Sunday, August 2, 2009

We Like to Watch

Why is it that Americans are so keen on watching Food Network, but so reluctant to cook for themselves?

As a devotee of Food Network's primetime line-up, I fall into this category. But, with the launch of Undomesticated Me, I have been striving to not only be a couch potato, but to cook potatoes (and other stuff) as well!

When it comes down to it, we all have good excuses about why, as a nation, we're not cooking as much as we used to -- we're busy, we're lazy, and there are more easy, cheap mass-produced alternatives.

In Michael Pollan's excellent article in this week's New York Times Magazine, he explores this issue in depth.

According to Pollan, the decline of every day home cooking has several causes:

women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens [in 1963]. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

Not surprisingly, Pollan comes to the conclusion that something is lost when we rely on fast, cheap mass-produced food to nourish us.

When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite. Now that check is gone, and we’re struggling to deal with the consequences.

The consequences, of course, are that we are heavier as a nation than we were back in Julia Child's time. The irony is that we are also more fitness-crazed and diet-obsessed. Pollan suggests that perhaps the best diet is to "Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

It's a provocative and somewhat far-fetched notion (what if I just "cook" myself homemade ice cream sundaes?), but, as Pollan acknowledges, it's unlikely that the age of home cooking will ever return.

Luckily, it's not an all-or-nothing deal. We can all do our little part in trying to reclaim the kitchen. I, for one, won't be ordering in and nuking a frozen dinner in the microwave tonight. I don't know we'll have for dinner, but I know that Avo or I will cook it ourselves.

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