So you’re pressed for time (who isn’t?) and you decide to make a simple sauce to throw on some pasta for dinner tonight. Easy, fast, economical. You sauté a bit of fresh garlic in olive oil, maybe some chopped onions, pour in a can or two of of tinned tomatoes, a pinch of salt. Voilà!
What are the chances that you’re going to add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to your sauce? Wait, a couple of teaspoons per person, meaning 8 teaspoons of sugar for your family of four. Practically nil, right? I mean, who adds 8 teaspoons of sugar to a simple spaghetti sauce?
Prego, that’s who, the corporation that brings you convenient jarred pasta sauces. (A very modest 2-tablespoon portion will also graciously supply you with 23% of your recommended daily allowance of sodium.)
Or say you want to get ambitious and bake a loaf or two of bread. What you need: Flour; yeast; salt; water. Four ingredients. But bread baking is kind of a pain in the ass, so we farm that out to bakeries or, more commonly, big companies. What are they including in your morning slice of toast?
If you pick up a typical loaf of sliced bread, say, oh, Sunbeam 100% Whole Wheat Bread, chances are you’re going to find some high fructose corn syrup (in this case third on the ingredient list, just after wheat flour and water, so a lot of hfcs), sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, mono and diglycerides, calcium peroxide, calcium iodate, DATEM (an acronym for Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides, a substance shown to cause “heart muscle fibrosis and adrenal overgrowth” in rats), ethoxylated mono and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide (approved in the US, but banned in Europe), monocalcium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate…the list goes on an on.
All that to make something that really takes four basic ingredients. Now I’m not saying that all of these exotic multi-syllabic ingredients are harmful to you (although some certainly are), nor am I saying that you should necessarily bake your own bread (although you really should try your hand at it at least once; it’s easy and infinitely rewarding), my point is simply this: That when we leave our cooking (or food processing, as it’s generally known) in the hands of corporations, we lose a great deal in terms of our physical and emotional health.
Corporations don’t cook like we do. First of all, their pantries contain stuff like ammonium sulfate (you’ll recall from the Sunbeam bread), most commonly used as a soil fertilizer and something you probably don’t have in your spice rack. (There are over 5000 food additives that are allowed to go into our food, but “the FDA doesn’t actually know how many additives are [used]. This is in part because regulations are not only self-regulatory – so the food industry is doing the testing – but they’re also voluntary.”) Secondly, their aim is to make food that not only tastes good to consumers but leaves them craving more, and so there is generally way, way more salt, sugar and fat in processed food than in any food prepared at home.
Americans on average now spend roughly 27 minutes a day cooking, a 50% decline since the mid sixties and less time than the people of any other nation (although globally the trend is also downward). (And what constitutes “cooking” is pretty generously defined by the NDP Group, a market research company that studies American eating habits, as preparing a main dish that requires “some assembly of ingredients.” By that definition, when you spread cream cheese on a bagel or pour milk on your corn flakes, you’re cooking.) Considering, as Michael Pollan points out in his book Cooked, that “27 minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The Next Food Network Star…there are millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves.”
The decline in home cooking and the rise of commercially prepared meals (70% of the average American’s diet now consists of processed food) have had a tremendously deleterious effect on our physical well-being. Obesity, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are all chronic health problems that are directly linked to the food we consume, and all have seen dramatic rises in the last 40 or so years. We are, it would seem, eating ourselves into ill health.
We had an American friend come visit us here in Spain, and one of the first things she noted was the lamentable lack of “grab and go” places here. (Spain, and Europe in general for that matter, has never been much of a grab-and-go culture – though that, unfortunately, is beginning to change.) Increasingly, we eat things on the run, and often alone. We engage in what’s called “secondary eating” – that is, “eating while engaged in another activity” – working, walking, texting, emailing, watching videos, driving. That last is particularly troubling; 20% of American eating is done in a car. Needless to say, not much of the food consumed in moving vehicles is food prepared at home with healthy ingredients.
But it isn’t only our physical health that is damaged by the decline of home cooking – our emotional and social well being are also taking a hit. Many of my fondest childhood memories involve being in the kitchen with my mother, baking, chopping, measuring, or just sitting at the table watching her cook. Oftentimes what she’d cooked ended up on the table in big bowls or casseroles, to be spooned out in steaming servings to each of us as we caught up on what was going on in our daily lives. Sometimes that meant just listening to my parents talk about adult stuff – politics, religion, current events. It’s where we kids learned table manners, self-control, listening, waiting our turn to speak and other conversational arts. And always the central gravitational force that pulled us all together, the terra firma upon which we built strong familial bonds, was the food – cooked with thoughtfulness, care and, of course, love. When we eat separately, solitarily, secondarily, distractedly, we lose many of those interpersonal skills and connections, those shared memories and comforts.
When we abandon home cooking food becomes fuel, an abstraction, a commodity rather than a connection – a connection between family, friends, farmers, communities. We hand over an increasing proportion of our self-reliance and independence to distant corporations, edge ever closer to becoming pure consumers rather than producers.
Now of course I realize that we’re all whirling in a maelstrom of work commitments, emails, sports practices, piano lessons – all of the cares and commotions of modern living. We’re busy, goddammit, and we don’t have time to cook for ourselves. I know this, so what I’m making is a modest proposal.
Set aside a couple of nights a week for cooking up a meal from scratch. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t necessarily have to be organic or vegan or even contain either kale or quinoa. Just find a handful of homemade dishes that work for you and take the time to actually make them. Sit at the table with your kids without any electronic devices. Make eye contact. If the phone rings, ignore it. It might be difficult at first, but you’ll find it easier as you go along.
Or here’s another idea. Take a weekend afternoon and whip up a couple of dishes – a soup, a casserole, a lasagna, whatever – that can be refrigerated or frozen and served up at a moment’s notice during the week. “For,” in Michael Pollan’s words, “is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?” Nope, Mike, there is not.
What’s for dinner tonight: Sweet and Sour Short Ribs with Pickled Onions, Sauteed Spinach, and Smashed Potatoes