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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 12, 2009; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Interesting post, I like Cutler, but I'd like to see more evidence before drawing this conclusion about snacks vs. size of meals... the right answer feels like "both" but would be good to see more data.

I guess there is a difference between journalism and science, but your conclusions seems a little strong based on the data provided.

Posted by: wisewon | October 12, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Ezra. My first instinct is to yell "right on!" and pump my fist. Those soft drinks and microwaveable snacks may have 300,000 ingredients and mercury-dosed HFCS to boot, but they're just so *convenient*! They have their own website, too: (.org!)

Perhaps if wages were to rise and productivity to decrease a bit, we'd be in a different place? (How are wages and productivity in the United Kingdom, btw? That's where Jamie Oliver is from... .)

The "slow food" movement has a long battle before it reaches most of us here, I think. I don't think Coca Cola is afraid.

Posted by: Bertilak | October 12, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

His big impact here has been on school meals. That may have a long term impact on consumer choices, but I don't think he's changed attitudes to fast food much.

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | October 12, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps there is a relationship between the prevalence of snacking and meals for which not enough time is allotted to prepare, eat, and savor them.

In France, as I recall, snacking is frowned on (or was). The very term (in French) is derogatory.

Eating, as one of the key things we do to stay alive, can't be a social afterthought.

Posted by: harold3 | October 12, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

A much more considered response than Yglesias. Meals don't have to take that long to prepare, but if people would take more of an interest then they would probably eat more healthily--this is Oliver's point, and good luck to him I say.

Your point about snacks is an excellent one, but I can't help but think that it will be much easier to make progress on this if people would take a less lazy attitude to food.

Posted by: CorkExaminer | October 12, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Of course people spend more time working than in 1978 which doesn't help things.

Its also important to note that unless you have room for a large freezer shopping takes up a huge amount for time for just one meal.

Posted by: endaround | October 12, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

One logical flaw in Yglesias's analysis: you can listen to your MP3 player WHILE you are cooking. (Hell, you can even go answer some email while waiting for the water to come to a boil.) New technologies/activities and cooking are not necessarily mutually exclusive. After all, you can't watch a Netflix rental at a restaurant either, really.

I tend to think Oliver is moving in the right direction, especially in focusing his attention on younger people. That, combined with the growing popularity of shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef, whatever their value, is giving cooking a cool factor it, frankly, never had.

I sort of dispute that cooking has been relegated to the "yuppie" classes exclusively. I shop at a wholesale fish market where the preponderance of clientele is recent immigrants and people of all stripes, in addition to the yuppies looking for that exotic experience. And I'm embarrassed to admit that when a new Whole Foods opened on the southern edge of the downtown area here in Chicago (alas, I've been boycotting them the last few months), I was sort of surprised to see that it drew a very large black clientele, their carts overflowing with organic produce. We have certain assumptions that are not entirely accurate.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | October 12, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

This is a much better comment than Yglesias' who, I think, would rather entertain himself with something other than cooking.

Unless you have a big family, a freezer won't help you with fresh ingredients. For two people, I can buy enough fresh ingredients by shopping on Friday at the store, on Saturday at the Farmer's Market and a smaller stop at a local produce place on Tuesday or Wednesday. Plus the veggies I grow. And we have a moderate-sized refrigerator. We eat fish once and meat and chicken three or four times. We eat dinner out once a week on average, maybe less.

What it takes above all is planning as much as time. Thinking carefully before shopping, planning the meals a week at a time, cooking something like a small pork roast one night and making vindaloo the next, or a chicken and rice dish that lasts two nights, or roast chicken that lasts two nights plus a pasta on the third. Canned organic tomatoes are a cook's best friend.

I did it much the same way before I retired, though I did more cooking on weekends and used more canned beans.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 12, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

this is an excellent post in general, but i think our host is a little starry-eyed about how "cheap" it is to cook at home.

yes, you can cook "cheaply" at home, but it requires: a.) intensive planning so that you have the necessary ingredients, buy them inexpensively (on sale, for example, since unlike a restaurant, you don't get to buy things at wholesale), and can prepare them in a timely way; b.) you have most of your meals at home, since the really big savings occurs via leftovers and planning them in, and if you're only eating home once or twice a week, you don't really get that leftover benefit; c.) you eat relatively down the food chain (little or no beef, lots of rice and beans).

my experience, with a family of 3 (and both my wife and l like cooking) is that the benefits of home-cooked meals aren't particularly financial, since we fail on a, b, and c; rather, the benefits are social - the enjoyment of the smells of cooking, the ability of the 5-year-old to partiicipate, the fact that we don't have to take the time to go somewhere and get back home.

Posted by: howard16 | October 12, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Can you please make people stop drinking Coke?

Thank you.

Posted by: KathyF | October 12, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I've said my piece at Matt's.

For the British version, Oliver went to the town that was most resistant to the "school dinners" project -- where mothers famously shoved snacks through the railings of the school fence at lunchtime. He met up with parents who fed their children takeaways five or six nights a week -- ones who were on benefits or low wages, and were getting into debt because of the cost while their kitchens stood un-used. So the issue becomes one of an unsustainable dependency upon sources that are more expensive and less healthy.

(The big difference that he's going to face in the US is that the food service industry, with its low wages, barely-existent health coverage and subsidised inputs makes possible the 99¢ menu in a way that doesn't apply in the UK. Another big difference is one of access to ingredients -- even the car-less in Britain are generally a bus ride from the supermarket, and population density has allowed home delivery to become cheapish and commonplace across the entire social spectrum.)

"When you think about preparing food, there are three types of costs: price-cost, time-cost, and energy-cost."

Oliver's dealing with another -- the sunk cost of knowledge, good eating habits and basic cooking skills. Some of that is the job of schools, but part of it's about restoring broken generational bonds.

I was more ambivalent about the "Ministry of Food" concept because it seemed slightly naive in its vision of people giving their friends and neighbours cooking demos at home, but to give Oliver his due, he foregrounded the scepticism of the people he worked with.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 12, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you Ezra. The rise in the obesity incidence is multi-factorial. Snacking, widely disseminated lousy nutritional advice, less exercise, more soda, sophisticated advertising, more sedentary recreational choices, and who knows what else all contribute to the problem.

Yesterday I made a half-recipe of Dan Lepard's superb foccacia. We ate the entire freaking thing while it was still warm. Not much nutritional value there despite the fact that it was homemade. Calorically and nutritionally, we would have been way better off with a couple of Asian salads from McD's.

Posted by: J_Bean | October 12, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Please. It's "cachet," not "cache." "Cache" is where you hide something.

Posted by: rocktripe | October 12, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

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