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Do We Need to Cook?


I had wanted to write something brilliant and witty about Michael Pollan's long paean to cooking, but I couldn't figure out what to say about it. Something was nagging at me. Something felt off in the article. But I didn't know what. So I let it go. Until yesterday, when Tom Philpott nailed it:

[T]hrough most of history, cooking was generally something to be avoided—an activity people strived to be able to pay (or force) someone else to do. And that history, no doubt, explains much of the appeal of fast food and convenience food. In [Julia] Child’s time, “middle class people had maids or someone to help” cook; today, everyone does. Just walk into a McDonald’s with the equivalent of an hour’s minimum wage in your pocket, and you can eat like a king (at least in calorie terms).

This idea of cooking as a virtue—as something one should do, like exercising and tooth brushing—seems quite new. Not wrong—just new. And that means that by giving up cooking, we’re not becoming less human, as Pollan suggests, but succumbing to an all-too-human impulse.

If we're pinning our salvation on an unstoppable wave of new and enthusiastic home cooks, then we might as well all sew elastic into our waistbands now. I'm young and I'm childless. I love to cook. I can afford good ingredients. I take pleasure in time spent before the stove. Cooking is literally my only true hobby. And I make my own dinner three times a week. On a good week.

Is my experience universal? Of course not. But the trends are not favorable to cooking. People are spending more time at work. Both partners are wage-earners. Parents want to spend more direct time with their children. Takeout is more convenient and less costly. Friends live farther away. If our current mode of eating is unsustainable -- and the health impacts suggest that it certainly has some problems -- then a new norm will have to be established. But it will have to be established in concert, rather than in contradiction, to the trends of modernity. Luckily, there's no reason that can't happen. How we eat is more important than whether we cook. Pollan is counting on the fact that people tend to cook healthier foods than they purchase. But I think changing purchasing decisions will take a lot less work than changing actual habits and teaching brand new skills.

Photo credit: Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  August 11, 2009; 4:40 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Next: Organic Foods vs. Conventional Produce


good news!!
why cook when you live in the garden of eden?

many ripe, raw foods taste delicious and could not be more aesthetically pleasing, colorful and aromatic.
why cook them when you can even eat their healthy jackets?
none of the nutrients have been boiled, burned or zapped away.
why spend time making boiled vegetable soups when you can eat crispy stalks of celery, ripe tomatoes, zesty onions?

why bother doing complicated recipes with fresh, ripe strawberries, peaches, apples, bananas?
how can you improve on perfection?

i understand that some things do require cooking.
but so much food is healthful and perfectly delicious in its original state.....why make busywork for yourself?

Posted by: jkaren | August 11, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I believe that it was Agatha Christie who said that when she was a young woman she couldn't imagine that she would ever be so poor as to be unable to maintain servants, nor so rich that she would be able to afford a motor car.

Posted by: bdballard | August 11, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

You sound a lot like me before I had a kid. Now I have $1380 less in disposable income every month because of daycare, and a happy hour drink that turns into burgers or pizza means I don't get to see the little one before he goes to bed. I've gone from cooking three nights a week to cooking seven nights a week. Everyone I know with kids is probably way closer to my existence than yours. So you may want to recalibrate your assumption about trends on this one.

Posted by: J-D-M-S | August 11, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

My thoughts exactly, J-D-M-S. Who are these people are that have all that money to get takeout and go out to eat all the time? While my parents did have a bit of dependence on pre-made food (the occasional frozen burrito and the like), for the most part they specialized in developing a repertoire of recipes that could be made in 20 minutes or so.

Even in my case, without children, trying to save up for a house and a car is incompatible with eating out 4 days a week. Sure, some people do it, but they have less in savings.

Posted by: constans | August 11, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

J-D-M-S gets it right: having kids is not the barrier to cooking that people imagine - I cook for our family of 4 6 nights a week (we do go out once a week).

But, more important, there's a contradiction between 2 of Ezra's premises:

"Takeout is more convenient and less costly"
"But I think changing purchasing decisions will take a lot less work"

Takeout is only less costly insofar as it is less healthy. As soon as you get into "real" takeout food, made with fresh vegetables and less-processed meats, you're looking at costs far higher than scratch cooking. As long as you're just looking at cost and convenience (with quality/health as a third consideration at best), scratch cooking loses every time.

Posted by: JRoth_ | August 11, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

"If we're pinning our salvation on an unstoppable wave of new and enthusiastic home cooks, then we might as well all sew elastic into our waistbands now."

Great line.

Married people likely do cook more than singles - but still less, I'll bet, than they did a generation ago.

That said, it looks like that kind of home cooking isn't going to save us either. Married couples in their 20s and 30s gain weight relative to single peers. The current theory is that they stay home on the couch more often instead of going out and that they eat more - whether they go out or cook.

Ezra, let's hope Sarah Palin doesn't hear about this - or Obama's secret government divorce panel that will force people to break up in the name of public health!

Posted by: Sophomore | August 11, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Yes! Thank you for writing this. I like a lot of what Pollan writes, but with this piece I felt like I was being scolded to, as I don't cook much and when I do it tends to incorporate a lot of packaged foods (like gasp! rice in a box or sauce from a jar). I'd add that the other modern trend not working in favor of more frequent cooking is the increasing percentage of our lives that we spend unmarried and living alone. It's easier to motivate oneself to cook if you have someone to share the meal with (even better if you have kids who you'd feel guilty feeding frozen pizza / Chinese take-out to night after night). Yeah, Pollan was being unrealistic here, and not dealing with the world as it is, not how he would like it to be.

Posted by: bupkiss | August 11, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Jamie Oliver's supposedly doing a combined US version of his School Dinners and Ministry of Food documentaries, which are all about changing habits and teaching skills. (As such, there's been some cynicism about the effectiveness of his methods.)

Having seen the original Ministry of Food, it's pretty clear that there's a big difference between those who live on takeouts today and those who had servants or ate in restaurants or cookhouses a century ago.

It's not just that the class divisions are misleading -- many of the working-class takeout-eating women in Oliver's show would likely have been in domestic service back then -- but as Pollan has noted, food itself has changed more for those in the developed world in the last 50 years than in thousands of years previously.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 12, 2009 1:27 AM | Report abuse

Uh ... Ezra ... "People are spending more time at work. Both partners are wage-earners. ..."

... too busy health blogging to notice there is a deep recession on?

Lots of people are spending less time at work, and lots of couples that had two wage earners presently have one. Millions, even.

And it'll be a long slow climb out, even if we were to adopt an aggressive policy stance in pursuit of a Brawny Recovery to actually make that climb.

Posted by: BruceMcF | August 12, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

The biggest thing that has killed my interest in cooking at home is that I cook in a restaurant. I'll note this, don't ever walk into a restaurant 5 minutes before the kitchen closes and order. That is bad karma and it will come back to haunt you someday.

Posted by: Parmenides | August 13, 2009 12:20 AM | Report abuse

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