What would it be like to live in New York City for two years and not eat out? No window pizza, no raw food from the restaurant that does it right, goodbye Chinese hole-in-the-wall, and a sad adieu to bagels. But wait, there’s a flip side. You have a kitchen and access to daily farmers’ markets, the widest mishmash of ethnic ingredients in the world, and abundant locally sourced produce (the five boroughs’ urban garden scene is astonishingly big).
So, you could spend those two years crying in your canned soup. Or, you could conquer your kitchen and all that this culinary capital has to offer in terms of ingredients and become one great cook, save beaucoup bucks, throw a lot of dinner parties, support area farmers and feel a lot healthier. Those are just a few of the benefits that New York City–based author Cathy Erway reaped when she signed off from eating out for two years and then chronicled it in her book, The Art of Eating In (Gotham, 2010).
In NYC, small, ill-equipped kitchens are as ubiquitous as the array of tantalizing eateries; so, why eat in? For Erway, her two years of home cooking were spurred by just that: how eating out was literally replacing eating in. “I looked around and saw how unpopular the act of basic, everyday cooking had become, and I wanted to find out what the ramifications of this might be.”
As with most big changes, Erway found that the first few weeks were the toughest; but eating in soon became her new rhythm. “After a few weeks, figuring out what to eat, cook, or plan around, that just became second nature. The hardest parts were the times I’d have to explain to people what I was doing, without looking crazy,” she says.
There were surprising results though, like measurably less waste. The trash can in her office cubicle remained largely empty. At home garbage went out once a week, not every day, and was void of smelly take-out cartons and extra sauces.
Another unexpected bonus of eating in was just the opposite of what you’d expect: it helped, not hindered, Erway’s social life.
The benefits of eating in
Dining out is a strong social tool. In the summer we gather at neighborhood restaurants and cafés, sipping cool drinks alfresco and let someone else heat up the kitchen to prepare food. In the winter, ducking into a familiar café for shared sustenance with family and friends can be a welcome respite from the cold.
Erway, though—young, and single through part of her adventure—found eating in didn’t limit her social outings and interactions but expanded them. “Through holding potlucks, picnics, and all sorts of communal cooking events, I formed more bonds with people than ever. Through cooking, you get to express yourself and see more sides of people, and I think it’s a very natural way to show generosity too. It inspires other people to reciprocate—hence the contagion of dinner party hosting.”
When the book first came out, on her website Erway held a challenge for people to eat in for a week and write about their experience. “I loved reading about the different ways people adjusted to it, and what discoveries they found. Everyone fashions their own routines in wildly different ways. I remember one writer had a business lunch meeting during the week, but invited that person to her office for lunch instead; it made for a warm and convivial meeting.”
When her two-year commitment was up, Erway did what most of us would; she went on a restaurant binge, calling it Opposite Week. “At times it was fun, exciting, weird and normal; but altogether by the end of the week I thought that I had felt physically better before,” she says.
With famed journalist Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked (Penguin, 2013), about the importance of cooking our own food, just hitting store shelves, Erway was clearly ahead of her time and is delighted to see home cooking heating up. “I have not yet read Cooked, but I have read the rest of Pollan’s books and I’ve been following with great appreciation his growing emphasis on cooking in his work. Cooking is, at the very least, compulsory to eating well and with greater awareness, and at the most, essential to our being a civilized and social human being.”
Erway’s two years in the kitchen did nothing to quell her joy of cooking and sharing food. She continues to eat most meals in, and eating out is usually reserved for a special occasion or exploration, like dim sum on Chinese New Year. Currently she is working on a cookbook. Find out more and check out some of her recipes.