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The New York Times had an eight-thousand-word piece in its Sunday Magazine by Michael Pollan in which he examined – exhaustively – America’s odd relationship with cooking.

“How is it,” Pollan writes, “that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

“That decline 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 arrived on our television screens. 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.

“What is wrong with this picture?”

Pollan goes on:

“It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)

“In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.

“Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in ‘Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,’ the food industry strived to ‘persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.’ The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.”

If there is a deeper problem, Pollan suggests, it is that as we step away from cooking, it may actually make us less civilized:

“Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would likely have fed himself on the go and alone, like the animals. (Or, come to think of it, like the industrial eaters we’ve become, grazing at gas stations and skipping meals.) But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, all served to civilize us…”

And the implication is that perhaps trends such as “road rage” may have less to do with heavy traffic and more to do with the fact that people behave in a less civilized fashion when they eat cheap, non-nutritious meals on the run.
KC's View:
This is a fascinating article, and I encourage you to read the whole thing at:

(BTW…this story is pegged to the release next weekend of “Julie & Julia,” the Nora Ephron movie about Julia Child starring Meryl Streep. I can’t wait to see this…the previews look terrific!)

I agree with Pollan that there is something inherently about cooking and eating together, and that both have a civilizing influence…we know from various studies that families that eat together tend to have children who are better students, have fewer drug/alcohol issues and are better adjusted. It isn’t hard to imagine that if they hang out together in the kitchen cooking together, they’ll also be better fed.

This is the kind of initiative that food retailers ought to be embracing. There are limits to how far people will go in adapting Pollan’s suggestions…after all, there are cultural realities that are not going to be undone.

Over meals, we can learn much. We can talk. We can listen. Take our next story, for example…