Meet the Chef: Amy Trubek, author of ‘Making Modern Meals’
What’s for dinner tonight?
A simple question that we ask (or hear) every day. But that innocent inquiry can trigger a variety of responses from le chef: sometimes dinner is all planned and ready to go, sometimes it’s a headache, sometimes it’s a creative outlet, sometimes it’s only about the nutrients, and other times it’s time to order take out.
But this fluidity around cooking — the choice to cook or not cook, and everything in between — is considered modern according to Amy Trubek, who recently released her third book, “Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today.”
“In our research, we noticed that there has been a major shift over the past 75 years,” Trubek explained. “We increasingly have other people cook for us, whether it’s a meal out at a restaurant, take out or prepared food from the grocery store. Every single woman doesn’t own cooking anymore.”
That is, cooking isn’t necessarily wrapped up in the female identity like it once was.
“We’re trying to get people to rethink how they cook,” said Trubek, who is a trained chef herself. “When you cook is it a chore, an occupation, an art, a craft or for health?”
These five categories organize Trubek’s book into five tidy chapters.
“We navigate between all of these categories every day,” she said. “You don’t consciously realize it but most Americans are doing this.”
That includes Trubek, who’s fascination with all things culinary began as a kid. She and her mother used to watch Julia Child on TV and would then try to recreate a meal from Child’s infamous book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Trubek spent her high school years in Belgium, where she and a friend started their own catering business and she baked cookies and bars in a local restaurant.
She continued her culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then moved to Pennsylvania, where she earned her undergrad degree from Haverford College, and her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. Later that year, she and her husband Brad Koehler (who now runs Windfall Orchard in Cornwall) moved up to Montpelier to work for the New England Culinary Institute. By 2002, the couple moved down to their orchard in Cornwall.
Trubek took a job with the University of Vermont in 2004 and is now the Associate Professor in the Nutrition and Food Science department and Faculty Director for UVM’s Graduate Program in Food Systems. On top of the undergrad and graduate courses she teaches, Trubek has been focusing her research recently on cooking as a cultural practice.
“With a background in food service, I don’t have a moral issue with other people doing the cooking for us,” she said. “It’s more a concern about our sense of empowerment around food. Are we conceding something? Is that what we want? I think these are important questions to consider.”
With the help of her grad students, Trubek’s research for her most recent book entailed interviewing people (primarily in the Northeast, including some folks in Addison County) and videotaping them as they made dinner for two. She also did “textual analysis of iconic American cookbooks … for assumptions about what Americans do or do not know about cooking,” and identified “long-term changes in the American food system and the impacts on everyday cooking.”
“One thing I noticed, was how inefficient people are in their relationship to space and time when they cook,” Trubek said. “Another trend is that dinner was not one person’s job; it was much more ad hoc.
“With the rise of commercial food production, you have the cooking happening not in the homes,” Trubek said. “When you consider that not cooking for your family used to be only for the super rich who had servants, the advent of prepared foods has democratized the ability to have women not have to do the work. Some people have been very liberated from these changes.”
Trubek thinks of her own two grandmothers; one who loved to cook and the other who was burdened by it. “My grandmother who didn’t like to cook would have been much happier these days,” she said.
Some might look at this trend as a loss of cooking culture, or a decline in culinary skill. But Trubek doesn’t see it that way.
In addition to her research, she looks at her own teenage daughter’s interest in cooking. “We like to watch ‘The Great British Baking Show’ together,” Trubek explained. “Culinary knowledge is being passed on, it’s just diffused now … Cooking has transformed but it is not in absolute decline.”
Following this 10-year book project, Trubek is now working on a way to develop methods for teaching cooking.
“The most important thing is to have agency over the process,” Trubek hinted. “People should know enough to feel confident … Pick a few things and get really good at them … Today we are not focused enough on organization … You need to think ahead and plan.”
Trubek herself loves to cook. “I would never want to give it up,” she said. “For me it’s not about virtue, it’s about pleasure. Cooking can be really gratifying and a total pain in the ass.”
Editor’s note: Interested in reading more from Trubek? Check out “Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession” (2000) and “The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir” (2008).
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