Is it Really That Hard to Make Salad Dressing?

We’re all busy all the time—email, voicemail, work, gym, friends, family. But you gotta eat, right? Have we simply become too busy to cook?

That’s what some people are saying. It stems from a conversation sparked by Anthony Bourdain’s smackdown of the Food Network on Michael Ruhlman’s blog (545 comments and counting—is that a food-blog record?) and was taken up by Elise Bauer in a post on food blog Simply Recipes. Next, David Lebovitz got into the action when he asked his readers, “How many seconds does one save by opening a bottle of premade salad dressing as opposed to mixing together a few spoonfuls of olive oil and vinegar?”

The debate revolves around the interest or need for such shows as Rachael Ray’s super-speedy dinner prep, or Sandra Lee’s if-you-don’t-want-to-make-it-fake-it approach to cooking. At the root of it all lies the question, are we simply too busy to cook? Are prepared meals, takeout, and processed frozen foods all we have time for after a long day of climbing the capitalist ladder?

As David asks:

I wonder what people are doing where they don’t have time to eat anymore. When I moved to France, they practically had to nail me in my chair to get me to sit down and have a decent meal. I was so used to eating on the run (in my car, in the shower, etc.). But cooking and eating are two of the most fundamental things that human beings do, but what’s happened to us if we can’t do them anymore?

His questions have kicked up a furious debate that has gotten a bit down and dirty, as those who feel unable to regularly prepare homemade meals square off against those who think it’s wrong or ridiculous to claim that you can’t.

The complaints seem to fall into a few camps. There are those who don’t feel they have the time:

If you get off work at 5:00, stop by the market for fresh food (where the parking lot is crowded with the rest of the after-work crowd), and cook it, the kids will have about 15 minutes to eat it before they need to be in bed by 8:00. If you need to help with homework, make calls for the PTA, do some laundry, and reconnect with a spouse while the chicken roasts and you chop the vegetables, you may opt to save a few minutes with a prepared rice pilaf mix and some bottled dressing.

There are those who are skeptic of this claim:

People simply don’t want to take the chance that cooking will bleed into their TV watching is best I can figure.

Time to harangue David L. on his blog, but no time to put a chicken in the oven, cook some pasta, or saute a piece of fish to feed the kids. Puzzling.

There are those who believe that lack of cooking knowledge is the culprit:

Suppose I want something like Italian dressing. Here are some of the ways that ignorance, as well as other factors, keep me from doing it myself on the spur of the moment:

• What proportion do the oil and the vinegar need [to be] in?

• I’m comfortable that olive oil is okay. But what kind of vinegar should I use? Is my rice vinegar okay? Will the flavored vinegars I have make things taste funny?

• I don’t tend to keep fresh herbs around, because I don’t really know how to use them. Will dried herbs do? Will just throwing my dried herbs into the vinaigrette work, or will I wind up with just bits of dry, too-strongly-flavored bits of gunk in my oil and vinegar?

• If I do use fresh herbs, how much is too much? Will my minimal knife skills get the herbs small enough?

My point is simply this: making your own dressing for the first time is NOT as quick as it is for an experienced cook with skills, a repertoire of recipes that need no book, and a pantry that’s well-matched to the way that person cooks.

Some blame advertising and the processed-food industry:

Madison Avenue has successfully convinced us that we are too tired and too pressured to cook honest meals. They have huge motivation ($$$) to convince us of this and their message seems to be getting through to the last generation or two. I don’t honestly believe that MOST of us are indeed too tired or too busy to cook, but we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we are. We think we need some kitchen shortcut. We think it’s cheaper to buy pre-packaged food.

The fact is, before there was the option of takeout and the supermarket deli section, people did manage to prepare almost all their meals (imagine that).

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that my friends who complain of being too busy to cook manage to watch a significant amount of prime-time TV (are we too busy to cook or too tired to cook?). We all succumb to the occasional takeout shortcut, but too busy or too lacking in skills to be able to cook dinner from scratch? I have a hard time believing that.

Perhaps it is Madison Avenue’s fault after all.