News & Ideas

Heather Paxson: Retreating to the Kitchen

Two pairs of hands roll out and shape dumplings in a home kitchen.
As a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, people are eating—and cooking—at home more than ever. Photo credit kool99

"For a great many people, daily preoccupation with cooking in the midst of the pandemic is shadowed by the worry of running out of food," says the anthropologist Heather Paxson.

This interview is part of a cross-disciplinary series examining the real and possible effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Heather Paxson is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the 2009–2010 Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. Her work analyzes how artisan craftwork has become a source of cultural and economic value in the United States. During her Radcliffe fellowship, Paxson wrote The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America, an anthropological account of the country’s renaissance in artisan cheese.

For years, we’ve been told to make our own food. It’s healthier and less expensive. Why did it take a pandemic for people to make the switch back to home cooking? At the same time, home cooks are making artisanal products. On Instagram, users show off loaves of sourdough, puff pastry, dumplings, and other projects. Why has this return to home cooking been so extreme?

What we’re seeing is not a “switch back” to home cooking so much as relentless cooking, with individuals and families preparing and eating up to three meals a day, every day, at home. Many of us are talking and sharing about cooking so much because we’re preoccupied with it. With unpredictable grocery shortages and limited opportunities to shop, I’m constantly running my kitchen inventory through my mind. What produce in the fridge is likely to spoil first, and what recipe can I find for whatever is in the pantry? If I’m missing an ingredient, what can I substitute? How can I generate variety by changing up the seasoning of a dish I made last week? Increased creativity in cooking, then, is inspired both by the pleasure of a creative outlet and by necessity. 

More ambitious cooking and baking projects showcased on social media reflect a similar twinning of pleasure and necessity. A colleague described planning a quarantine version of the reality food show, “Chopped,” in which she and her friends would each share the contents of their refrigerators and pantries, from which others would select three or four ingredients for a recreational cooking challenge. “Chopped” is all about making sport of the challenge of constraint.

I am mindful, however, that for a great many people, daily preoccupation with cooking in the midst of the pandemic is shadowed by the worry of running out of food. In a recent book, Pressure Cooker, three sociologists reveal that home cooking is in fact a mainstay of poor and working class families, for whom there’s nothing novel about the creativity required to stretch food staples such as rice and potatoes. It takes thought, skill and care to make do with less, to create a satisfying—or even satiating—meal from odds and ends. That the virtue of necessity can itself be a source of pleasure, enhancing a cook’s satisfaction in providing sustenance for others, was the theme of M.F.K. Fischer’s luminous How to Cook a Wolf, published in 1942, amid wartime rationing. Readers today might have new appreciation for her recipes for tomato soup cake or rice and spice, or, for that matter, soap.

What challenges do artisan food makers—businesses, not home cooks—face right now?

The number-one challenge is the shuttering of the restaurant industry. While outdoor farmers’ markets are thriving and local meat producers scramble to keep up with surging consumer demand, many artisan food makers, accustomed to working through specialty distributors and wholesalers, rely on restaurants for the bulk of their sales. That income evaporated overnight. The dairy sector has been particularly hard hit. When COVID-19 began spreading in the United States, cows, sheep, and goats were in the middle of spring calving, kidding, and lambing, and are now actively producing milk that can’t temporarily be turned off. Although cheese itself is a food preservation technology for milk, cheese remains a perishable good. The shelf life of fresh cheeses may be as brief as a few weeks. Specialty distributors are offering sharp markdowns to encourage larger wholesale orders. But it’s no simple matter to redirect a farm-to-table restaurant supply chain to stock the quickly emptying deli cases of chain supermarkets, which operate on the basis of pre-set inventory systems.

Artisan food producers are creatively responding to pandemic-induced constrictions of their markets, not unlike the way home cooks are learning new recipes and trying out new ingredients. Some are offering newly expanded direct-to-consumer marketing, via pickup or mail order. Others are revising their recipes and production plans. To divert more of her goats’ spring milk supply, Tricia Smith, a farmstead cheesemaker in Hardwick, Massachusetts, is pivoting from her award-winning, high-moisture, fresh cheeses—which need to be sold and consumed within weeks of fabrication—to larger-format cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that improve with age. Other cheese makers are taking up similar strategies. But will they pay off? As Anne Saxelby, a New York City–based retailer, cautions, “Will the farms have the necessary cash flow to keep their operations going until their cheeses are aged and ready to sell many months from now? Will they have enough storage space in their aging caves to house all of this inventory? And are these the cheeses the market wants?”

I will be working this summer with Oldways Cheese Coalition and the American Cheese Society, which is surveying its producer members about the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, to track such strategies and their success.

Starting in the mid-20th century, Americans were exposed to fast food options that reduced the need to cook at home. Once those options return after this pandemic, will we ditch home cooking again? Or is this a trend that is here to stay?

Again, home cooking never went away. Instead, it has been supplemented by the familiar comfort of diners and cafes; by the convenience of fast food and fast-fresh chain restaurants; by delivery service that has been a hallmark of “ethnic” restaurants, beginning with pizza; by the nutrition assistance provided by school breakfast and lunch programs; and by the rarified experience offered by fine dining. I would imagine that for every home cook so enthused by their enhanced skills and expanded repertoire that they’ll never look back, there’s another desperate to regain the comfort, convenience, and social experience of a restaurant meal. Most of us will be in the middle, supplementing home cooking with the occasional take-out or restaurant meal, or vice versa. I can’t predict which way the numbers might tilt.

I would imagine that the most enduring legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic for American home cooking will become apparent in another decade. Children and teenagers, out of a mixture of pleasure and necessity, are acquiring culinary skills and sensibilities that will serve them for years to come.

Interview was edited for clarity and length.

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