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‘Cooked’: We all need to get back in the kitchenPrint

Food & Farming | February 21, 2014 | By Diane Conners

Diane Conners

Bob Russell surprised me with a question a couple years ago.

I was prepared to speak to MLUI’s advisory council about how our food and farming program helps to support the local economy. Bob was there, and his question was:

“What are you doing to get boys engaged in cooking?”

I remember this as MLUI, with others, launches the first in a series of book discussions in the Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project. Bob died in August of cancer after more than 30 years of leadership on issues as far-ranging as ecology, good governance, and local economies. We’re taking a look at some of the books he recommended.

The first is Cooked by Michael Pollan, author of numerous books and articles on food and farming. He’s as readable as ever, and as a person who loves to cook, I learned new things from his culinary and literary journey. At a staff party we used Cooked for inspiration—with slow-cooked pork from a local farm, naturally fermented kimchi, and extraordinary sourdough bread made by one of my co-workers.

So, if you read the book, you’ll salivate. You’ll learn interesting history and science and anthropology and philosophy. Cooked, in many regards, is about getting back to the enjoyment inherent in preparing our own meals, and the sense of self-sufficiency that comes when we know how. It’s about realizing how important cooking has been in our evolution as humans, and what we might lose as a culture if we continue our trend of “outsourcing” our cooking to industrial food companies.

We could lose, for example, our small and mid-sized farms. Fast food restaurants and big food companies buy from big agriculture, not neighbor farms. Do you want a local food economy? If so, Pollan says, we need to cook. Otherwise, there will be no one to buy the ingredients that local farms grow.

And we could lose our health. Industrial, packaged food is filled with corn syrup, chemical additives, and flours that have been so highly processed that all the nutrition has been stripped out of them. We don’t use those ingredients when we cook at home, Pollan says, so we cook healthier without even thinking about it. And he cites studies that link obesity to the decline in home food preparation.  

“I love French fries, but how often are you going to cook them?” he told food writer Mark Bitmann in an interview.  “It’s too hard and messy. But when they’re made at the industrial scale, you can have French fries three times a day. So there’s something in the very nature of home cooking that keeps us from getting into trouble.”

Pollan said he’s found a certain “crackle” of excitement among scientists about new discoveries related to chronic disease, diet, antibiotic resistance, and live cultures in such probiotic foods as yogurt and naturally fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut. He talks about that in this interview with Pollan and Ira Flatow of NPR’s Science Friday.  Cooked is filled with fascinating characters bucking what they see as a dangerous trend of hyper-sanitization and fear of bacteria when, really, our bodies are ecosystems of mostly beneficial bacteria important to our health.

But there’s one trend that has never been fully challenged, according to Pollan. That’s the division of labor between men and women in the kitchen when women started working outside the home in large numbers. The processed food industry saw a marketing opportunity and suggested, “Why don’t you just let us cook for you?” In the 1970s, he said, KFC ran billboards depicting a family sized bucket of fried chicken under the slogan “Women’s Liberation.”

And that takes me back to Bob’s question about boys and cooking.

In my life, whoever is in charge of a meal, it’s a big timesaver if there’s another person ready to take direction to chop up some onions or crack some eggs. Pollan notes that we all could find time to cook if we used the minutes we spend driving to a restaurant, watching a cooking show, or surfing the Internet. And it’s nice, in the kitchen and at the table, to be together.

Here’s Pollan, in his interview with Bitmann:

“We need to complete that uncomfortable conversation about the division of domestic labor, which the food industry deftly exploited to sell us processed food,” he says. “But if we’re going to rebuild a culture of cooking, it can’t mean returning women to the kitchen. We all need to go back to the kitchen.”

How does that happen? “First, we need to bring back home ec., but a gender-neutral home ec.,” he said. “We need public health ad campaigns promoting home cooking as the single best thing you can do for your family’s health and well-being. A tax on prepared food, but not on raw ingredients, is another good idea. And Michelle Obama could use her bully pulpit to promote home cooking, rather than spend her considerable capital persuading food manufacturers to tweak their products.”

I told Bob that, because of my circle of friends and the relationship I have in my marriage, the gender divide in who is responsible for cooking just hadn’t been front and center for me anymore.

Bob shook his head. There’s still a lot of work to do, he said.

And, I see, it has everything to do with food, farming, health, and local economy.