Seemingly every day marks the introduction of another way to reduce the time we spend cooking and eating. Seamless and Grubhub and countless other startups promise to deliver a hot meal within minutes. Blue Apron eliminates the planning, shopping, and prepping parts of cooking, promising meals of just the right size, with just the right amount (35 minutes) of (semi-active) cooking time required to have dinner on the table.
Sit-down restaurants are reinventing themselves under the "Fast Casual" umbrella—to convince fast-food-dismissing millennials they're making smart choices (healthier, better for the environment, less "corporate") with their time and money, but optimized just the same for speed and efficiency and calorie-to-dollar ratio. And when we decide to go out to a "nice restaurant" for a special occasion, we skip the appetizer, expect our entrees to be ready minutes after ordering, and want our checks to be placed discreetly on the table immediately after we finish dessert. We often now even pay directly on our smartphones using OpenTable or some other reservation app, no waiting necessary. The restaurants, for their part, also hope we'll leave promptly so they can turn the table and serve another few couples that night.
Groceries—when we even buy them—can be ordered online, in bulk, and come in shelf-stable, individual-serving, just-add-water, microwavable packages.
The world of food media (of which we're consuming greater and greater quantities) has turned the act of cooking itself into a fast-paced, race-the-clock contact sport not to be attempted by mere mortals. The stylists of the Food Network and Pinterest have set a bar so high that we're afraid to cook even the simplest roast chicken until our kitchens are stocked with the requisite sous-vide, seven different size tweezers, silicon molds, and a forest of micro greens and edible flowers for garnish. "Don't try this at home," it seems to be telling us.
And I don't want to be accused of overstating things, but I would be remiss not to include the emergence of Soylent, a meal-replacement beverage/powder that claims to provide "a full day of balanced nutrition made in 3 minutes for $3/meal."
Is this pressure to spend less and less time dealing with food coming from the restaurants and apps and TV producers, or are they responding to us? Put another way, is the reduction of time we spend cooking and eating due to an increase in how busy we are, or is it leading to it?
I don't know the answer to that for sure, but after my first full week in the kitchen at the International Culinary Center, I can say without hesitation that in the process, we're losing touch of some of life's great pleasures, that I, for one, want to fight to keep around.
- The powerful, evolving aromas of a long-cooking stew of beans and fresh herbs and aromatics and sausage, as in this quite nice recipe from The New York Times.
- Opening a bottle of Tuscan wine, sitting in a dimmed, candle-lit dining room, talking intermittently to a person you love, and nibbling on cheese and salami for hours—in no mad rush for the unsoaked beans to cook through because what's happening "right now" is the main event.
- Seeing the windows fog up from the heat of the stove on a chilly autumn evening, listening to the sound of quiet-but-relentlessly-bubbling stock, and feeling the feeling of thawing back to life when you taste the first spoonful of a perfect stew.
- Having dessert. And then slowly sipping some bitter amaro. And then sitting at the table hours longer singing together and never looking at the clock.
- Tasting the stew again, a day later—brought back to life with some wine left over from the night before—its texture now thicker, creamier, the flavors given another twelve hours to mingle and coalesce and settle.
- Anticipating and finally tasting the first salty-sweet-soft-as-a-pillow slice of gravlax you cured on Thursday and had for breakfast on Friday morning.
- Turning dozens of artichokes to reach their tender hearts, then slowly poaching them in extra virgin olive oil with lemon juice, garlic, bay, thyme, mint, red pepper flakes, salt, then cooling, then refrigerating overnight before enjoying the fruits of your labor in a simple salad, or tossed with pasta, or with some scrambled eggs and bacon the following week.
- The insane blissful squishing and pulling of mozzarella curd in a bowl of hot and clouding water until it begins to become stretchy and threadlike (pasta filata), and then folding, turning, folding, turning, until it transforms into a smooth, glistening ball of the most satisfyingly creamy cheese, then eating it outside at dusk at Madison Square Park with a simple piece of rosemary focaccia, wondering where everyone is off to in such a hurry.
- Watching intently as a single drop of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena gently extends itself, slow-as-pitch, toward a fresh chunk of 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano and settle comfortably into a tight, viscous puddle of syrupy gold. The profound shifting of your perspective on pretty much everything when you remember that this tiny bottle of vinegar began its life over 25 years ago and is only now doing what it was destined to do.
We often refer to particularly innovative and novel inventions as "the greatest thing since sliced bread," and that's certainly an apt way to describe the glut of time-saving, space-saving, efficiency-creating products and services we've so keenly been developing for centuries, but I'd like to propose a new benchmark: I want more experiences in my life that evoke the unparalleled satisfaction of walking into a bakery, being handed a still-warm loaf of simple, plain Italian bread, stepping outside and—unable to resist the temptation bred into humans over millennia—tearing a chunk of bread with my bare hands and eating it right there on the sidewalk.