What 'The Naked Chef' Jamie Oliver Gets Wrong
According to the New York Times, chef Jamie Oliver's mission is "to break people’s dependence on fast food, believing that if they can learn to cook just a handful of dishes, they’ll get hooked on eating healthfully." Matt Yglesias is tired of reading this sort of thing:
If over time people were getting poorer, but the number of hours in the day was getting longer, and gender norms were shifting toward the idea that women should get married young and drop out of the workforce in order to do unpaid domestic work, then obviously people would start cooking more. But that’s not what’s happening. Compared to people in 1959, people in 2009 have more money, less time, and less ability to call on socially sanctioned unpaid domestic labor. So obviously they’re going to cook less. Or to look at it another way, there are lots of things you can do in 2009 that you couldn’t do in 1959 — read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand. There are also a lot of things you can do in 2009 that were prohibitively expensively in 1959 — fly cross-country, make a long-distance phone call to your sister. But there’s no more time in the day. Which implies that people need to spend less time doing the things that you could do in 1959.
My first instinct is to yell "right on!" and pump my fist. But thinking about it a bit more, I'm not sure how responsive this is to Oliver's dream. For one, a lot of the people who have begun cooking more are the people with the maximum number of possible entertainment options. Farmer's market cooking is considered something of a yuppie pursuit, but it's not as if that's a function of insufficiently entertained yuppies. After all, I have a DVR and a laptop and an MP3 player and lots of anytime minutes, but I do a lot of cooking. Something has been triggered in my demographic that's made a lot of people adopt cooking as a high-priority activity, even given the existence of Netflix. What Oliver is trying to figure out is why some people make that choice, while others head out to Arby's. But that's the wrong question, for reasons we'll get to in a second.
When you think about preparing food, there are three types of costs: price-cost, time-cost, and energy-cost. Cooking at home is certainly cheaper than most, if not any, form of eating out. This is particularly true if you're cooking for a family. So far as time goes, simple meals are fairly quick to prepare, and probably take less total time than trooping the family into the car and going out to Applebee's. It's energy-cost where cooking really suffers. A restaurant doesn't make you do anything. But even a simple meal requires a certain amount of preparation, and when you begin adding in fresh foods that you need to chop and side dishes that you need to time, it's really a lot of work, and it comes at the end of the day.
There are two other factors worth considering as well: taste and stigma. Chain restaurants are really quite skilled at making food taste good. Lots of cooks have, over time, decided they don't like the taste of a Big Mac or an enchilada at Chili's, but they're decidedly far from the majority on that: Those foods are salty and fatty and sweet and eminently satisfying. They are also, for some folks, a form of status: Being able to go out and buy the food advertised on TV is evidence that you're doing okay, that you can afford luxuries and convenience and nights out with your family. This is particularly true when your kids are calling for McDonald's, or begging for Fruit Loops: It's proof you can give them what they want.
When you rise up the income ladder a bit, some of that changes. There's stigma around eating fast food or Applebee's, and much of it comes from people who would think nothing of consuming the same number of calories at a place that sources its butter from a local creamery. There's a certain cultural cache in cooking, particularly if you're cooking local ingredients in a vaguely California-style. And there's a much more powerful social pressure against weight gain, in part because the average member of your circle is quite a bit slimmer (research shows that the weight of your friends and neighbors is a powerful predictor of your weight).
Oliver wants to change the way low-income communities approach meals. The problem is that the evidence suggests meals aren't driving the rise in obesity -- snacks are. A 2003 paper by economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro looked at an array of different ways to measure caloric intake, and found that most meals aren't getting much bigger. Dinner, in fact, might be getting a bit smaller. The big increase in caloric intake actually came between meals. In 1977, Americans reported eating about 186 calories outside of mealtimes. By 1994, that had rocketed to 346 calories. It's likely even higher now. That difference alone is enough to explain the changes in our national waistline. And it won't go away if we begin cooking dinners but still are purchasing 20-ounce bottles of Coke at the office.
Photo credit: Sang Tan/AP.
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