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The other day I hopped over to a well known pancake chain for a serious pig-out session. I ordered pancakes, an egg, sausage, hash browns, toast, coffee & OJ. Thirty-five minutes later when the food finally arrived, they forgot my toast, my OJ, and never brought me syrup for the pancakes. The sausage was room temperature and my egg was more over-difficult than over-easy. I had to wait an inordinate amount of time and pay $10 for a mediocre meal which tried my patience. This scenario is reenacted countless times every day for legions of hungry patrons. Billions of dollars a year is spent on run-of-the-mill, day-to-day eateries, churning out uninspired food and lackluster service. Why? Because it’s convenient.
There are two types of people in this world; those that like to cook and those that don’t. People who like to cook actually enjoy the process of cooking. Much like an artist, it’s not just about the finished product but the successive steps as well. These people often find cooking relaxing and don’t mind spending hours on a Sunday afternoon concocting an elaborate meal. Conversely, many people experience cooking as a time-consuming, tedious, arduous chore. They may love to eat but take no pleasure in food preparation. Some folks like to cook but just simply don’t have the time. For them cooking is one more task sapping time and energy out of their already busy schedule. Work, school, kids, and other commitments preclude them from spending two hours in the kitchen every night.
Common sense would dictate that individuals partaking in a cooking class would relish cooking. Not always so. It’s interesting how many non-cooks pop up in the cooking classes I teach. (By non-cook I don’t mean people who like to cook but lack the skills, but people who dislike cooking and seek short-cuts to avoid it). The uninspired cooks always end up revealing themselves by their questions. “Can you use a microwave for that?” “What about the garlic that’s already chopped in a jar?” “What’s a good bottled dressing?” Always looking for the easy way out these folks want nothing to do with homemade stock, pie crusts made from scratch, or breadsticks that don’t come out of a can. They’re willing to sacrifice freshness, taste, and money for convenience.
People who don’t like to cook or don’t have the time to cook, eat out more. And I am not referring to fine dinning in upscale restaurants.
I am referring to chain restaurants, fast-food dives, drive-thrus, family restaurants, and other dispensers of quick, easy, and often insipid fare. As stated, even those of us who love cooking are sometimes at the mercy of the assembly line eateries because of the demands of modern life. Take my introductory scenario for example. I was on a lunch break and certainly didn’t have the time to drive home and whip up pancakes from scratch. And even when there is time, nobody, not even chefs, prepare a meal fit for a king every day. Sometimes I’m just tired and love the smorgasbord at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.
In any event, be it out of necessity or choice, the preponderance of Americans visit “food-factory” type establishments on at least an occasional basis. But, like everything in life, convenience comes at a cost. In order to get back to the office on time, or save yourself from the kitchen after a grueling day, you will pay. You’ll pay with inattentive service, overdone eggs, greasy fries, lukewarm soup, burnt toast, and unripe tomatoes, to name a few. Then there’s the financial cost. It costs your wallet as much as your palate to consume wilted lettuce. In sum, you relinquish a good deal of satisfaction for the sake of efficiency.
Generally speaking, those who embrace cooking are more inclined to be intolerant of sub par food. They’ll patronize the chain restaurant when forced, (such as within the confines of a lunch break), but prefer a quality home-cooked meal or the victuals of a fine restaurant. People who hate to cook are less likely to be as finicky about their food. They’re used to the below average slop being mechanistically churned out to the stressed and time limited masses. In essence, they don’t expect better. It is precisely this acceptance that allows the inadequate establishments to wiggle off the hook of culinary responsibility. What would motivate a restaurant to invest in better food or staff training when there are already throngs of customers lining up for their paltry bill of fare?
In summary, the garden variety eateries will always thrive because they have a never ending parade of customers amenable to the mass market feeding troughs. There are innumerable hordes that lack the time or inclination to cook, combined with a resigned, undemanding palate. They are willing to pay the gastronomic and financial cost of convenience.
In our culture, eating has become analogous to filling your gas tank; a hurried but necessary duty to be squeezed into the day’s routine. In a number of European countries society halts for an extended afternoon meal. Food is an integral and joyous part of life and this time is used to rest and bond with friends and family. A time to stop and smell the proverbial roses. We’ve lost that to a large degree in our hectic culture and sadly, that is the true cost of convenience.