It happens like this. My family and I are innocently eating something produced and packaged by others – mayonnaise, marshmallows, pricey squares of toasted wasabi seaweed encased in enough plastic to house a classroom hamster – when cartoonish light bulbs ping above my head. I could make this. Most recently it was horseradish sauce. Two days later a homely, dirt-spangled root was churning to mash in my food processor, my children wincing as the biting aroma leapt out, lashing at nostrils and eyes.
I enjoy cooking. I like midwifing chemical reactions, spinning a motley assortment of fridge inhabitants into something called dinner, and nourishing others with these daily experiments. Cooking connects me to the season, my home, my hands, and the earthy-sweet secrets within a beet’s rugged hide.
Despite food being a central spoke on the wheel of humanity, research confirms that we’re spending half as much time cooking as our parents and grandparents did. Of all nations, Americans spend the least amount of time preparing meals: approximately 27 minutes a day (according to an international study conducted in 2011). Additionally, the USDA reports that half the money we spend on eating goes to food prepared outside the home.
Why are we cooking less and what are the repercussions of this decline? How does cooking affect our health, finances, families, and environment? Is knowing how to scramble an egg or assemble a spontaneous meal from the outback of our fridge part of being a well-rounded human? Or is it just another chore to outsource, like sewing clothes or building homes? If cooking is continuing a conversation started hundreds of thousands of years ago, can we opt out, and simply order something to go? Is there a crucial interaction between our brains and, say, chopping vegetables – much like the synergistic partnership between meat and flame – that stokes the very fire of our DNA, making us, in essence, human?
What is Cooking?
First, what constitutes cooking? Is it the mere act of turning on the oven? Can opening cans be involved? Erin Jolley, program manager for the Southwest Colorado branch of the nationwide non-profit, Cooking Matters, defines cooking as what you perform with your high-end oven, your microwave in a hotel room, or camp stove in the woods, i.e. anything from a 10-ingredient stew to hot dogs. Jolley says, “It’s the combination of an individual’s access to resources, skill set, preferences and traditions that result in what we eat for dinner; a kind of recipe in itself, mixed with complex ingredients.”
The Family Meal Conundrum
It is well documented that while many aspects of family life have become more egalitarian, cooking falls disproportionally on women’s shoulders. Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet, once said, “I don’t think there is one thing more important you can do for your kids than have family dinner.” This quote has been dragged through the feminist mud as proof that unrealistic expectations are still slung at women. “How about hug them occasionally?” Virginia Heffernan rebuts sarcastically in her The New York Times essay, What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?
Research links regular family meals to everything we want for our kids – lower rates of obesity, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression – while boosting vocabularies, self esteem, and the intake of new foods including increased amounts of fruits and vegetables. For some families, dinner is a rarefied island of togetherness between the hustle of work, school and homework.
Some psychologists say don’t worry about the meals, these benefits come simply from spending time with your children. However, after working with thousands of families, Erin Jolley says “Cooking leads to more family togetherness; it models to children that good health is worth spending time on.”
If picky, ungrateful kids have spurred your own cooking fatigue, as well as the weary quest to find, as Heffernan says, the least “endocrinologically devastating” ingredients, the book, French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon, may provide relief. Le Billon suggests that Americans’ privileged choices plus modern parental guilt and lack of a strong culinary tradition have created entitled children who snack constantly (French advertisements for snack food often come with warnings) yet have little respect for food. Le Billon promises that feeding kids wouldn’t be so stressful if we followed the French rules including, adults and kids eat the same thing; stop the compulsive snacking (feeling hungry between meals is okay); eat family meals without distractions (devices off); relax and enjoy eat- ing, no bribes or rewards.
The Money Factor
Of all nations, Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food, just 6.4% (France spends 14%; Kenya, 45%), a number which has decreased by 50% in the past fifty years. The reason is twofold. Americans have the greatest disposable income, and, since the 1970s, our principle food production policy has been to create the cheapest possible calories. According to Bryan Walsh, in his Time magazine article Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, American farmers have increased their corn harvest per acre by 25% in the past decade through chemical fertilizer use and $262 billion in taxpayer subsidies between 1995-2010. The food industry briskly turned this abundance of corn into cheap meat, milk, eggs, soda, and snack food.
One dollar currently buys 1200 calories of potato chips (likely fried in corn oil) versus 250 calories of vegetables. This might beg the question: in a time of diet-driven disease, why isn’t our government subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables? Food activists Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle say the true costs of our cheap food show up in rising obesity rates, environmental degradation, lax safety measures and disgraceful labor practices.
Matt Kelly, personal finance coach in Durango, notes that while everyone needs to eat, food budgets allow for a tremendous range of discretionary spending. Some will pay high dollar for the health benefits of extra virgin, cold pressed, organic olive oil in a glass bottle. Others will always congratulate themselves on securing the lowest price in every food category. Kelly believes that even in a world of cheap fast food, cooking at home is always the least expensive way to eat. Cooking utilizes unpaid labor plus circumvents spending time and resources on obtaining one single meal.
Kelly spends $400 per month on groceries for his family of three (which includes the notoriously voracious species: teenage boy). His grocery store cart contains almost no prepared food, mostly fresh fruits, vegetables (10% – 25% organic), whole grains and meat (grass-fed). (Google: “dirty dozen produce” to see which fruits and vegetables are most important to buy organic.)
Jennifer Smith, a Durango mother, has made a job out of procuring what she feels is the most healthful food possible for her family. She buys, direct from the farmer, grass-fed milk and meat, pastured eggs, the freshest in-season organic vegetables and certainly the olive oil described above. She creates everything from cookies to pickles out of carefully researched ingredients. The Smith family spends a full 45% of their income on food (much like Egypt or Pakistan), which means they forego vacations that don’t involve driving their 1999 Subaru to a campground. Smith explains, “We eat this way because life is so much more enjoyable when you’re healthy!”
Erin Jolley serves 500 low-income families annually through cooking classes and supermarket tours where she teaches people on a budget how to stock their carts with healthy food. The majority of her supermarket tours take place at Wal-Mart, where she notes with raised yes, believe it eyebrows, “you can find plenty of healthy food.”
Jolley says that cooking at home saves money on the front end because you’re spending less on pre-made meals, and in the long run because there will be potentially less health-related costs.
The food industry is here to help the beleaguered cook. You can buy pre-made, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pre-formed and -cooked hamburgers, and your child’s entire portable lunch portioned into a raft of molded plastic. In order for prepared food to remain tasty, cheap and well preserved, it often contains large amounts of sugar, preservatives and trans-fats (which have been banned, limited and required to be labeled in many other countries).
However, not all prepared food is suspect. Although many prepared foods are made with cheap ingredients, Charis (pronounced Care-iss) Rose, deli manager at Durango Natural Foods, points out that her prepared foods are made with fresh, local, healthy ingredients, all of which you can pronounce. Rose also asserts that children are more likely to try new foods when they’re not prepared by Mom – Brussels sprouts, for example – sinking the theory that adventurous eating is exclusive to the family meal.
It appears that every pre-made, packaged lentil curry, granola bar or rotisserie chicken you buy costs the environment multiple times. The EPA states that 13% of all generated waste is plastic, the most common vehicle for packaged food. Plastic, from oil extraction for manufacturing to its eventual resting place in the landfill, is a train wreck of air pollution, groundwater contamination, and chemical exposure. The American Chemistry Council acknowledges “virtually all food packaging materials contain substances that can migrate into the food they contact.” Indeed, according to the website WebMD, 90% of us have detectable levels of the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in our bodies.
The Time Factor and the Cooking Paradox
If you feel like you don’t have enough time to cook, this may be because Americans spend more time working than people in any other industrialized nation. Michael Pollan reports in his book, Cooked, that since 1967 we’ve added 167 hours to the amount of time we spend at work annually. That’s equivalent to an entire month. American labor movements have historically fought for higher wages, whereas European labor movements have sought more time off.
And yet, we’re finding more time than ever for screens, including, ironically, watching people brawl culinarily on Top Chef, or Rachael Ray load her oven with bread crumb-crusted mac and cheese. We’re posting our meals on Facebook and Instagram, filling our Pinterest accounts with digitally-collated recipes. Many chefs enjoy celebrity status, perhaps, as Michael Pollan says, because “cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi.”
Could it be that lodged somewhere in our modern brains is an ancient storyline that we just can’t ignore? Or at even closer range: many of us can recall watching our mother in the kitchen, reassured by the deftness in which she approached what probably felt like the most important task we could imagine, feeding us. Perhaps we’ve traded tangible time at a cutting board for a voyeurism built on nostalgia.
If You Hate to Cook
If you don’t like cooking, coming home hungry and tired at 6 pm to the prospect of more work doesn’t help get you in the mood. Matt Kelly, finance coach, says prior planning makes all the difference, so that eating out becomes a pre-meditated choice rather than a last minute Hail Mary. Kelly’s unsexy though rational advice is to make a weekly meal plan and shop accordingly. Furthermore, “get a crock pot and a crock pot recipe book.” Kelly uses his crock pot to make healthful, simple meals that cost between $5 – $10 for at least six servings. Kelly also recommends taking a few weekend hours to cook the majority of the meals for your week: pre-chop a large amount of vegetables; cook a pot of beans; wash lettuce for quick salads; roast a few trays of vegetables and a rack of sweet potatoes; make a pot of soup; roast a chicken.
Having the right tools helps. Every participant in Cooking Matters gets a new chef’s knife because, Jolley says, “if you can’t cut a vegetable, chances of eating healthy decrease.”
In writing this essay, I hoped for a definitive answer as to why I feel compelled to steam up the already sweltering house canning salsa on a late-summer day; or to give myself carpel tunnel from slipping acres of skins off roasted green chiles. And though I can wave the banners of frugality and sustainability, this pull springs less from any philosophy than from the irrepressible fingers of my very DNA reaching for a knife when presented with a horseradish root. It’s not too far fetched to postulate that the ongoing, multi-step projects in my kitchen – bone broth, yogurt, kombucha – help to answer the ever-nagging question: “What am I doing with my life?” For a moment, it becomes clear: becoming intimate with the act of nurturing myself and others.
For the first time in human history, vast choice surrounds the act of feeding ourselves. But, perhaps this isn’t the gift we perceive it to be. If we better understood what to eat and when, rather than pursuing the cheapest, most convenient, often sugar-laden food available, perhaps we’d be pulled from the orbit of TV cooking shows back to the gravity of our own kitchens. Clearly, this is an individual choice, molded by privilege and poverty, motivation and limitation, each of these factors shaping the ingredients that come together to comprise our meals.