Because I like to see how food transform from one thing to another, and because I have a bank account that hasn’t seen big deposits for a while, I have been cooking at least six days a week in the past two years. Half of the time I live with my boyfriend and I cook for us. Friends interpret our meals, after seeing their pictures on Instagram, as the “labour of love.”
Yes, love drives me to cook twice a day—lunch and dinner, but love is just a motive. It was my knowledge, values, diligence, prudence, and power that shaped and constructed those meals. To attribute love, and only love, for the transformation of beef to steak is to turn a blind eye to the other capabilities demanded of a home-cook to put food on the table, day after day.
Trust me, this looked worse before I cleaned and cooked it. #pigstomach in preparation for white pepper #pigstomachsoup #idontlikeitsimple A photo posted by Sheere Ng (@sheerefrankng) on
Before any cooking can be done, home-cooks have to shop for ingredients. I go grocery shopping twice a week. I don’t do it once because it’s easier to plan six meals rather than 12, and if we end up eating out more often than we expected, I don’t have a backlog I can’t handle. I don’t shop more frequently because it takes at least an hour to get it done and I prefer to be efficient. When I was still a noob-cook I planned the menu ahead and wrote down the ingredients needed. I learned to plan dishes requiring similar ingredients so that I use everything I bought—especially those perishable aromatics sold in big bundles but recipes ask only a few sprigs of. That planning took me an hour.
Today I buy what looks fresh on the shelves. Because I have the memory of a goldfish, I also write down a list of possible dishes to cook with the ingredients I bought and strike off the list as we go through the meals. The planning gets complicated when we have to go to work on the subsequent days. My boyfriend leaves the house early on Mondays. So do I, plus Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. This means that I have to get the cooking done before either of us leave. If I know I can’t be back early to prepare dinner, I portion for dinner as well. Preparation sometimes begins the night before; defrosting the meats starts even earlier. Because we’re packing lunch (to save money of course), I try to cook dishes that still taste good after reheating. Stir-fried vegetables with meat and mashed potato with sausage fit this criterion. If I cook pasta, I make sure to toss it with olive oil, and pack the sauce separately in a ziplock.
Home-cooks also think about nutrition and respond to the needs of those they feed. I believe it is best for our health to eat enough meat, more vegetables, and a good amount of fish. I adopted this formula because I read widely on this topic and the arguments for a varied diet convinced me the most (as opposed to the raw, gluten-free, meat-only, carbohydrates-only, everything-but-carbohydrates regimens). We are young, we run twice a week, and we sometimes walk 20 blocks instead of riding the subway, so we can afford animals fats in our diet although not all the time. If we’re not eating meat I turn to beans and nuts for protein. Seafood, especially fish, will give us the vitamins and omega-3 we need. I also apply the yin and yang theory in my cooking: I add ginger and sesame oil to my chicken during winter for their warming qualities, and I make radish soup or chrysanthemum drink to ward off looming sore throats.
Because I cook, we saved money. We spend, on average, US$100 a week on groceries. If we had done take-outs, it would be at least US$12 a meal for the two of us, excluding tips. Our food would look like what you see in the pictures below, and fish would be out of the question. Money saved is money earned, so I contributed to the household at least US$68 a week, and US$272 a month. On top of that, because I cook, my boyfriend, who is now the main breadwinner, doesn’t have to. Rather than wasting an hour being clueless in the kitchen, he’s spending more time writing, if not to make money, to hone his craft. I have relatively lesser time to write, but lucky for him, I believe cooking is also an important skill to have as a food writer.
Home-cooks not only have the power to dictate the food to eat, but also the values to keep. I have become concern about the welfare of farmed animals after learning about the intricacies of food systems and politics in class. I am against rearing chickens with so huge breasts that their legs can no longer support their bodies. I am against packing too many of them into one cage to the point that some could die and decompose inside yet nobody cares. I make a stand as a consumer by buying only whole chickens instead of cherry-picking cuts of meat. I also try to buy from butcher shops that source humanely-raised meats from family farms. Since I put my values into practice in the kitchen, my boyfriend, who eats my food, becomes a participant. He was a reluctant one at first. Well taken care of farmed animals are costly to raise and a luxury to eat. But I convinced him by keeping our food spendings manageable, achieved by, amongst many others, reducing our meat intake, making stocks out of carcasses, and keeping prawn shells for bisque. He can’t say no if I can do the right thing within his means.
By deciding what food to eat—traditional over foreign, steamed over baked—home-cooks control the class, race, and values with which the entire family defines and expresses themselves. By cooking instead of eating out, they contribute disposable income to their family. Skills, not thoughtfulness, carve meats and dice onions. My boyfriend and I have not had a flu in the past year because I applied knowledge to my cooking. It takes work, not just love, to produce food, and we should recognise the capabilities of home-cooks that make it possible.