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Food For Thought: What Time Is It?
How our perception of time influences our dinner
For many people the perception of time slows down in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
It’s a week that many of us take off from work, have the kiddos home from school, and spend more than a little time in our comfy pants. Even if we don’t take the time away from work there certainly seems to be a sense that there’s no rush to get much of anything done. We stay up later, sleep in more, and lose track of the date.
But time passes regardless. The marking of the new year has, for the last three years at least, been more of a clerical exercise than anything. COVID restrictions and lockdowns left us with lots of time on our hands, but often precious few of the memorable events that mark the passage of time - the birthdays, weddings, funerals, vacations, etc. may have happened, but in a much more muted way. Time passed, both slowly and in a blur.
Time, it seems, is a lot about perception.
A recent TikTok by the folks at asapscience discussed the two of the ways that English speakers perceive time. The English-speaking part is relevant of course - the words we use influence the way we think about concepts. We can either think of time as something that moves around us, or as something that we move through. If that’s a bit of a mind-bender, don’t worry, I’ll explain.
A person with an ego-moving perception of time will imagine themselves running towards a finish line - they are the one doing the work. A person with a time-moving perception of time will imagine the finish line coming towards them, as if they were on a conveyor belt.
I suspect it would be unfair to ascribe a moral value to either perspective - it’s simply the way someone’s brain works. An ego-moving perspective doesn’t mean the person is an self-centred jerk anymore than a time-moving one means a lazy attitude.
But it may just influence the way we cook.
One of the most important things you learn in culinary school is time management. Time management, in the kitchen at least, is about more than just being fast - it’s about how to maximize the flow of tasks. It’s about ensuring that nothing is unduly rushed and that tasks can be completed properly - not thrown at the plate in a haphazard way. It’s part of the culinary concept of mise-en-place (put in place) that every student learns, often the hard way.
One of the rules I learned that applies in most situations is: Oven first, stove second, cold last. It means that anything that needs to go in the oven should usually be prepared first, anything to cook on the stovetop comes second, and anything to be served cold comes last. It makes sense in terms of both timing and activity level. Once your chicken is in the oven it needs little supervision, and once your carrots are in the pot they need little supervision, so you have time to make your salad (and make it pretty too.)
It works because it maximizes the passive use of time. Time is going to pass regardless of how you organize your workflow, so why not let the passage of time do the most of the work? It’s the application of the time-moving perspective, in a most deliciously efficient way.
If I think of a meal as a list of things I have have to do it seems like a long list. I have to prepare the chicken and roast it. I have to peel and chop and cook carrots, and I have to make a salad. It’s a race to the finish line and I’m doing all the work. If I do them in the wrong order the salad will be wilting before the chicken is done. Or I can think of it this way: prepare a chicken, peel and chop some carrots, and make a salad. I need to do a few things and the rest will happen as time passes. I may even be relaxed when dinner’s ready.
The amount of time we seem to have is a major determinant of how much we cook at home, and even what we consider “cooking”. It depends who you ask and their answer, more likely than not, depends on various social and economic factors. More money than time? More time than money? Plenty of both or none of either?
A time-moving approach to cooking makes things seem like less work. It explains the popularity of slow cookers, big batch cooking, and long-rising no-knead breads - tools of passive time. They may take many hours, but much of it is time you can spend doing other things. The ego-moving perspective explains the Instant Pots and the microwaves - the tools of folks racing towards a deadline.
Now, it may be true that you really don’t have a lot of time to cook. You may leave home early in the morning and return late in the evening because of work, school, or a brutal commute. You might work shifts that make your life unpredictable and that’s okay - getting a meal of any kind together is hard work.
But consider whether your perception of time has an effect on the choices you make and on what you consider to be “too much” work. Embrace the tools and recipes that make the most of the time you have, even if it’s only minutes here and there.
Food for though as the new year begins. Time marches on (or maybe we do).