Woman & Machine

This post by Mike Pardus on Bob del Grosso’s blog, A Hunger Artist, got me thinking (good or bad, I’m always thinking) about what tools we use in the kitchen. If there’s anything I’m a little snooty about, it’s relying on machines when your hands will do.

When my large food processor broke down two years ago, I thought it was a major kitchen disaster – how could I make biscuits or pesto without it – until I had one of those eye-rolling, “you’re an idiot” moments and realized that people had cooked for centuries without one, and so could I. When I started making biscuits entirely by hand, both the texture and the taste improved markedly. Ideally we cook with all five senses, and we should know that something is ready just by looking at it. But it’s also important to know how something feels when it’s ready. As a bonus, it’s a legitimate way to play with our food.

Because the subject of Pardus’ post is bread, and because I’m obsessed with it, let’s talk about that for a bit. The basic ingredients for bread are flour, salt, yeast and water. Mix them together, knead the dough, let it rise, punch or stir it down, knead it again, let it rise some more, put it in the oven and bake it. Unless you have a problem with your hands, do you really need a standing mixer to do any of that? Making good bread is a long process, but it only requires about 20 minutes of actual labor, and that’s kneading the bread. It’s not even 20 uninterrupted minutes. del Grosso says:

For whom is kneading dough a problem? Or put another way, if you cannot knead dough you probably should not be in a kitchen for any reason other than to loot the icebox.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. There’s a lot of fuss made these days about 30 minute meals, cutting corners and the dumbing down of cooking in America; and how no one wants or even knows how to cook anymore. It’s a common theme in the posts and comments on this very blog. Read the comments to Pardus’ post. There’s very little mention of kneading by hand, other than to suggest that it’s too hard. Pardus, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, recommends using a standing mixer. What do I make of that, when even our experts have succumbed to the allure of the machine?

Lest I be called a judgmental scold, full disclosure is required. I have a Kitchen Aide and I use it on occasion. It’s great for whipping cream, because it allows me to do other things that require more attention, such as melting chocolate. I use it to mix cookie dough because I have a chronic, debilitating back condition that makes it very hard for me to mix heavy batters by hand. But cooking for any extended period of time can put me in bed with a slipped disc for a day (or a month. The unpredictability of it makes my life very adventurous.), so I’m not sure I even need my standing mixer. I’ve considered getting rid of it more than once, but Logan keeps talking me out of it.

I’m not advocating that we get rid of our stoves and start cooking over an open fire in the back yard, or smashing garlic against a rock to make pesto, although that might appeal to you. Still, I think food processors and standing mixers can make us lazy. They’re useful, but are they necessary? Instead of bringing us closer to the food we make, we take another step away.

There’s a burgeoning movement that encourages us to know where all our food comes from, whether it’s an apple or a side of beef. We’re told it’s important, even necessary, to shop locally. Gardens have become more popular, perhaps even trendy. These are all good developments. But shouldn’t we stick to the true essentials of cooking and baking when making something as basic as bread? If we don’t know how the dough should feel as it develops; if we just can’t be bothered with a few minutes of actual labor; and if we’re so afraid of getting our hands messy that we let machines do all the work, then I think we’ve lost something precious. We’ve truly lost our connection to what we eat.