Nov 7 2007

This week at Eating Liberally: what about cooking?

KAT’s question this week: Who’s really to blame for our convenience food-dominated diet? Was the I Hate to Cook Book a progressive, pre-Friedan feminist manifesto, or a culinary cop-out?

See my response at Eating Liberally.

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  • Brian M.

    There is so much to talk about here, the relation between Feminism, cooking, and eating habits is complex.

    I think another important part of the picture is the clow erosion of cooking education and home economics in general. Once this was largely the domain of mother-daughter training. Then there was less time for mother-daughter training and more social rifts betweent the generations and their values-systems. And then it moved to the schools and then it was phased out of even the schools. Another vector of the history of it was the role of clubs, and competitions and youth organizations. 4H, girl scouts, county fairs, and such were once a big part of this process, but these kinds of “social capital” groups had a lot of problems during the late 20th century. You talk about TV celebrity chefs as main vectors of cooking education, and you are right. But that is only true because every earlier strategy for teaching people how to cook: the family, the neighborhood, the schools, the social organizations have all broken down.

    Myself, I learned no cooking from my family kitchen, and its not just because I’m male. The females of my generation often learned a little more, but very little cooking from their family kitchens growing up. I had one totally ineffective 1/4 year class in cooking at school in 8th grade. As a teenager I learned a lot about cooking from Boy Scouts, and my father, and many other boys and men in my scout group. By 16 I was pretty good at cooking over a camp fire. But I was totally lost in the kitchen, with no coals or fire, or shopping for a week of food instead of a week-end. I had to teach myself kitchen-cooking as a junior in college, and learn from my roommate. And I made it to what 20 years old, before I ever really cooked in a kitchen? No wonder we have a convenience-food dominated diet, when most people are not trained in how to cook. if you have been it seems second nature to you, but it is easy to forget just how intimitadating it is to someone who hasn’t been trained. And then of course, we turn it into competition and social status. Far, far easier to pay the corporations to do most of your cooking for you. Feminism is part of the story of the decline of cooking education, but I don’t think it is the whole story, social capital erosion, the end of the neighborhood ethic, and the decline of home ec in the schools are part of it. And I don’t think cookbooks are the main story on the pro or con side.

    I once started a book on Bas Cuisine (the opposite of Haute Cuisine) on the theory that even cheap-ass food cooked with little skill or time investment can be done better or worse and be an expression of creativity. I remember the day my college roommate opened a can of pineapple tidbits and added them to the top of a cheap frozen pizza before putting it in the oven, even though that wasn’t in the instructions on the packaging. It worked and for 30 extra cents the pizza was far better. It was an epiphany. A sad but noble, Bas Cuisine epiphany. Because even at 20 I was literally THAT cut off from the notion that I had any power or control over what I ate, other than choosing what to buy at the store or resteraunt. The notion that I could customize my meals by combining store-bought ingredients was liberating. And my guess is that I was pretty typical in this regard of (at least males in) generation X.

    The trick is to look at cooking education, and the extent that people feel the power to effect what they eat, rather than just at nutrition education. I I got lots of nutrition education, telling me what I should and shouldn’t eat in school and the media, but very little education in how to actually go about eating well in the sense of meal planning, buying or cooking. Er, sorry to go on so long.

    -Brian M.

  • Brian M.

    OK after a long rant, I’m going to give another.

    You see while I got very little cooking education, I got a fair bit of “nutrition” education, in junior high, high school and even college. I might have got some in elementary too. The thing was it was treated as a science, like part of biology or chemistry, or pre-med. Nutrition education was not linked to culture, or economics, or business, or art, or anything regarding social studies or daily life. At 18 I could have told you in the abstract how many calories a human should eat, what a protein or fat were, which foods were high in sodium or vitamin C etc. But this was all science, it wasn’t lifestyle, and neither I nor anyone else I knew took nutrition as being related to what normal people eat, that was a matter of personal choice and thus schooling had no business weighing in on it or trying to shape it. I might even have gotten indignant if anyone had tried to tell me what I ought to eat personally, rather than what chemicals would be involved in an ideally healthy diet (not that anyone ever did try that I remember).

    Now at one level that is just the same point about “nutritionism” that you and Pollen have tried to make many times, but it isn’t quite. Because what I am saying is that one effect of nutritionism is how it impacts nutrition education, and what it does there is render the education abstract from daily lives or daily choices, because those are not the domain of science.

    Science gets the funding. It gets the prestige. The dressings of science make the work of nutritionists look more “certified.” More like verifiable fact, and less like carefully informed opinion. I totally see why nutritionists want to be scientists, rather than say economists (much less home economists) or sociologists, or counsellors, or philosophers, or members of the humanities. But the cost of the science spin is divorce from the lives of anyone who makes choices via culture or economics, rather than by science, which is to say everyone! You folk have boxed yourself into a corner. Nutritional Science NEEDS Nutritional Humanities, Nutritional Economics, even Nutritional Philosophy and more in order to be relevant. Nutrition needs to be a little bit of all those, and it can’t be while it is desperately clinging to the trappings of science for respectability. And you need to teach youngsters practical nutritional SKILLS rather than merely abstract facts about nutrition. And again that isn’t quite the domain of a science. And at least with my generation, a terrible job of this was done.

    My 6-year-olds elementary school is doing “cooking” as their theme this year. All grades and all subjects are encouraged to try to link there work to cooking where possible. There are art projects of kids in chef’s hats. There are cooking related math problems. They are reading stories about food. They will use cooking examples in science no doubt. (I don’t think they get to do any, or at least much actual cooking, I doubt they’ll even get to tour their own cafeteria kitchen, but the kindergardeners did go on a field trip to a farm). Will it help? I don’t know, but maybe.

    Cookbooks like the I Hate to Cook Book are read by people who are already comfortable enough with cooking that they do it regularly and are already skilled and want some more pointers or ideas. (What I call Moyen Cuisine, more than Bas but less than Haute). They can effect how moderately skilled cooks choose to go about cooking. It seems to me, that the problem leading to the convenience-food filled diet is even earlier, from folks who don’t even get that far down the cooking education road.

    -Brian M.