Thursday, April 14

Eat Shit

Megan-Jane McArdle-Galt, "The Joy of Not Cooking".

Not recommended.

SURE, sure; Boggioni and Edroso have already picked this carcass clean. But I'm a lifelong cook, and McArdle actually offends my sensibilities in a different way, or maybe just one additional way, though the whole History of Modern Cuisine as told by a Shopaholic Aristo is certainly irritating enough.

It's hard to tell how much of this is confused, and how much just stupid, a question already raised in noting McArdle as the author. As so often--at least often in relation to how much I read her stuff--she seems to be pitching a concept, not making an argument. The Atlantic (cursed be thy name!) piece starts off asking why we spend more on kitchens but don't cook, then seems to drop the question once it dawns on Megan (about 1500 words after it must've hit her readers) that a sensible, reasonable mass extinction of the conspicuous consumer might condemn her to shopping at Sears.

What does it mean that people put $6000 Viking ovens and $15,000 worth of refrigerated cabinetry, bookmatched to the handles of their knives, into kitchens where they never cook? Well, on its face, little or nothing much beyond the mindless gadget-fetish the reasonably aware observer trudges through every day of his life, blessedly exempt from the ability to buy, and thus from the idiocy required to take it seriously. Writ against the thirty-years of sacrifice both parties now ask of the people that sort of consumer hires to keep this stuff spotless, a great deal. You already know Megan will ignore that consumer trend while puzzling the whole thing out.

And my Lord, that video! She starts off trying to link it to the article ("We're going to bake a cake the way my grandmother would have in 1950, and then see why it's so much easier today even though you wouldn't think that much has changed," though this might raise the question, in the non-apodictic economist, of why people would be spending small fortunes on crap they didn't imagine was any different from the batterie of the middle of the last century). But we seem to drop that notion within a minute. She doesn't actually bake a cake just like grandma did; instead she trots out a whisk, an egg-beater, and a hand-crank sifter for demonstration purposes. (Christ, she can't even be bothered to turn off the convection oven and bake à la June Cleaver.)

Of course this Panglossian electronic gizmo worship is bad enough (and the fact that Megan never tires of it is even worse), but then apparently it wasn't demonstrative enough, so all the sudden we've brought in the fucking 1900s, evidently so Megan can add "electricity" to "iPods" on the list of things she was wise enough to be born in time for. Maybe she really did make a cake by primitive 1950s methods, and discovered it really isn't all that different or any more time consuming than today.

With two differences, and those differences are telling. First, Megan compares the laborious, old-timey, hand-crank method of sifting flour with…dumping it into a food processor. Except that she's using a dusting sifter, which is properly used to sprinkle small volumes of powdered sugar as decoration. For larger volumes of flour a sieve is the proper tool. Whisking works just as well. Hell, so does dumping packaged flour into a new container before use. The food processor, on the other hand, well, now you've got a fucking food processor to clean. No real cook uses those gizmos casually, because they're a fucking pain in the ass to wash. Although--this is telling point #2--the real time saver between the 1950s kitchen and today's McWizard's Den is the ubiquitous dishwasher. Didn't see Megan demonstrating that. (Hell, if you watch--and I don't recommend it--you'll notice she doesn't even clean up her own spills.)

Special mention has to be made of her insistence that cooks in olden times had to measure butter by climbing in the bathtub with it and noting how much water it displaced. I have no idea where this comes from. Maybe it's a reference to the commercial practices of the Pre-iPad People, a savage era where an entrepreneur risked losing the finger he stuck on the scale. No one who cooks can imagine someone--especially someone spending twelve hours a day in a depressingly downscale kitchen--going through that sort of rigamarole rather than eyeballing a measure with practiced eye.

All this, apparently, is Megan being Megan: the whiz-bang kitchen of 2011 must be superior to grandma's, since the Free Market decrees that each bell must now have its own dedicated whistle; purveyors of over-priced, disused tchotchkes must be worth their big profit margins, because they can mouth psychobabble inanities and expound on current buying fads. No mention, of course, that granny's horribly-uneven-heating oven could, if it broke down, be fixed by any handyman on the block, while today's requires a factory-certified technician with a minor in programming, nor that any of the modern wonders smaller than a stove goes straight to the landfill the minute its trim color goes out of fashion. The deeper irritation, for me, is encapsulated by the easy adoption of "foodie", the ugliest word in the modern lexicon in that it is embraced by the very people who pretend an expertise which ought to put them at odds with that sort of adspeak juvenilia. "Foodie" perfectly conveys the modern sensibility that gushing beats expertise any day. It exempts the Megan McArdles from any obligation of knowing something beyond what could fit in a tweet, while still conferring membership in an exclusive club. "I'm a foodie" explains your superior insistence on Peccorino romano. "I'm just a foodie" explains your presence at a wine tasting when you couldn't tell Chambertin from fino sherry. It's connoisseurship without all the demanding knowledge stuff. If this were just some silly twit inadvertently demonstrating her ignorance, that would be one thing. It's not. This is the same way her economic system works, and on the pages of a once-fine magazine. It's the way Les Aristos actually trickle all that extra cash the Republican party insists we have to give 'em. I grant you, it's objectionable enough in and of itself. But at least they could have the courtesy to bother doing it right.


heydave said...

McArdle actually offends my sensibilities as a sharpened stick offends my ass.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

But at least they could have the courtesy to bother doing it right.

Again with the socialist demands, Sir?!

Dr.BDH said...

I agree with everything except the exegesis on "foodie." My wife is a professionally trained chef, former owner of three bakeries, and a self-described "foodie."

Rugosa said...

Megan seems to be complete unaware of what a twit she seems to be. I honestly find it hard to believe she's an educated, employed adult. She thinks and writes like a bright but inexperienced and unread high school student. She doesn't know anything outside her own experience, and doesn't even seem to realize that there is anything outside her experience.

Jim said...

She's pretty spastic.

I like how she turns the sifter crank using the hand in which she's also holding the cream-covered whisk.

Narya said...

Actually, my mom taught me to measure butter (or shortening, when making pie crust) with the water-displacement method; it works fine if you have measuring cups but no scale and/or a big block of butter rather than sticks with handy markings on them. I use a scale (and I prefer to use grams rather than ounces!), but the other method works in a pinch.

And if I had more time I'd probably want to pick apart the "foodie" notion, roughly into the category of people for whom it is a Veblanesque display and the category of people who enjoy stuff that tastes really good and don't necessarily care about the label on it, at least not for the sake of the label itself.

DWhite said...

She is the reason I declined to renew my subscription to The Atlantic.

Warren Terra said...

I certainly measured butter before the sticks came with wrappers that marked them in tbsp (and when I was ignorant that 1 stick ~ 8 tbsp). I did it the way any nitwit could: I used softened butter, smushed it into a measuring cup, and then dug it back out again as best I could. Not ideal, perhaps, but it works fine as long as you're not doing some sort of molecular gastronomy, which I certainly wasn't.

Also, I'm with dWhite: Megan is perhaps not the main reason I decided not to renew my (8 year or so) subscription to the Atlantic, but she's certainly emblematic of it. About the only person at that disgraced edifice of classist snobbery and political hackery who I have any sympathy for is Fallows (I don't dislike Coates, but have never found him interesting). The rest of that crowd are just a blight on the nation's consciousness.

Li'l Innocent said...

My grandma, not to mention my ma, both used crank sifters. My grandmother worked spent several summers as paid cook for a crew of threshers following the wheat harvest north thru the Dakotas in the 1920s, and would produce 5 or 6 pies and a dozen new loaves of bread before breakfast. Now whether she used a crank sifter for that scale of sifting, I don't know. But she certainly did when I was a kid, and was cooking old-style good food for a household of 5, plus church bake sales. My recollection is that her sifter was a large one. I use a punier modern one when I make my infrequent pies. Not to argue with you, Doghouse - just an historical note.

Narya said...

Li'l, no good reason to sift for pies or bread. Cakes, yes, as well as quick breads, maybe possibly cookies, but not pies or bread, unless she was likely to have pebbles or something in her flour.

bjkeefe said...

I, too, loathe the word "foodie." But its existence is almost worth it if it means adding to Mr. Riley's irritation, so as to enhance the cuisinarting of McMegan.

Rugosa said...

I was taught to sift; flour was lumpier in the olden days. Also, sifting is easier than picking out insects and larva with your fingers.

Speaking of olden days, I get cranky when I hear a whippersnapper like Megan talk about 1950 as if it were the Dark Ages. Well, in some ways it was, but cooking implements had progressed nicely since the 1850s. That Megan conflates the two is both poor research and sloppy thinking.

foadie said...

I look at the stick of butter and visualize it melting onto a tablespoon. I cut off that amount. Then I smash it with my Chinese cleaver and peel the paper off.

StringonaStick said...

The term "foodie" probably originally was an in joke with the professional cooking class, Like Dr. BDH's wife (see above). Now we've got a frickin' cable channel devoted to food (granted,a lot of it crap food) and those lovely for-profit schools convincing youngsters that they are the next (wealthy) Top Chef if they just spend $40k (or more).

Just like everything else it seems, a term starts as a way insiders can ID each other, then Madison Ave gets their greasy mitts on it and suddenly it is the mass market hip thing to call yourself while you pretend to be as authentic as the insiders were pre-Mad Ave. Remember the article in Time/ Newsweek (too lazy to look) years ago about the latest thing: yuppies, and the couple of yups who referred to their wine collection as "their children"? Same crap, different wrapper.

I await the ad-ocracy's choice of the next thing we need to be worried we'll be regarded as sclerotic nearly-deads if we don't adopt it with all the enthusiasm and disposible income we can and can't afford. Because, that will give Doghouse one more MeMeMeMegan target, and I enjoy the hell outta those.

Kathy said...

I had thought "Foodie" was someone who cooked or appreciated really yummy food regardless of whether it was spaghetti or a hamburger sandwich, or mashed potatoes. Blue collar food, often assumed to be bland and poorly cooked, elevated (by yuppie/ArgleBargle types) to a sub-gourmand experience. Another chance to sneer at the Working People; they eat boring stuff like hamburger & mashed potatoes, but look what
We "Woodies" can "do" to those low class ingredients by adding a bit of pink salt and using fancy appliances!

Kathy said...

argh! We "Foodies" not Woodies. sigh.

Anonymous said...

I have a vague memory of learning the water displacement method to measure shortening (not butter) in 8th grade home ec. class.

When I was growing up in the 1970s--not quite the dark ages--my mother sometimes bought one-pound blocks of butter. We simply cut it into fourths to make sticks and then cut the sticks into halves, quarters, etc., as needed for a recipe.

In my experience, sifting is necessary when using cake flour and also sometimes for ingredients that tend to clump, such as powdered sugar, cocoa, baking soda and even granulated sugar at times. Sifting ingredients together doesn't really make much sense, as whisking is a much better way to blend ingredients.