If we took cooking seriously, we could change the human condition. I’m not kidding. French food expert, Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin once said that cooking made us who we were; that the discovery of fire in cooking “had done the most to advance the cause of civilization.” In 1964, anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss regarded cooking as a way to distinguish humans from other animals. Since then, other anthropology experts, including Richard Wrangham of Harvard University contends that it was the discovery of cooking with fire, more than anything else that made us human. Wrangham says that cooking helped create cultures and societies because cooking gave us the meal, the occasion to gather and eat. Sitting around a table (or a campfire) we learned to share food, make eye contact, communicate; show affection. All this served to civilize us.
All of that stands to become extinct in the face of the way we eat today. We seem to be regressing, grazing through our days like foragers in the wild. We eat at gas stations, fast-food windows, in stadiums, in movie theaters, in our cars, as we walk down the street, sitting on a curb, standing over the sink; skipping sit-down meals entirely for daily fare that consists largely of snack food.
Our willingness to outsource our food preparation to food corporations and fast-food joints has taken a huge toll on our health and vitality.
A 2003 study done by Harvard economists revealed that the rise of food preparation outside the home could easily explain the accelerated rise in obesity in this country. And while you think you have heard this before, here’s a new twist that will make this ring true for you. The mass production of food has not only driven down the cost of food, but also the amount of time it takes to get the food. French fries did not become a common food choice in our culture until The JR Simplot Company perfected the process of freezing fried potatoes for the home cook. Before that, we had to buy, wash, peel, boil, pat dry, and then fry the potatoes if we wanted French fried potatoes. It was messy and took time and effort. Not anymore.
Similarly, mass-produced cakes, pies, cookies, and other previously labor intensive foods have made them so much more accessible in our daily lives. These foods are no longer just for special occasions, but are everyday fare. We can indulge at any moment of any day. How could we do anything but get fat?
It seems that as the time and work factor involved in food preparation falls, obesity rises. If you observe cooking patterns across various cultures, you will see a clear picture emerge. The more time a culture spends on food preparation, the lower their rates of obesity. Turks, for example, spend the most time on cooking each day, about seventy-four minutes (at least in 2010). Thirteen years ago, these people enjoyed an obesity rate of less than 15 percent. Since 2008, an increased urbanized and hectic society has changed that. People are cooking less and their weight is creeping up—fast—with women gaining thirteen pounds over the last thirteen years and men gaining fifteen pounds during that same period.
Think about it. When you have to prepare all that you eat; when you can’t just tear open a package, you think twice before eating. You decide if the food you want is worth the wait and the effort it will take to prepare it.
An interesting 1992 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that underserved women who cooked meals on a regular basis were far more likely to eat a healthy diet than more affluent women who did not cook. This tells us that the act of cooking matters a great deal to our health and wellness, regardless of our socio-economic status. This tells us that we need to cook to stay well.
It shouldn’t surprise us. When we hand over the task of cooking to food corporations, fast-food companies, and take-out windows we will be consuming loads of fat, sugar, and salt, the three ingredients that we are hardwired to love, and will keep coming back for more and more processed foods. When special occasion foods like cakes, cookies and pies are cheap and available on a daily basis, we’ll eat them every day and not only on special occasions.
When cooking takes time and effort, with delayed gratification built right into the process, we can easily keep our appetites under control. Processed foods have removed that control valve and we have to live with the consequences: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
But all is not lost. We can reverse this trend and take control of our health and our lives. The question is: Can we re-create a culture of everyday cooking in millions of American households? Can we rebuild a culture in which the art of cooking and life at the dinner table is resurrected?
I believe we can, and we have already seen some evidence of it. While the prime-time hours of the Food Network look more like ancient Rome’s gladiator games and gluttony fests, its polar opposite, the Cooking Channel, seems dedicated to programs that teach us how to cook, taking us step by step through recipes, (despite reruns of Chopped and Cupcake Wars thrown in). The art of cooking and eating well is alive and well.
So while America may not actually be cooking just yet, there is a spark, a glimmer of hope that we are ready to head back to our kitchens and begin to rebuild a culture of real food and its preparation.