Sunday, August 2, 2009

There's an article in today's New York Times magazine called Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch by Michael Pollan. It is partly about Julia Child, who is awesome, and partly about "Julie and Julia", whose producers I swear must have purchased stock in the Times because it seems like every damn article lately has made some mention of it (Civil Unrest in Honduras Continues while Julie and Julia Opens to Rave Reviews), but mostly about how people no longer cook at home, even though as a culture we still seem pretty fascinated with food.

Read it. It was really, really interesting, especially if you like food or cooking. The stats, while sad, were not surprising- the average American spends 27 minutes a day on food preparation. I'm sure some of you are saying, "That's kind of a lot." And maybe it is, to you, because I'd wager to say that a good 50% of people "don't cook." Here's what I have to say about that- get over it and learn.

The article does get down on all of the many 'shortcuts' afforded to us now. I like convenience food as much as the next person- I don't know what I'd do without bagged spinach, sliced mushrooms, chicken buillon cubes, and refrigerated pizza dough. I'm glad we have these things, because without them, I probably wouldn't cook. The article talks about how Julia Child took the fear out of cooking- she showed the average home cook with a normal kitchen how to make fancy sounding things and proved that it was something everyone could do if you had the patience and the motivation. I think for most people, watching Julia Child in 2009 would actually make you more fearful- "You mean I have to do THAT?" The good news is, since the majority of us don't have one adult who stays home and whose main job is to run the house, I don't think anyone is expecting people to prepare an hour-long French feast every night of the week. In 2009, the article says, cooking in the style of Julia is pretty obsolete, except for those of us who truly want to spend hours cooking.

And I don't spend hours cooking, though I do cook. In fact, I cook almost everything I eat, or do some amount of preparation, even if it is just slicing the cheese and tomatoes to make a sandwich. But for the most part, I don't roast my own chicken, or make my own pie crust (Pollan calls this "real scratch cooking"), and that doesn't make me feel inadequate. I can make a mean Korean chicken or spinach and mushroom quiche or baked ziti. People ask me how I learned to cook and I say, "One day I was hungry, and there was no food, so I had to make something." I might be one of the cooks that Pollan is villifying here- the ones who rely a lot on shortcuts and are drawn to the concept of "30-Minute Meals." But what the article taught me is, if I am consistently doing 30-minute meals every day, I'm doing a hell of a lot better than most people. I think there are four levels of cooking- those who don't cook at all, those who can operate an oven enough to make frozen lasagna or a boxed cake mix, those like me who can make a wide array of everyday meals and some specialty things, and people at the top who are total whizzes and know how (and have the patience) to do everything from homemade cannoli to steak tartare. I think all adults should be at least a level 2, with the ability to at least feed themselves. I am saddened by people who burn frozen pizzas. I find cooking to be very intuitive- once you have the basics down, it's really easy. Just follow the directions. Why are some people too scared to attempt that?

But what really drew me to the article was the connection between obesity and home cooking. I have always known this but I didn't have the stats to back it up, and now I do. The bottom line: people who cook are less likely to be obese than those who do. Far less likely. I quote:

"The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not."

Whoa. I think that is amazing. But why? Oh, hey, more quotes!

"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."

SEE!!!! Before, you didn't believe me. When you said, "Taco Bell isn't that bad for you, it's just cheese and chicken and a tortilla!" and I said, "God, you are so wrong," you disagreed. Now it's in the newspapers, so it's true. Now do you believe me? I hope this serves as a wakeup call to a lot of people- when you eat fast food or pre-packaged crap, you have only a vague idea of what is actually inside it unless you read the label. And a lot of that stuff is really, really bad for you. It makes you farty and tired and large (being large is okay, but only if you got that way eating stuff that is awesome and delicious- and believe me, there are lots of delicious and awesome things you can make at home for much cheaper, that are way more worthwhile things to use to fatten up.) They are hard on your system, full of steroids and lots of other drugs with unfortunate side effects, and they are addicting.

This is why I advocate home cooking: you can control what goes into your food. And if, like me, you prefer to use the diet version of ingredients to get a lower-cal product, you can do that! You can make your french toast with whole wheat bread with extra fiber. You can use egg whites instead of eggs to make your breakfast sandwich, and you can use turkey bacon instead of pork bacon. You can use I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! instead of real butter on your grilled cheese, or substitute turkey for pork in your meatballs. Alternately, you can do awesome things like add dried apricots to your turkey meatballs or mushrooms to your lasagna. These are all things that fast food places either don't offer, or you'd feel like an asshole for ordering. But if you do it at home, it's not only cheaper, it's healthier. And even if you're scared to cook, there are usually frozen turkey meatballs and cartons of egg whites in the grocery store to make it extra easy.

I get kind of upset when people refuse to cook and go out to eat all the time. I kind of equate it with laziness and wastefulness, which I understand is probably unfair, but I can't help it because I know how easy and beneficial it is to make the switch (I think this is how ex-smokers feel when they hear their smoking friends complaining of having a constant cough or something- they know there is a simple solution for the problem, but their friends don't want to hear it.) I know for some people, it isn't realistic to cook- it's a lot cheaper to go to Taco Bell than to buy tortillas and chicken and cheese. But all of the rest of us who make enough money to cook at home should do so, at least part of the time. There are such a wealth of benefits to cooking at home and taking control of your food. And besides, cooking is really fun. I used to be kind of a fast food addict. If I could have eaten fast food for every meal, I would have. I never would have thought that, today, I routinely turn down the option to go out to eat because I've been dreaming all day of something I can cook at home.

The article says a lot of this better than I can. But the bottom line is this- I started this blog because I love to write, and I love food, and I especially love healthy or diet food. I wanted to show people how easy it is to eat even a little healthier. I would be remiss if I did not point out that one of the easiest ways is to cook at home. So try it. You might like it.

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