Saturday, August 01, 2009

Cooking (or not) in America

Obviously I am a big believer in cooking from scratch, and I am always saddened (and amazed) when I read about how little Americans cook these days. When I saw Michael Pollan's cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine -- with the tagline "No One Cooks Here Anymore" -- I dove right in. Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, a slim volume that is one of my favorite food books (so practical and persuasive!), uses the release of the upcoming movie featuring the life of Julia Child as a springboard for the piece. He contrasts Julia's empowering cooking shows with most of today's cooking shows, which are actually more about eating than cooking. People could watch Julia's shows and feel like they could take a crack at preparing beef bourguignon or an apple tart. Julia actually enjoyed cooking and inspired others to enjoy it. Pollan notes that today's cooking shows are either about getting dinner on the table as quickly as you can with as few ingredients as possible (think Rachael Ray), or they're pure theater, like Iron Chef America.

As someone familiar with the economics of the television business I understand why Food Network airs what it does, and, really, today's food shows are just one result of the larger cultural shift away from cooking.

One of the biggest reasons for that shift is the rise of industrialized food, primarily introduced to consumers after WWII. Companies had the technology to make these foods (frozen dinners, cake mixes) and looked for ways to sell them to us. And after decades of marketing, Americans now accept cans of condensed soup, bottled salad dressing, frozen chicken nuggets, processed cheese, and brownie mix as real food, when they're really just products designed to make corporations as much money as possible. To make these processed foods taste decent, the manufacturers laden them with sugar, salt, and fat.

This is one of the reasons that Pollan argues that the decline of cooking from scratch in America is responsible for all sorts of ills, chiefly among them the rise of obesity.

I highly encourage everyone to read the full article. Click here. But here are some of my favorite quotes:

-- "Child was less interested in making it [cooking] fast and easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles." This is one of my favorite parts about cooking. It is literally the only sort of labor or craft that I can competently perform. I cannot fix anything. I cannot sew. I cannot draw well. I cannot bead pretty necklaces (like my mom can!). Like most people in my generation who do most of their work in front of computers or at service jobs, I cannot produce anything worthwhile. Except for food. I can put together a pie crust, shape a loaf of bread, transform a raw piece of meat into something healthy and delicious.

-- "Currently the most popular meal in America, as both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda." Sigh.

-- "People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children's lunchboxes." Really?? How long does it take to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Why are people throwing away their money?

-- "A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America."

-- "Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation."

For the article Pollan spoke with a food marketing expert who was very pessimistic about the idea that Americans would ever go back to cooking their own food from scratch. Pollan asked him how Americans "might begin to undo the damage that the modern diet of industrially prepared food has done to our health." The marketer replied: "Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It's short, and it's simple. Here's my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That's it. Eat anything you want - just as long as you're willing to cook it yourself." Amen brother.

Pollan argues for home cooking not only to stem the tide of obesity, but under the premise that cooking is deeply ingrained in the human beings (one of the reasons so many people watch cooking shows these days even if they don't cook). Cooking and eating together is central to what makes us human.

What's on my menu tonight? Pasta with homemade pesto sauce and cherry tomatoes from the Farmer's Market and spicy Italian sausages. It will take me about a half-hour to prepare, and Dave, Rosa, and I will sit around the table for another half-hour eating, talking, and appreciating our good-tasting food. We will leave the table feeling satiated but not stuffed and ready to enjoy the rest of our evening.

6 comments:

Megan said...

I loved reading that article. I thought about posting it too. I learned so much of this when I was researching my master's thesis on the food publishing industry. It is sad how far people have moved from the kitchen. I can't imagine not cooking as much as I do.

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