“Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” – Harry Balzer, Food-Marketing Researcher
What has happened to home cooking in America, or better yet in the industrialized world? This is an important question to ask, difficult as it may be to answer. Somewhere along the way, our long commutes and longer working hours created a system rigged against the home cook and the local farmer. We’ve lost sight of the value of cooking – of taking raw ingredients and transforming them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and of its nutritional, creative and intellectual potential. Instead, we have fallen prey to the false narrative of the processed food industry, believing that it’s easier to allow others to ‘cook’ for us. That our time would be better spent elsewhere. As a result, waistlines have expanded and intrinsic knowledge of food- where it comes, who created it, and how – has steadily declined. We move from one diet to the next, counting calories and grams of sugar, when all we really need to do is get off the couch and get back into the kitchen. It’s here where we reacquaint ourselves with what’s wholesome, nutritious, homemade food is supposed to taste like. As it turns out, cooking for yourself and your family is probably the best ‘diet’ available, the original diet, and it’s been sitting in plain sight all along.
Much research has been done on the downfall of home cooking in America. And by ‘cooking,’ I do not mean heating a pizza in the microwave for 60 seconds, as the big food corporations would have you believe. Yet the term itself has become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, women started to join the labor force en masse and corporations found their niche; bringing the processed foods that once fed troops into post-WWII homes and spreading the message of ‘liberation’ from the kitchen, as if it were a burden to bear instead of a place to gather. Over time, however as the drive for producing as much food as quickly as possible continued, profit margins overtook nutritional value. We began to see ingredients like ‘partially hydrogenated oil,’ ‘high fructose corn syrup’ and ‘maltodextrin’ on nutritional labels we didn’t question. The holy trinity of fat, sugar and salt became addictive just as it was designed to be. Convenience was king, and we lost track of health and taste in its wake.
As food author Michael Pollan outlines in his new docuseries ‘Cooked’ (https://www.netflix.com/title/80022456) the average American spends 27 minutes on food preparation today. In 1965, this number was closer to 60 minutes. Thus, we are spending less than half the time cooking today as we did 50 years ago. Furthermore, because fast food is more available, people eat on average one half-meal more per day. In short, we are eating more and cooking less. In this vein, Pollan cites Harvard economist David Cutler whose research shows that obesity is inversely correlated with cooking time. Even across all other socioeconomic indicators, this correlation holds true. The more time spent cooking food, regardless of which foods are prepared, the lower the rates of obesity and thus diabetes, hypertension and other associated conditions.
You can read the full publication here: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/2640583/cutler_obese.pdf?sequence=2..
Paradoxically, cooking is so integral to human nature that we cannot separate it from our imagination to the degree that we do from our daily lives. Television networks have seized upon this thus taking what was once culinary education in the time of Julia Child to culinary entertainment the likes of ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Iron Chef America.’ Pollan asks, what are we doing with those extra 33 minutes that we save from preparing fresh, homemade meals? The answer: often watching other people cook on television. We enjoy the thrill of watching others cook, but the prospect of doing so ourselves is largely removed from the equation. Food has become entertainment, not reality. What is wrong with this picture? Perhaps it’s time we turned the camera lens back onto ourselves in order to find out.
When we expand the frame, reality starts to set in. The Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Diabetes Translation has kept track of the number and percentage of the population diagnosed with diabetes from 1958-2013. In 1958, 1 percent of the population had Type I diabetes. By 2013, that percentage had risen to around 7 percent. That’s a difference of approximately 20 million people (http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics). Type II diabetes, formerly ‘adult-onset,’ is also affecting children in greater and greater numbers. The CDC estimates that “one in three children born in the United States in 2000 will likely develop type II diabetes sometime in their lifetime” (healthday.org). Obesity rates follow a very similar pattern. When we match up time spent in the kitchen against these worsening health trends, it’s hard not to notice a significant correlation.
Equally guilty for the loss of wholesome cooking are the agricultural giants that squeeze out local, organic farmers. As part of the post-WWII processed food movement the government also began subsidizing corn and soybeans, redirecting factories from ammunition to food production. These corn and soybean crops were then transformed into high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and chemical additives. As Barbara Kingsolver so aptly conveys in her memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “if every product containing corn or soybeans were removed from your grocery store, it would look more like a hardware store.” This single-crop, profit driven movement makes it increasingly difficult for local farmers to make a living while also removing biological diversity from agriculture as a whole.
Thankfully, the organic, ‘locavore’ movement is starting to regain traction, but it’s still an uphill battle. In order for local farmers to stand a chance, we, as community members, must support their efforts. We must recreate a culture that values time spent in the kitchen as an intellectual, creative activity more worthy of our time than watching others cook on television. We must engage with local farmers, explore the ingredients around us, rediscover how food is supposed to taste when it isn’t doused in sugar, salt and oil. As Kingsolver states, “when we walked away as a nation from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial.” Do not be fooled: the kitchen is not what we need liberating from; rather, it’s the processed food industry itself.
Below are sources where you can locate the local farmers markets nearest to you:
The confluence of these factors – the processed food industry and the decline of local, organic farming helped create the modern epidemic of disease and obesity in which we now find ourselves. What’s the remedy? Reconnect with the land. Rediscover where food actually comes from, what it looks like in the ground, how it grows. Rise above the narrative that time spent cooking could be better spent elsewhere. Take the 33 minutes you save by heating a burrito in the oven and use it to prepare a nutritious meal. Support your local farmers in their courageous work to fight crop monopolization. Shop at local farmers markets or, even better, start your own garden! Above all, know that when you pay attention to the quality of what you eat and prepare it yourself, you will never have to think about ‘dieting’ ever again.