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Where Do the Minutes Go?

Jamie Oliver has a show titled “30-Minute Meals” or something similar. The basic premise is that time is no excuse to give up on home cooking; you can whip up attractive, delicious, and nutritious meals in half an hour.

This is true, and I heartily agree that people should cook meals more often, rather than ordering pizza or nuking a burrito or whatever they do to fuel their system, usually involving too much processed food. (I also believe families should eat dinner together more often, and home cooking can help make that happen.) So I endorse Oliver’s intent.

The skeptic in me, however, rises up unbidden: in preparing his thirty-minute meals, Oliver fails to count an awful lot of minutes. He’s a trained chef, for starters; he can peel and core an apple in the time it takes me to type this sentence. For you and me, preparing the apples for a homemade apple tart is more involved simply due to inexperience—perhaps five or ten minutes’ work, instead of one or two. The program begins with all ingredients readily to hand, when the time spent gathering them up, thawing meat, selecting spices, measuring out a half cup of sugar, and so on—another three minutes or more, especially if thawing meat—ought to count as time spent cooking. Oliver enjoys a large, empty kitchen counter, which I, for one, do not share; we have few cabinets, so our limited counter space is further crowded by appliances, and my effective working space is about one square yard. Without space to work, an amateur cook can’t set out ingredients ahead of time, and loses more time to clearing space, washing hands, digging out new utensils, etc. between ingredients—maybe another three minutes. Nor can most of us blithely set the heat and turn our backs on a caramel sauce, confident in our ability to turn around and take it off the heat at just the right moment two and a half minutes later—time Oliver can spend readying his salad is time home cooks must spend watching that caramel sauce lest it burn. And it might burn anyway. Add two minutes remaking the caramel, ten minutes throwing open the windows and carefully cleaning the pan. And I guarantee what I turn out, using the same recipe, will not be as attractive as what he sets on the table.

The basic claim that cooking is faster and easier than it really is for mere mortals is a common refrain in cooking programs and cookbooks, typically accompanied by similar dodges, discounting time spent prepping, cleaning, making space, fixing mistakes, checking on the food’s progress. Ching-He Huang plays fast and loose with the timer when she races to prepare a noodle dish quicker than instant ramen. The Frugal Gourmet hides a lot of lost minutes (including time spent touching a dish up for photogenic purposes) when he pulls the pre-cooked pot pie from the oven, claiming that’s what the doughy pot pie he just popped in will look like when it’s done. Even beloved Julia hides prep time off-camera by sweeping scraps onto the floor—sweeping up and mopping afterwards isn’t “cooking time,” and besides, she has staff for that now. With Jamie Oliver’s show fresh in my mind, I heard a guest on Leonard Lopate today claim her chilled beet soup takes only five minutes to prepare. Once all the ingredients are sliced up and chilled, you can take them out of the fridge, and finish the soup in five minutes.

Excuse me? How is cleaning, peeling, slicing, and chilling the onions and beets not time spent making the soup?

Now, this doesn’t contradict the basic premise: that you can cook good home meals in a reasonable time with little effort. What takes Oliver thirty minutes to make might take me forty-five, or an hour at the outside, and it will be tasty and nutritious even if it can’t qualify for food porn. Still, I wish the prophets of home cooking would be a little more honest in their sermons, if only to avoid discouraging people who fail to meet false expectations.

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