. In Westchester as in Dumbo. Of course, brashness works better in advertising.

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A graphic explaining how the popular delivery service GrubHub works. $46 million and $25 million were invested in food ordering companies in 2013 and 2012, respectively. In 2014, that figure jumped to $600 million. (image: Braden Kowitz/Flickr)

Some people just do not like cooking, and that's a legitimate preference. Many just consider it drudge to avoid, especially if you are stuck preparing food, day in day out. Others, though, may not have the opportunity and time — some would say the luxury — to cook, even if they would like to. Children, multiple jobs, and commutes, for example, have an impact on those decisions. Some New Yorkers buy much of their food ready for consumption in fast-food joints or at bodegas because they live in areas where there are no other choices (and quite possibly no home deliveries services) or they cannot afford much else.

At any rate, when we order in somebody has to cook the food that magically appears at our doors. The ad campaign ignores all those restaurant workers whose role is crucial in the New York food system. There are culinary entrepreneurs and initiators of start-ups who are enthusiastic and eager to share their creativity and their commitment to quality with consumers. More often, I suspect, those who prepare our delivered meals are low wage earners, frequently immigrants, who may prefer to cook their own comfort food for family and friends but are stuck at the stove, making sure we get the food we fancy. And we can't forget the army of deliverymen on bikes, and scooters that zip around the city, in any sort of weather. The ads emphasize the coolness of convenience, taking leisure and financial stability for granted.

One last reflection. Media are frequently pounding us over our heads with the intrinsic superiority of "restaurant quality dishes," compared to homemade meals. Some of us may feel anxious or intimidated about cooking, the bar having been raised impossibly high. On TV, even children seem to have acquired uncanny culinary skills. I love restaurant food and I utterly admire of professional chefs, their techniques, and their kitchen logistics and order. But I would never try to produce that kind of food at home, plated the same way. Home cooking is totally distinct, responding to its own priorities, motivations, constraints, and social dynamics. Its economic functions are different. That is why on Instagram (@FParasecoli) I post pictures of the food I make, and not restaurant food, under the hashtag #homefood.

If more people (schedule and finances allowing) learned to cook expeditiously, producing simple and unpretentious but healthy and delicious food at home, maybe there would be no need to order in that often. We'd be more relaxed sharing what we cook without worrying whether it looks good or it's on trend. We'd be more comfortable around pots and pan and cooking would become easier, quicker, and definitely cheaper. We could proudly embrace our adult domestic coolness, in Westchester or in Jersey (from which, by the way, we get the best views of Manhattan).


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