Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why don't people cook?

Michael Pollan, author of the books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, addressed this question from multiple angles in a recent (and very lengthy) article written for the New York Times. I won't reiterate his thoughts. I'll let you read the article for yourself.

I have been thinking about this same question, too, for many years. At least 25 years ago, I read an article in Parade Magazine that said cooking would go the way of sewing; that is, most people would know how to thread a needle and sew on a button, but very few people would be able to (or want to) sew every day clothes as was done in earlier days. Yes, those days are gone for the vast majority of people, for better or worse, and while I do own a sewing machine, only rarely do I pull it out. But not cooking? I found that thought both hard to believe and a source of dismay from a personal and professional perspective.

Yet, I have been watching that happen. I remember the day a friend with a college degree in Home Economics told me, even before my first breast cancer diagnosis in 1984, that she found it hard to believe I actually made my own tomato soup from our home-grown, home-canned tomatoes rather than just opening a can of soup purchased at the grocery store. Still cooking from scratch in the early 80's, apparently I was already a novelty (dinosaur?) in my community of stay-at-home or part-time working moms way back then.

However, I confess, even my family became enchanted with home-delivered pizza when it burst into a part of every day life in the late 80's. In fact, shortly after finishing chemotherapy for my second breast cancer in 1995, I looked at the large number of pizza delivery boxes in our recycle bin and thought to myself, "How did THAT happen? Nooooooot good at all for any of us! What else aren't we cooking for ourselves anymore?", and even though I was still struggling with debilitating post-chemo fatigue, I made the decision on the spot to "go back to cooking again".

I don't disagree with the many factors Michael Pollan gives as reasons for why we are eating the food we do and why we are not cooking. Additional factors can be added to the discussion related to feminist thoughts that the kitchen and cooking were identified as something from which to escape, i.e., 'woman's work' (even 'drudgery'), and at the very least, there is no disputing the fact that it is still the norm in most households for women to spend more time in the kitchen than men.

However, when discussing possible reasons for why we have become so disconnected from our food sources, why we are eating processed foods high in salt, sugars, fat and low in fiber as our primary diet, plus why we are not cooking 'from scratch', one additional potential reason that I have not seen raised or discussed in any depth is that (by my observations) most people do not take a moment either individually or as a group to express some words of thanks, a grace or blessing, for the foods they are about to consume.

I have no background to write a scholarly essay on possible reasons for the frequent absence of the practice of saying thanks or grace before a meal, so I will simply say I have a 'gut feeling' that taking a minute to regularly say (or silently express) a few words of gratefulness for having food on our plate (even in a bag or a styrofoam container) could be another way to both open the door and provide a path to ultimately lead one to begin thinking about:
• the journey of that food (its harvest season, its carbon footprint from field to fork),
• the food's story (the conditions of the animals and people involved),
• the impact of our food choices on more than one's own wallet (personal health, the health of the planet, the economic health and wealth of one's own community),
• etc, etc, etc., plus,
• how cooking one's own food 'from scratch' and from thoughtfully chosen ingredients can positively impact all of these factors.

Any one of these points can be the first step to choosing to eat differently, i.e., off the grid of our industrial food and agricultural system, and/or beginning to cook or 'going back to cooking'. (And just to be clear, perhaps to the point of being silly, by no means am I saying that all people who do say grace before meals already cook from scratch with only healthy, sustainably-raised foods, nor am I saying that one must say grace prior to a meal in order to cook with healthy, sustainably-raised foods.)

My own path 'going back to cooking' plus cranking up my food choices from healthy to 'ultra-healthy' began in 1995 with a very narrow and deeply personal focus, to optimize my own health after a cancer diagnosis and the overall health of my family, which then evolved over the next 14 years in a step by step manner to embrace and integrate all these additional food factors as listed above into my daily thinking and actions, all of which had much wider impact than just my personal health.

Each piece of information I was learning about the benefits of creating sustainable food and agricultural systems, each food choice, each new habit I put into place, was like adding another piece to a giant jigsaw puzzle, a section of a tapestry, or another square of an enormous quilt. However, while I was beginning to get a pretty good picture of the obstacles to healthy eating created by our current industrial food and agricultural systems (and how to overcome these obstacles), I had this vague but nagging feeling that I was missing something of importance and value to help hold this big picture all together.

The thread that finally stitched this much wider view of food all together for me was a discussion with my friend Ruth where she described a class she was teaching at her church about gratitude. She shared her handout with me, on which she included several graces from a wide variety of religious and literary sources. Even though saying prayers of thanks before a meal was not part of my upbringing, except perhaps at holiday meals, I instantly understood that the act of expressing gratefulness prior to each meal for my many blessings, which included the healthy food I was cooking, was my "missing link".

My husband and I have read the graces from Ruth's handout plus from the book Bless This Food:Ancient and Contemporary Graces from around the World by Adrian Butash on a daily basis for almost two years now. The moment it takes to read a grace before a meal gives me a connection to all lives and their ecosystems on our planet, and thus is a deeply spiritual act for me.

I've likely gone out on a limb here with this posting, and I welcome your feedback to my initial thoughts about yet one more possible reason why people have become so disconnected from their food and don't cook, knowing that all reasons are very worthy topics for discussion and action (plus I fully understand that I have not even touched on the vitally important topics of accessibility to and affordability of good, clean, and fair food for all people in this posting).

My deepest hope is that people will not need a health crisis like I had to open their eyes, mind, and their heart to expressing simple yet profound gratitude for their food, for an opportunity to make changes in what they eat, and for the opportunity and inspiration to either 'go back to cooking again' or begin for the first time with foods that are healthy for one's personal health plus the health of our families, our local communities, and our planet.

Yes, we still eat pizza. :-) However, it is very rare that we order home delivery pizza. It is much more common that we make our own. Really, it is easy! However, it does require planning. Here are two photos of our home-made pizzas: (1) one of the individual heart-shaped pizzas I made on Valentine's Day in 2007 (before I started blogging) and (2) a photo of a pizza recipe from my 365DaysofKale blog that has (yes!) kale as an ingredient. :-)

I will end with two of my favorite graces.

Be a gardener, dig a ditch, toil and sweat,
And turn the earth upside down
And seed the deepness
And water the plants in time.
Continue this labor
And make sweet floods to run
And noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Take this food and drink
And carry it to God
As your true worship.
~~Julian of Norwich, c.1373


The food which we are about to eat
Is Earth, Water, and Sun, compounded
Through the alchemy of many plants.
Therefore Earth, Water and Sun will become part of us.
This food is also the fruit of the labor of many beings and creatures.
We are grateful for it.
May it give us strength, health, joy.
And may it increase our love.
~~Unitarian grace

Final note - Please understand that I am not espousing any particular religion, nor any religion at all, with my post today. In the end, I think my awareness and practice of expressing gratitude prior to eating my food does distill down to the last line of the second grace, "and may it increase our love". Indeed, food can increase our love and respect for all life on this earth in the deepest possible sense. I hope it does for you, too. :-)

Diana Dyer, MS, RD


Anonymous said...

Coming from "Gen X", I can tell you that we girls were sold, IMHO, a bill of goods. I had this firebrand feminist college professor who worked 7 months per year, about 25 hours per week (small college = no publishing requirements but VERY low pay) rail on and on about how we should all work, work, work. Well, sure! Her version of "work" is great! She always told us how we should be career focused and not cook or do anything "anti-feminist" like that. Of course, wanting to be like her, I swallowed it all in.

Flash forward to when I was out of law school. There is no such thing as a work week of less than 45 hours in law and you don't get vacation (let along five or so months off). But I still swallowed the "don't cook" mantra ("don't cook" encompassed most of the "drudgery" type chores out there).

One day, I realized that I a) hate working and b) actually like cooking. I started slowly doing "drudgery" type things--canning, sewing, and now darning socks :) and found that I actually like that sort of stuff.

I feel like that I figured out that careerism is for the birds and that I was extremely naive and gullible to follow that path for so long. I realize that my work experiences were probably somewhat unique and most women probably won't go through what I did. But having said, I think there is a fair amount of women out there who will never try the "drudgery" chores for whatever reason and that is sad. I was lucky enough to find friends like you and our MLFB and that has been wonderful in that it allows me to try all sorts of new things:)

Let me end this way too long post by saying this--if I had a choice b/w dragging my ass to work and staying home and doing "drudgery" work...there's no contest. Bring on the drudgery!

(I should add that I actually do like teaching, but still.)

Happy said...

I do cook, and my husband also cooks. Right now he's in the kitchen creating whole grain bread. Our three adult daughters don't cook everything from scratch but they all can and do cook quite often. Our oldest daughter also grows vegetables and some fruit, while working at a full-time job, as well. It seems to me that we are people and we certainly do cook, so I am a bit perplexed at the jumping-to-conclusions title of "Why don't people cook?"

I do eat many simple, plain foods that I haven't cooked -- today, a fresh peach from the farmers' market, for example; and most other fruits seem best just plain, as well.

Your blogs are inspiring and encouraging -- my heart's desire is to grow kale, but at least my daughter in another state is enjoying veggie gardening and still harvesting gorgeous kale from her garden, even now in August's heat.

Diana Dyer said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I hear you........You inspired me to get out my needle and thread last night (not the sewing machine yet) and patch up a couple of items of clothing that had been out of circulation for 2 summers! Handwork, something tangible, results immediately seen based solely on my own work. It felt good. :-)

Diana Dyer said...

Thanks for pointing out that eating a fresh peach from the Farmers' Market does not need cooking. :-) A better title for my post would have been "Why are the majority of people primarily eating processed foods?", however I wanted a short title to follow up on the theme of Michael Pollan's article.

My husband cooks, too, as do both of my grown sons. And both sons grow some of their own food, too. My younger son is currently home with us for two weeks and "fretting" (rightly so) as he wonders if his neighbors are really watering his tomato plants back in Seattle.

I think it would have been more accurate to say that even way back in the 80's, I felt like a salmon struggling to swim upstream (rather than a dinosaur, which did go extinct!) through a burgeoning culture of fast processed foods. It's still not easy to eat only ultra-healthy foods, but thank goodness there is now a much wider and growing community of friends (like Patti mentioned) to share the trials, tribulations, support, and joys of eating great tasting, sustainably and locally grown healthy foods, and helping to support our local farms, too.

I'm collecting kale seeds now from the plants that over-wintered. We'll be planting our second crop of kale soon (it's quite tolerant) and I'll be sending kale seeds home with my son when he returns to Seattle, which he'll plant in his little patch of dirt at his apartment complex.

Kathleen Saraswati said...

Beautiful thoughts! Welcome back, Diana! I've missed you.

Renata said...

Thanks for a very insightful post regarding the saying grace part.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post, especially the part on saying grace. I especially like how you included saying grace even for packaged food. The Julian of Norwich quote is lovely.

I wish I liked to cook and that I was any good at it. Actually I feel that my inability as a cook is one of my biggest failures as a parent. How I admire you who can cook delicious, nutritious meals and express your love for others that way.

However, I'm fully capable of botching even the simplest recipe, and then wind up getting fast food anyway. Oh well, at least I always have fresh fruit and veggies around, but I'll never be a cook, and if I lived alone, would not even try. If you enjoy cooking, fantastic, but have to admit I dread it, and cooking stresses me out.

Diana Dyer said...

Dear Anonymous, Thank you for reading my blog, and thank you for adding your comment to this discussion. The question is still very relevant, and Michael Pollan does try to discuss this issue again in his newest book Cooked. I was still not fully satisfied with his current thoughts about why cooking is considered 'drudgery', but your reason for not cooking is completely different. I want to put some more thought into your situation, even asking some of the dietetic students working with me this summer on our farm to think about how they might respond to you. Thank you again for finding my blog. I'll be thinking about you as we finishing harvesting our garlic this week and then get it ready to take to our local farmers market.
Diana Dyer, MS, RD