What is lost when families are not involved in selecting the dishes they cook? For one thing, it means that they are not sharing food drawn from their own store of recipes, their heritage, or even regional specialties. I was born to an Indian father and a Chinese mother, but spent my childhood around the world because of my father’s job in the airline industry. The only time I really felt connected to my culture was at dinner every night, eating rice with chicken curry, fried noodles, vegetables in soy sauce, or coconut chutney with dosa (a kind of Indian crepe). My husband, for his part, felt a link to his Jewish heritage when he was eating his grandmother’s matzo ball soup, brisket, or Saturday-morning bagels and lox. If the two of us don’t move past the meal kits, there is a distinct possibility that many of our family’s food traditions will end with us and instead will be decided by a well-meaning executive chef in an industrial kitchen.
Krishnendu Ray, of NYU’s food studies program, points out that this transmission of food culture has been shifting slowly over the last century. “Knowledge about food was once conveyed in close proximity from mother to daughter or grandmother to grandchild,” he says. “Now we have to learn this from a company or the mass media. But we shouldn’t over-sentimentalize the past: American women have been learning about food from companies since the industrial revolution. For two generations, women have been learning recipes from the back of food packaging—think about the popularity of Jell-O molds or chocolate pound cake.” So I’m mourning a loss of culture and tradition that has already begun eroding.