No bread without some dough

Many of us are at a point in our lives when we are happy to be able to get through a grocery run with our chequing accounts intact and narrowly escaping the dreaded “insufficient funds” proclamation. Perhaps the timing isn’t entirely terrible, as the recent recession has inundated the Internet and popular media with “recessionista” trends and a steady influx of solicited money-saving advice. Never have “do-it-yourself” and “homemade” been more environmentally and socially fashionable! Whether you are rolling in the dough, bringing home the bacon or chasing the elusive cheddar, great food happens to be one such commodity that is moving from restaurant venues to the domain of domestic kitchens. But at a time when the best-selling item on wedding registries (the KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer) goes for what many students pay as one month’s rent, are we seeing some countervailing forces at work? Is the movement back to a homemade or DIY food revolution just pushing people toward new forms of consumerism? The consumption of cookbooks, the time necessary to browse cooking blogs or any of the myriad celebrity-chef cooking shows — not to mention the influx of high brow cast iron pans and high carbon stainless steel knives on the market — is it perhaps more affordable to just enroll in culinary school?

A few weeks ago, I happened to see a clip from the TV program MasterChef, in which Michelin-starred Chef Gordon Ramsay (along with two other industry professionals) host an elimination-based competition among informally learned cooks. In this particular episode, the elimination round consisted of onion dicing and participants were judged not only on the volume of diced onion they produced, but the quality and technique of their dicing. I couldn’t help but notice that even with the barrier of formal and often expensive training removed, the ability to chop, dice and julienne with proper technique is a skill that can only be developed using medium or high-end knives. Likewise, advanced techniques on which participants are assessed often rely on experience using equipment (ranging from knives to a sous-vide apparatus) which only serve to highlight how even the enterprise of fine cooking among non-professionals has become the territory for elitism.

How about the rest of us who are happy enough to cook modest and simple meals? It seems that among younger home buyers even the illusion of culinary literacy carries with it some symbolic capital. Along with purchases such as said stand mixer, many young first-time home buyers on reality TV shows list granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances among their “must-haves.” Have cooking and the kitchen become yet another category of conspicuous consumption? For even the most unseasoned cook, macaroni and cheese does not take on new or different flavours when prepared on a professional gas range or heated in a stainless steel microwave oven.

There have been generations of incredible cooks across cultures, using remarkable and sophisticated techniques and often implements as simple as corn husks. Although cooking and some aspects of food culture have become an arena for consumerism and the consumption of well-marketed industry goods and services, it’s important to remember that before the stand mixer, prior to dual ovens and microplane zesters, there were legions of men and women creating dishes that would bring even the insidious Chef Ramsay to his knees.

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