Of Stew and Politics

Both require what we no longer have enough of—patience and time

In the fall, my daughter will move into an apartment in West Philly and begin her post-college life. This has her thinking about things. For example, she asked the other day: “Mom? How do you make stew?”

I took a breath, then launched into the basics: buy an inexpensive cut of beef or lamb, cube it, dust the cubes with flour, brown them in a little oil, add onions and garlic and carrots, then dump in broth and some wine if you’ve got it and let it bubble along for three hours or so.

“Three hours?” Marcy echoed in disbelief. “It takes three hours?”

“Well … yeah.”

“But what if I’ve only got half an hour?”

If you’ve only got half an hour, honey, you’re not having stew.

I thought about that conversation over the weekend, as another series of grand plans to fend off our government’s impending default crisis bit the dust. What is the matter with the guys in Congress, that they can’t play nice? That they can’t listen to the arguments from the other side of the aisle, give a little, get a little, practice the art of compromise? Why does it seem like every last one of them is determined to come up with his own plan to fix things, instead of working together on a joint plan? Why can’t they just grow up?

My husband works at hospitals with a lot of different people. He says hardly any of them know how to cook anymore. They eat Wawa shorties or open cans or heat up frozen entrées or stop at McDonald’s. I believe it. What else could explain the astounding popularity of cooking shows, in which real live people chop garlic and sauté spinach and create beautiful plates from crates of mystery ingredients? Only people who don’t cook could be so enthralled by watching people who do.

We used to reserve this sort of awe for experts with talents every mom didn’t have—mythic sports figures, say, or ventriloquists, or those guys on the Ed Sullivan show who spun the plates on sticks. We understood that expertise takes time to develop, and deserves our respect. Doctors were respected. Politicians were, too, because they’d put in time at their specialty.

These days, we prefer pop-up politicians, instant experts like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain who come out of nowhere, pizza pushers and morticians and exterminators and foster moms. Guys with genuine, dues-paying political chops, like Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty, are considered boring. Nothing’s worse than being a “career politician.” And maybe that’s why we are where we are today.

Career politicians know how to make stew­—and that making stew takes time. They don’t run on flavor-of-the-day platforms; they’ve thought about the broader issues. They aren’t prima donnas. They know good government doesn’t come out of a can or a freezer. They can cook from scratch.

I don’t want to eat at a restaurant where the chef was something else besides a chef two weeks ago. I don’t want to go to a doctor who’s inexperienced medically. And I want politicians who’ve put in time as politicians, dammit—who get the concept of public service, and who understand, as the dictionary puts it, “the art or science of government.”