I like listening to Michael Pollan speak. He has a very honest-sounding voice, and is as engaging when talking as he is when writing.
Last week he wrote a lengthy piece in The New York Times Magazine called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” in which he observed that the average American spends more time watching people cook on television than they do actually cooking.
Naturally, it made quite a stir — enough of a stir that NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed him. And that, my dear readers, is what I want to share with you. For, as you now know, I like listening to Michael Pollan speak.
He made several observations which tied quite nicely into my idea of cooking as soulcraft.
First, he commented on how consumers initially rejected boxed mixes in which you simply had to add water. The marvels of modern science and industrialized food had given us powdered eggs and dry milk, so food manufacturers bent on selling us convenience created cake mixes using these wonders. All you had to do was add water, stir, and dump it into a pan.
The public hated them! They felt like such mixes were “cheating.”
Then the food industry marketers realized that if they just made the mixes a little more complicated, if they just gave consumers something slightly more hands-on to do, they would feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from cooking. And so, the modern cake mix was born. Now we crack open an egg, add water & oil, and stir.
I believe that the desire to feel that tangible sense of competence is hard-wired into our psyches. So, even though we may embrace the convenience food, we don’t want it to be too convenient. Otherwise, it wouldn’t feel like we’d produced something of value with our own two hands.
It’s one of the primary reasons why cooking is ennobling: it gives us a sense of agency and competence. If you deprive us of that sense of accomplishment, we don’t feel like we’ve “cooked” anything at all.
Another point Pollan made, which I found fascinating, was that there are many tasks we outsource today that we don’t watch people do. We will never have a television show in which we watch people iron their clothes or change their oil. So, Pollan asks, what is it about cooking that makes people want to watch others do it?
He theorizes that it’s because we respond viscerally to food. We like the alchemy of taking unpromising raw ingredients like meat, vegetables, and herbs, adding fire, and ending up with something attractive to eat. It’s comforting. It’s beautiful to watch.
Yet I’d take it one step further. I’d say that having given up the craft of cooking, we feel its loss. If we can no longer produce something authentically beautiful in our kitchens, we’ll at least watch others do it. And — as with all drama — it will be cathartic. It will fill a void, purge an instinctual need.
Pollan also briefly touched on how cooking brings joy — the joy of work. In The NY Times Magazine article, he compared the emptiness of office work with the satisfaction of cooking. He writes, “How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure?”
Again, I’d say the difference lies between the work of a cog in a machine, repeating dull tasks over and over again without any sense of purpose, and the work of a craftsman.
The work of a craftsman requires virtue and ennobles the soul. It makes us better people. Along that same vein, Pollan said in his interview that cooking “delays gratification.” I said it requires patience. Either way you put it, cooking real food from scratch makes us more fully human.
But, says Pollan, it’s not just about the soul. It’s also about health — our individual health, environmental health, and arguably the health of our nation’s security.
As it relates to individual health, the cost of convenience is sickeningly high. The work of cooking from scratch makes you think twice before you begin making a cake, or french fries, or donuts. These are involved foods to prepare, and if we made them from scratch they wouldn’t be daily meals. They’d be special occasion foods. Yet by outsourcing our cooking to others, we’ve made them every day foods. We’ve made these ultra-calorie dense, high carbohydrate foods too accessible. And we’re paying the price in rising obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates.
As it relates to environmental health & national security, the cost of convenience may not be so immediately obvious. But, it’s there — the hidden cost of our petrochemical based agricultural model in which oil is not only fuel to plant, harvest, and transport food, but also fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide.
For a lot of people, the food system works just fine. The fact that it makes people sick, that it takes a toll on the environment, workers, and our national security is hidden from most people. So, to reform our food system, we need to raise people’s consciousness.
The first step in doing that will be to help people return to cooking real food. It’s the key that unlocks the puzzle of reformation.
But, you object, cooking takes too much time! In our zeal for efficiency and our quest for convenience, we honestly believe that cooking is far too time consuming to be practical.
Well, my friends, let this be your first mission. Cooking from scratch does not take any more time than cooking with so-called “convenience foods!” I know it from my personal experience, but I also have a scientific study to back me up!
A recent observational study done by Margaret Beck out of UCLA discovered that — on average — there is no statistical difference in the total preparation time for those cooking meals relying heavily on convenience foods and those cooking meals from scratch. In other words, it took the same time for food to arrive at the table, regardless of how you prepared it.
The only time saved was in “hands-on” time — time spent actually manipulating ingredients and heating food. Families relying heavily on convenience foods saved 10 to 12 minutes per meal of hands-on time.
Granted, that is 10 minutes you could be doing something else. But how do most people spend that time? Watching TV? Chasing kids? Emptying the dishwasher?
Are those activities really worth the cost? Before you answer, count the cost — the real cost. To your health. To your happiness. To the environment. To your soul.
Count the cost, and choose Real Food.
This post is participating in Kelly The Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday carnival. Go check it out!
(photo by Rubin110)