On Cooking

Two trend stories that are pretty different:

Pollan’s argument is that Americans as a whole are eating less nutritious, more fattening food than they did 50 years ago.

I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.” Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the NPD Group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by Balzer’s none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.

The local paper’s theme is that people are changing their eating, shopping, and dining habits this year to save money.

“We’re seeing people still using coupons and their shopping lists, but now they’re interested in health again. People figured out they can eat healthy without it costing more,” said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com.

“They buy a can of Hunt’s crushed tomatoes for $1.50 and add their own spices, instead of a jarred sauce that’s $6 or $7, that’s loaded with sugar,” he said.

Often, the canned tomatoes are generic, or what the grocery industry calls “private-label.” At Costco, private-label items are gaining ground about six times faster than usual.

These articles are discussing different things — but I read them on the same day and found the juxtaposition funny, so naturally I’m mashing them together here.  Pollan is much more far-reaching, tying together the rise of The Food Network, Julie & Julia,* changes in food marketing and manufacturing, and social trends.  But I do wonder if the periodic need to eat cheap will keep cooking alive longer than Pollan’s pessimism would dictate.

I did laugh at Pollan’s closing shot, itself a quote from researcher Harry Balzer:

“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

This might make people eat less.  At first.   But it won’t necessarily be the foods Pollan wants (I doubt he’s a Hamburger Helper fan ;)

Personally I view being able to cook is one of those self-sufficiency things: I can change a tire, I can assemble a bookcase, I can fix the toilet when it’s running, I can sew on a button, I can assemble a computer, and I can bake bread.  It’s about being able to take care of myself.   In day-to-day life, my husband cooks much more than I do.  Partly it’s because he’s home before I am, but also he likes to cook more often than I do.  I’d say we eat at home, or take lunches to work, about half the time.  Lately it’s been over 90F each night and our AC is broken** and I’ve been going out for air conditioning as much as the food!


*Linking to the book, since I read it and loved it.  It’s apparent Pollan has also seen the coming-out-this-weekend movie.

**According to the local paper only 13% of Seattle residences have AC.  Repair appointments are a week out.

46 thoughts on “On Cooking

  1. How many times do we have to prove over & over again…do studies have to indicate…that fat people eat no more or differently than thin people do & that there IS no diet which works (or ‘answer’ to being fat, since none is needed)? And we are not less likely to cook than thin people do.

    I am from a fat family & I have been cooking since I was 8. I don’t use a lot of Hamburger Helper, though I have in the past. I also can & sometimes do bake my own bread, & when we have pizza at home, it is made from scratch. I occasionally bake a pot of beans & at times make my own ice cream. I know all about cooking with canned tomatoes, though here in Maine I can get a 28-ounce can for under a dollar; for that matter, I can buy a jar of Prego for less than $2. Most of my shopping for is for staples, meats, produce, etc., which I can use to cook meals at home, though I do enjoy a sandwich as much as the next person on occasion & have been known to eat some canned soup for lunch on my own.

    Frankly, I don’t think I need Mr. Pollan or anyone else to critique either my shopping or my cooking…or, for that matter, my eating. As they pick at us more & more & predict the end of life as we know it, Americans are overall healthier than ever & living longer, sometimes gaining as much as five months in average life expectany in one year. I sense that we are feeding ourselves just fine for the most part.

    • How many times do we have to prove over & over again…do studies have to indicate…that fat people eat no more or differently than thin people do & that there IS no diet which works

      Good point! I thought this study was interesting – lists quite a few studies that found that fat people ate the same or less than the “normal” weight folks.

      I learned to cook when I was young, too. Frankly the number-one thing I use TV dinners for is lunch, because it’s easy to grab on my way out the door in the morning!

  2. Umm I eat anything I want and I cook it myself – I’m lucky if I buy a meal (either lunch or dinner) more than twice a week. I (usually) enjoy cooking, and I think that what I cook tastes way better and is generally healthier than what I can buy.

    I’m still fat though!

    What a ridiculous thing to say.

      • I read it when it first came out, which was a while ago—so am I mistaken, or was she diagnosed with PCOS during the year of her adventure? Could that have something to do with her weight gain, too?

        I loved the book, especially her struggles with the marrow bones—and when she realized that the butcher would crack them for her if she asked . . .

        • She was diagnosed with PCOS prior to the cooking adventure, when she donated eggs. But the book opens with her about to turn 30 and her gynecologist reminding her that if she wants to have kids she should really think about doing it soon.

          I saw in reviews that she lost the weight after she went back to her normal eating patterns. Wow, that’s almost like she had a natural weight that her body wanted her to be at, or something. ;)

  3. Call me a bad liberal.

    I can’t get misty-eyed over the notion of a backyard organic garden. I don’t long for a fridge full of fresh produce, whole wheat flour and growing chickens out back for the lean meat and fresh eggs.

    I’m a first generation suburban kid whose father grew up on a family farm. Tobacco was the cash crop, but my dad’s family slaughtered its own meat and grew its own vegetables and bartered for fruit — or picked berries. Sugar and flour were purchased at the general store.

    And you know what? It was back-breaking work that never brought my dad’s family an income that could afford them indoor plumbing. You could do everything right and lose an entire season’s crops to a pest or a storm. Farming sucks, and I’m all too happy to eat corporately farmed, genetically modified food.

    I don’t want to have to do yet another job in order to eat the pre-ordained “moral” foods that Pollen rhapsodizes about. I want to work my 10 hour day at the office and whip up a sandwich or my favorite black beans (from a can) and steamed brown rice dinner. I want to stop by Kroger and pick up a salad and eat it with dressing from a bottle.

    Grow it and cook it myself every damn day? Yeah, no thanks. I already shave hours a week from my sleep to get all the other shit I have to do good and done.

    • ;) My mother grew up on a farm, and to her heaven was having a desk job. She enjoyed gardening, but she grew flowers, and she resisted making the flower beds bigger — in fact she planted ground covers in one back-yard bed so she had fewer weeds to pull.

  4. I think the problem with what Pollan is saying is the continued conflation of fat with ill health and laziness, while being thin is conflated equally with being energetic and healthy.

    In point of fact, I think time has a lot more to do with the decline of cooking in Western civilization than fat or laziness. For at least three decades (the fifties, sixties, and seventies) convenience food was pushed as a huge savings in time and effort, even when it didn’t come out that way (like the 1954 university study that found making a cake from a box mix saved a grand total of thirteen minutes over baking entirely from scratch), and the best, most healthful way to feed a family. Since then, more of us have become more tuned into the food culture, but more afraid because we never got the tools to turn out those amazing Food Network/Top Chef creations ourselves.

    Combine that with the fact that most two-parent families have a minimum of two regular incomes, often both full time, and the fact that their parents may not have taught them skills that were basic fifty years ago, and you get a nation of non-cooks.

    Still and all, there are plenty of us who don’t count sloshing a bit of bottled dressing on a pile of pre-shredded lettuce to be cooking. I think our numbers may be growing, too.

    • For at least three decades (the fifties, sixties, and seventies) convenience food was pushed as a huge savings in time and effort, even when it didn’t come out that way (like the 1954 university study that found making a cake from a box mix saved a grand total of thirteen minutes over baking entirely from scratch), and the best, most healthful way to feed a family.

      Yes. Pollan did note that many convenience foods ( freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee) were originally invented to feed the troops in WWII. Post-WWII they were marketed to consumers.

      more of us have become more tuned into the food culture, but more afraid because we never got the tools to turn out those amazing Food Network/Top Chef creations ourselves.

      I was surprised that Pollan’s only mention of Alton Brown was Iron Chef America-related. Brown’s science-of-food-oriented Good Eats has taught me a lot ;)

  5. So there’s lots to talk about here, but the first thing that popped out at me was, “They buy a can of Hunt’s crushed tomatoes for $1.50 and add their own spices, instead of a jarred sauce that’s $6 or $7, that’s loaded with sugar,” I don’t know where these people are shopping, but I have NEVER seen a regular-size jar of spaghetti sauce go for $7. Hunts spaghetti sauce is 99c a can. The really fancy organic/local/unicorn-infused sauces are $3 or $4. Not to mention those spices involve an upfront cost that can be pretty hefty if you’re on a tight weekly budget.

    • Yeah, the comment about spaghetti sauce costing $6-$7 is weird. I realize I live in the midwest, not a more expensive area… but Prego costs $2 a jar around here. I was comparison shopping for spaghetti sauce last week (looking for one without sugar, coincidentally); most of the sauces in the pasta aisle were $2-$3, and the sauces in the organic aisle were $3-$5.

      I’m all in favor of eliminating sugar that doesn’t result in better flavor… but the “loaded with sugar” statement is a bit of an exaggeration too. Using spaghetti sauce that has sugar (or HFCS or “evaporated cane juice”) usually adds about 2 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per serving – a small drop in a big bucket, if you’re putting it on spaghetti.

      • Here in the San Francisco Bay Area (which is, I believe, where Pollan lives, too) jars of spaghetti sauce can range anywhere from about $4.00 to as much as $15 or $16. There are also cans that run less (say $2 or $3).

        I’ve read the labels on a lot of them (feeding a diabetic husband on a low budget can be fun around here!) and while some have sugar listed at least halfway down the ingredients, a lot more of them don’t have any, including several of the least expensive brands.

        Even I – food snob that I am – am more than happy to use several brands of jarred sauce because they taste good and aren’t a problem for Mr. Twistie’s blood sugar.

      • Jarred spaghetti sauce prices range from $4 on up (but Prego is $2.50 with a Safeway card) in the Seattle area.

        I’ve been the start-with-diced-tomatoes type most of my adult life, but that’s changed since hubby will buy the jarred stuff if it’s on sale for less than $2 / jar. Meanwhile we don’t buy diced tomatoes unless it’s less than $1 / can.

    • I live in Japan and these prices mesh with what I’m paying for both canned tomatoes and for commercial standard sauce (Ragu brand for example). Lol it’s actually sale prices at that. He probably lives in a major US city as the food prices are generally higher there.

    • This! Actually premade sauces can be cheaper; I can buy a large can of “meat sauce” for the same price as two smaller cans of plain tomato sauce. If you’re buying organic, plain tomato sauce is probably going to run a few dollars a can anyway.

  6. Frankly, Pollan infuriates me on this. Why does it always have to be hand-wringing about fat (female, of course) Americans who just need to love their families enough to get back in the kitchen? Here’s a news flash, Mr. Pollan, some of us are already in the kitchen (and the office) cooking for our families and are still fat. There is very little that my family eats that is not baked or cooked by my husband or me, and after living in Europe, we totally lost our taste for most prepared “convenience” food, and yet DH and I remain stubbornly fat.

    If only it were that easy.

  7. And then there are those of us who lack the spoons to cook three meals a day, every day. I love to cook. I have filled my parents’ spice cupboard with exotic and fascinating spices (yeah, I’m one of those twenty-somethings who lives at home with her parents), and their cookbook shelves with books and magazines telling one how to do odd and tasty things with obscure varieties of produce. Holiday guests rave about my homemade cranberry-pear-ginger sauce.

    Know what? I am epileptic. Every damn drug for epilepsy has drowsiness and lethargy as side effects, because the stuff is made to suppress abnormal brain activity. I must carefully ration my spoons to get through a day of college without collapsing, and even then I usually need an afternoon nap. Cooking is an occasional treat I enjoy on weekends and school breaks. (Providing I don’t have any strenuous chores to do, such as doing errands or scrubbing the bathroom.)

    Do I know how to make delicious homemade spaghetti sauce with homemade turkey meatballs? Yes. Do I usually end up heating a can of Classico on the stove with frozen meatballs from Costco, and rejoicing in the fact that I’m still mobile at 6:30 PM? Absolutely. Do I resent the fact that my parents rarely cook “from scratch”? Hell no. Mom commutes and works long days at a stressful job- like thousands of other Americans. Dad’s culinary expertise is limited to meat on the grill, and he usually works at maintaining or fixing parts of our house after coming home from a physical, tiring job. I’m happy when we get a hot meal, period. Leftovers, frozen foods, and takeout are pretty frequent on our dinner menu simply because Mom, Dad, and I are all exhausted at the end of a day.

    Pollan needs a serious reality check.

    • And then there are those of us who lack the spoons to cook three meals a day, every day.

      Yes. I’m normally a mostly at-home mom, and I have plenty of time and energy, and I love to cook. It’s very easy to take for granted that everybody has the time, energy, and resources that I have. But, right now we have both a REALLY tight budget (I don’t teach any classes in the summer so August is rough since it’s our last month of getting by on one paycheck) and I have limited ability to be in the kitchen (I’ve got morning sickness that lasts all day and being around most food makes me want to heave), and spending 30-45 minutes each night cooking dinners is not an option.

      So we’ve been eating a lot more easy-to-prepare and pre-packaged food than we usually do: frozen pizzas, fish sticks, grilled cheese, pasta with sauce. And, our food bill is WAY down. The whole “you save so much money cooking from scratch” thing, IMHO, is crap. It first of all presumes that poor and/or fat people are too stupid to know how much food costs, and it seems to be based on the price of things you’d buy at like the most high-end organic grocery store in the country. When I do all my cooking from scratch, I’ll usually spend, on average, about $100/week at Aldi. Buying ready-to-make stuff, I spend on average about $60/week. Now, that’s largely because when I’m cooking I’m using a lot more meat and chicken and fish (and probably getting more protein, so it probably is healthier in the long-term), but still. I can pick up a jar of spaghetti sauce at Aldi for $1.29, and I also laughed at the $6-7 number.

      Now, I enjoy a homecooked meal, and I like cooking, and I’m really looking forward to being able to spend time in the kitchen again. But, I doubt we’ll be eating much healthier (other than having an easier time getting in protein), and we definitely won’t be eating more cheaply.

      • IME, A lot of the “save money cooking from scratch” assumes:

        * Not eating meat at every meal.
        * Being able to eat mainstream foods (wheat, gluten, peanuts, etc).
        * Adjusting your intake around what’s cheap where you live.
        * Having a pantry and freezer so you can stock up on sales and loss leaders.
        * Keeping a price book so you know when to buy.
        * Not buying certain foods if the prices are too high — meaning you either have it stockpiled at home or you go without.

        Some of these I currently do; some I don’t. We only buy diet Pepsi on sale, for example, and we have the storage space to stock up when it IS on sale. On the other hand, we do “waste money” on diet Pepsi. ;)

        My point, though, is that it all depends on what works for the individual / family — and that’s a balance of needs, time, resources, and other variables. If you’re renting a room with a mini-fridge, no freezer, and a microwave, you’re not going to stock up on sales and your cooking abilities are limited. If you’re allergic to wheat and peanuts, you’re not going to eat PBJs or pasta.

        Heck, I take frozen dinners to work for lunch because I usually have no interest in making myself lunch before work and they’re cheaper – and often more varied – that the restaurants near work. Making lunch would probably be cheaper yet, but I don’t bother.

        • I think the whole stockpiling of foods when they are on sale is particularly important, and one of the reasons why eating extremely cheap from-scratch meals is not feasible for many people. Many of the people I know who do eat very cheaply from scratch have a second freezer where they can store meat they stock up on on sale, and they have the economic means to buy more when things are on sale. Most of the time, luckily, we do, too. If there’s a great sale on chicken, I can afford to go $20 over my food budget to take advantage of it, and I drive to the grocery store, so it’s not a problem to have an extra bag or two. But, a lot of people can’t do that, for many reasons: they don’t have storage space at home; they are using public transportation to get to the grocery store, or walking there, and can’t bring home large amounts of food; or their weekly income is fixed and they don’t have any wiggle room.

          It’s a lot of work, as you point out, to save money cooking from scratch. Personally, I’ll plan menus for a week and shop off a list, and I’ll sometimes check circulars, but I don’t keep a price book, which does seem like something you need to do if you really want to keep costs down. I’ve been buying milk for years and I still draw a blank when asked how much a gallon costs.

          • You’re about where we are, actually. We check circulars, adjust what we eat around specials, have a standalone freezer, put in additional shelving for canned goods, buy in bulk, etc. What we don’t do is keep a price book, trim all non-necessaries, or refuse to eat out. Those are trade-offs that aren’t worth it to us.

  8. I don’t know where he gets off thinking most people ate more nutritiously in 1959. Almost nobody ate whole grains then. If you went for Chinese food and asked for brown rice, people would have thought you were a fruitcake. As for growing stuff in the backyard, most people didn’t have backyards, much less the soil and climate conditions to grow veggies all year round. And even if you did, you got what came out of the garden in the summer, and it was canned stuff the rest of the time or nothing at all.

    My grandfather (b. 1912) grew up vegetarian; his father raised him that way because he didn’t like the idea of killing animals for food. (My grandfather was autistic; quite possibly his father was, also, although of course there was no word for it then. Perhaps that explains his being way ahead of his time.) At that time, saying that to people would make you a total outcast, and that’s what my grandfather’s family was. And there was no way on earth to get organic vegetables (or organic anything else) without growing them yourself, or having a neighbor bring them to you.

    Anyway, I’d love to know who does all the cooking at Chez Pollan. (I haven’t read any of his books, so maybe he says so in there. I have to confess that his smugness doesn’t make me eager to pick them up.) Maybe he can afford to have a wife who doesn’t have a full-time paying job and doesn’t mind (and has the spoons for, yep) being the ultimate hippy-dippy organic chef. Or maybe with the money he makes, he can hire a cook. But he is ludicrously out of touch with how people less privileged than have had to do to survive — now, or 50 years ago.

    • There are some things that are cheaper when cooked from scratch–bread, dry beans vs. canned, etc.–but I didn’t realize until I had to live on my own and cook all of my own meals how much cooking from scratch can be more expensive than prepared foods and not worth the effort a lot of the time. I mean, I love homemade mac & cheese, but making it from scratch costs four times as much as even the most expensive boxed dinner. I do love cooking but I use about half prepared food to which I add stuff (I can’t eat boxed dinners or even frozen dinners without adding fresh or frozen veggies, there’s just not enough color). it’s been a real wake-up call.

      • The Tightwad Gazette discussed this too. Boxed mac & cheese is usually a loss-leader, aka, sold at a loss to get people into the store. The assumption is that people will then buy the more profitable stuff. (Naturally the Gazette recommended buying the loss-leaders and other sale-priced goodes only.)

        Do I know how to make dinner for a week with 1lb dried red beans, 1 onion, and 1 ham hock? Yes. When was the last time I did it? About 15 years ago.

  9. I read that Pollan article, and I doubt that he would consider Hamburger Helper actually cooking! (as opposed to the marketing researcher he was talking to)

    Word about the lack of spoons. Cooking takes a LOT of energy (and for me, back stamina, bending over pots and things). I have learned to love frozen spinach-ravioli-with-sauce and so forth, because I need the easy things or I would wind up not having lunch some days.

    • I read that Pollan article, and I doubt that he would consider Hamburger Helper actually cooking! (as opposed to the marketing researcher he was talking to)

      I agree. He would probably be pleased that sales of flour and sugar are up, which would imply that someone’s baking.

  10. Thanks for posting this and for all those who responded. I’ve felt deeply ambivalent about Pollan’s work for some time despite the fact that all my friends rave about him. And I think all of the analysis here really hit on why–the imaginary endless days full of time to cook, the underlying statement of “the mother has disappeared,” the idea that we all have access to fresh produce all the time (this is very much because Pollan lives in the East bay I think), and the link between what we eat and our fatness.
    All said so well here!

    • the idea that we all have access to fresh produce all the time

      Yeah. Especially local produce. The SF Bay Area might have fresh local produce year-round, but a lot of places don’t.

      Of course, much of California’s produce is due to irrigation.

  11. I also do buy myself some things like Stouffer’s frozen meals to eat for lunch when I am going to be alone sometimes. And it is indeed a lot of hard work to cook from scratch…especially the cleaning up. I babysit my four-year-old granddaughter & her parents often work different shifts, so she & my son are here for supper several times every week. My son is a wonderful cook, so on those occasions, he will do most of the cooking or we will cook together, but I always get the cleaning up & dishwashing. It is exhausting &, whoever said it, you are damn right that it costs a lot to keep stocked up on various ingredients, including lots of different spices, etc., to cook from scratch. I have picked up from reading the comments, though, that apparently food costs less in Maine than in most of the rest of the country; well, we are in the lowest 10% in per capita income, I believe, so that makes sense.

    And I have helped maintain & harvest a garden when I was young, & I have cerebral palsy & now arthritis as well, so…never again! I will continue to buy my fruits & veggies at the store…some fresh, but a lot of frozen vegetables most of the time (which, btw, are picked at their peak & processed immediately, so they are usually more nutritious than fresh.) Pollan is just another of the (too) many out there who make a very good living persuading the rest of us that we are lazy slobs who do everything wrong.

    • The number 1 time I eat frozen foods is lunch, because it’s easier to grab something frozen in the morning than to pack a lunch. The office has a fridge/freezer, microwave, and toaster oven, so heating things here is easy.

      Number 2 is meat we’ve bought in bulk and re-packaged into “dinner” size portions and frozen; number 3 is vegetables. But then, we have a separate freezer, so we can (for example) buy 4 turkeys when they’re on sale and roast one a month.

  12. Pollan and his ilk annoy me so much with the unexamined privilege. Ugh. I would love nothing more than to be able to cook up fresh meals from scratch on a daily basis, but guess what? I have to work for pay for a living! I leave the house at 615 AM and get home around 630 PM four days a week. The days I am home, I generally make a kick-ass dinner at least two of them. But those four days? Premade, easy, leftovers, or take out.

    And, I’m lucky enough to have the resources to buy nutritious, organic/local, fresh veggie-heavy foods. Mr. Buttercup and I were talking about this over dinner on Sunday… that I could not feed my kids the way I feed us now. I did not have the money as a single parent.

    Poor people and people who work don’t have the time or money to be foodier-than-thou.

    • When I worked in an office, I did cook from scratch. (I still do, but I’m self-employed. It’s easy for a writer to take a break and put the bread on to rise before going back to a writin’ session). But ya know, cooking is at least in part a hobby for me. I do that to relax. Yeah, there’s a benefit, but I can’t imagine coming home tired and having to spend that much time on a CHORE. (I also don’t feel in the least guilty when I announce a “fend for yourself” night).

  13. Michael Pollan also pisses me off for what seems like stupid semantic nitpicking. I mean, I’m really sorry we haven’t come up with a new word for preparing convenience foods, and dare call it “cooking.” Personally, if I make a dinner that includes homemade bread, pork chops with a glaze I make from scratch, and roasted potatoes and green beans, I call it “cooking”; if I make a dinner of pasta and jarred sauce, I call it “cooking”; if I throw a frozen pizza into the oven, I call it “cooking.” I know it might be nicer for him if we had words to describe food preparation that took into consideration all the nuances of exactly how long it took and how much work went into it, but I don’t see why we’d need it, unless we wanted to set up some hierarchies of which preparations were better than others.

    Pollan just strikes me as such a jerk that, while I’m guessing there’s stuff he says that I’d heartily agree with, I think I’d be tempted to disagree with him, just on principle.

  14. Mr. Pollan needs a reality check.

    Most of us who work all day and don’t come home until after 5 pm really don’t want to stand around in the kitchen making a homemade meal from scratch. I know I don’t. I throw a jar of spaghetti sauce in a pan, boil some pasta, heat up some garlic bread…that’s Bree’s version of cooking. And then there are people who have to work nights, weekends and holidays…

    If he wants me to prepare foods from scratch every single day, he can pay for my own personal chef.

  15. “cooking from scratch” has decreased over the last century, especially since the 60s

    people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.

    Oh man, the moralizing that comes with that declaration. I think it’s insane to expect people to cook and eat the same way we did 50 years ago – because we are not the same as we were 50 years ago. It used to be possible for more working class people to support a family on one income – that has become less and less possible, and so now there are fewer families with one person who stays home and does all the cooking. People aren’t being lazy about food preparation because they’re irresponsible, we/they just don’t have the time they used to be able to devote to it.

    • I laughed at “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken.” Um, my MOTHER grew up doing that, in the 40s and 50s. It’s called LIVING ON A FARM.

  16. Also, does anyone find his “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” thing to be a little, shall we say, WASP-centric? I mean, my grandparents were lower-middle-class second-generation Jews from Brooklyn and Toronto. They would have recognized pizza and lasagna and other Sicilian “red sauce” items as food, but not anything from the northern part of Italy where the vaunted “Mediterranean diet” comes from. They would have recognized Cantonese-style Chinese-American food as food, but not Hunan or Szechuan or food from any other region of China. (I remember when I was 6 years old my grandmother — the one from Toronto — telling me my parents had gone to eat “Saskatchewan food.”) And forget Indian or Thai or Japanese food, that would have been beyond the pale to them.

    Furthermore, what they served in their own kitchens was limited to what grocery stores in Brooklyn carried, and it wasn’t much. The Toronto-born grandmother (father’s mother) was an absolutely horrible cook, who made green potato latkes and matzoh balls you couldn’t get a spoon through, and yet insisted on doing all the cooking because That Was What Women Did. The Brooklyn-born grandmother’s homemade diet mostly consisted of plain meats and overboiled frozen or canned vegetables and potatoes. Fresh veggies? Get out of here. Both of my parents, not surprisingly, developed a taste for serious spice as adults, having been fed stuff that was bland beyond belief as kids.

    • Heh. Dad’s mother lived in small-towns in Washington state most of her life. She smoked her own salmon and deep-fried halibut with the best of them, made her own noodles for chicken…and her favorite salad was made with lime Jell-O and 7-Up.

      Mom grew up eating red beans and rice and grits and collard greens and hominy. Something tells me traditional Southern fare is not what Pollan thinks of as farm food….

  17. I also love the bit about our grandmothers rolling over in their graves at how we eat & cook. Most of the grandmothers I know or have heard about joyfully embraced the convenience foods as they became available & loved not having to make everything from scratch all the time. My own grandmother, in the last ten years or so of her long life, became a passionate fan of Mickey D & KFC & was never happier than when someone took her there. I sometimes watch Paula Deen on the Food Network & she employs quite a few convenience foods & has several times mentioned HER grandmother, a woman born, like my grandmother, in the 1880’s, telling her that was “so DAMN glad when they came out with the canned biscuits” & apparently she used them for many things, turning them into crust for fried pies or even donuts. Paula herself pours cans of Campbells cream soups into various recipes without apology.

    No, Michael Clueless, our grandparents did not necessarily make everything from scratch because they were food snobs & thought it was a ‘better’ way to eat, but because they had no choice. And food back then was more seasonal; unless you did a lot of gardening & home canning, your fruit & veggie selection in the winter was slim pickings. Today we can find any kind of produce we want any month of the year. From what I have observed, most people these days are eating a lot more fruits & veggies (probably at least partly because of all the cultural/media nagging & nannying) than they did when I was a child. However, many studies have indicated that more nagging & nannying does not make us eat more produce, but instead often has the opposite effect of turning some people off vegetables in particular, so that they either eat the same amount they woud anyway or less.

    And speaking of Jello, apparently Jello salads were also part of Paula Deen’s family history, as she has made some version of one on her shows several times. If I recall, they were frequently found at family dinners or buffets when I was a kid.

    • “Most of the grandmothers I know or have heard about joyfully embraced the convenience foods as they became available & loved not having to make everything from scratch all the time.”

      So true, at least for my grandmas! Grandma T. absolutely loved both convenience foods and going out to eat. She could and did cook for us, and she was a baker par excellence. The smell of Christmas cookies always makes me think of Grandma. Her skills with other foods, though… not so good.

      Grandma J. loves going out to eat even more than Grandma T. did, and possibly her favorite part about her retirement home is the fact that she doesn’t have to cook unless she wants to. (Which is virtually never; the most she keeps in her minifridge is a few drinks and snacks.) I’ve experienced some of the things she did to innocent vegetables, and I fully understand Dad’s aversion to veggies. *shudder*

      So yeah. Neither of my grandmas were/are good cooks, and they happily stopped cooking once they were able to do so. I am a native of the much-maligned “younger generation”, and I am a damn good cook when seizures allow. Maybe I like cooking because I don’t have to do it all the time!

      Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Pollan.

  18. This fat girl doesn’t like microwaved meals and a lot of convenience foods (I remember loving Kraft Dinner as a kid…tried it a few years ago and bleched – real mac ‘n cheese is lovely, though). Still, in the UK it’s easier to find fresh fridge-to-stove-ready meals that are better for you than it is here in the US, so we opted for those a couple of times a week when we were back in Manchester.

    Since moving to Seattle and living with my parents, my mom does a lot of the cooking and 90% of it is from-scratch, whether I cook or she does.

    Still, I’m fat. Clearly I’m Doing It Rong [tm]

  19. I’m sympathetic to arguments that convenience foods are/were a pretty important form of female liberation, but I also suspect plenty of that is done on the backs of people of color and poor white people, invisibly toiling in some in pretty shitty conditions to provide nice middle-class families with handily packaged foods.

    While I’m pleased as punch that my in-laws can go eat at Pizza Hut rather than have MIL chained to the stove 8 hours a day, I am also not naive enough to not notice who is doing the cooking in her stead. It’s not teenagers saving up money for their first car, either, anymore.

    There aren’t a lot of really clean answers there. It’s like daycare around here. Either I watch my kids, or I send them to the nice Hispanic ladies working the local daycare center at wages I know to be abysmally low.

    Since I honestly can’t afford to pay someone a decent living wage to do that job, maybe it really is better I did it myself, most of the time.

    Just some thoughts.

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