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Evidence of the Death of Cooking in the US


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I am haunted by Harry Balzer.

Last week, Michael Pollan wrote an article that was, ostensibly, about food television for the NYT Magazine; click here for the full text. As I read it, I focused on what, to me, was the most depressing aspect of the piece. Sprinkled throughout the article are microeulogies about the death of cooking. In case you missed them:

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up)[.]

Think of it: that's less than ten minutes each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And that's for "food preparation," not "cooking." Peeling plastic off of a package and waiting for the microwave is "food preparation." For a definition of "cooking," Pollan turned to veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, the Ghost of Dinners Future:

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. ... 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.

When Balzer says, "People call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza," you'd think he'd be sad. I am. He's not:

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement. ...

"We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” Balzer told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.” ... Balzer is unsentimental about this development: “Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don’t think so. ...

"[W]e’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it. We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us. The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.” ...

“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it."

You want more from Mr. Balzer? Of course you do!

At some point, they are going to have to knock a hole in the side of the wall and throw the rotisserie chicken out as you drive by.

The movement is really toward recreational cooking.

Americans have always had the means to eat healthier. But they do not have the will.

The trend is clearly toward frozen or ready to eat -- the trend is clearly toward not cooking, whether you're young or old. It's about making life easier.

We say we want fresh, but the truth of the matter is, to deal with fresh, it takes over your life. You have to prepare it, store it . . . and then you'll probably throw it away anyhow.

Put that in your Aga and braise it.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I'd find this merely cynical if not for a pile of first-hand experiences. I live in South Providence, a neighborhood with a large mix of incomes and ethnicities. My house is half a block from a thriving McDonalds and an always busy Family Dollar store, both oozing evidence of the lack of cooking around here. Of course, the same is true at our local Shaw's supermarket, where the vast majority of the carts exclude fresh produce or meat. (Believe me, I check every time.)

The real rush of blood to the head comes from our neighbors. There are three sisters aged 5-12 that live on our street, and they often swing by the house if we're cooking or eating outdoors. When they do, I feel like I'm in one of those Museum of Natural History dioramas, in an exhibit on ancient food rituals. They look at me as if I'm Merlin conjuring mysterious spirits, sniffing around trying to figuring out what happened to the air around them.

Sometimes their comments about food are merely predictable: they like ice cream and profess an interest in "French food" which they can't explain (I suspect fries). But other times they say things that are downright depressing. They've asked me to identify the rudiments of cooking: onions, chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, and meat. ("What's that?" one said. "Lamb," I said. "What's lamb?" "It's meat." "What's meat?") They clearly have no idea what our garden is, and we had to explain that we eat the plants that grow there several times before they understood.

The kicker came the other day when I was preparing these Korean barbecued short ribs on the grill:

3803997782_252595b9ed.jpg

As I was pushing the short ribs around the grill, one of the kids asked, "What's that red stuff?"

I looked around for something red -- a bell pepper? a tomato? -- but couldn't find it. "What red stuff?"

She pointed at the short ribs. "That red stuff."

"The meat?"

"No," she said, impatient. "That red stuff." She was pointing at the coals.

I stumbled. "Um, that's fire. Those are hot coals. They get hot."

"Oh," she said. "So why does it get hot?"

I realized that I was talking to kids who didn't know that heat applied to food is called "cooking." And as I did, I imagined Harry Balzer looking over my shoulder and saying, "See? That's what I'm talking about, dope. Get over it."

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Chris, that's sad. The ascension of prepared foods is well documented. But I though that BBQ was the one form of home cooking that was still thriving.

One has to wonder if the economic climate will slow or even reverse these trends. Ready-made food is expensive. From what I've read and seen first-hand, there's been an increased popularity of home gardening--which is hardly fast food--even in urban areas. Over the last year, requests for plots in community gardens have grown rapidly. The wait list at my community garden is double what it's been in years past.


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Thanks for sharing that piece, Chris. Your comments in particular about your neighbors are truly disturbing. (What I want to know is if they have any idea where said meat <em>comes from.</em> )

I find that, depressing as it is, Balzer is right to some degree. The vast majority of Americans wouldn't know how to cook if their lives were on the line, and that translates into a nation of people who don't know the first thing about what good food is. In my isolated bohemian college-student world, there seems to be an uptick of interest in cooking, but I suspect that's definitely not the case for the rest of the country.

I go to school in New Orleans, which is renowned as one of the seats of fine American home cooking. The traditions do live on, but from what I've seen and heard, a healthy majority of New Orleanians live off food from convenience stores and fast food emporiums. With only a handful of full-scale grocery stores in the metro area and extremely limited incomes, picking up a pack of Twinkies from the dollar store or a cheeseburger from Rally's requires less time and (often) less money then cooking something good from scratch might. It's a horrible state of affairs. The same is true for most low-income urban centers in the USA.

However, I suspect that the state of affairs isn't all bad. As I said earlier, there's definitely a revival of cultural interest in food and cooking (as evidenced by the explosion of Food Network shows, food magazines, and kitchen stores,) and I think that will translate into a healthy influx of people learning how to cook and learning what good food really is. Will this create enough of a cultural effect to move the USA away from becoming a zap-it-and-forget-it nation? I'm trying to be optimistic.

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One aspect of that article that struck me was the discussion of the big difference between Julia Child's The French Chef productions and the modern cooking shows on tv: French Chef was filmed live, mistakes and all. The current cooking shows are pure entertainment, never a mistake, always perfect. I just watched a bit Julia's omelet show that was linked in another thread, and I was struck by how easy she made it look and how I wanted to try to make an omelet in that style (shaking the pan instead of filling & folding over). A very simple dish that I was encouraged to try precisely because her end result was less than perfect.

Joanna G. Hurley

"Civilization means food and literature all round." -Aldous Huxley

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We talked a lot about Pollan's article this week, and especially Mr. Balzer's take on fast food. On Tuesday Burger King runs a special -- Whopper Jr.s and Spicy Chicken sandwiches 69 cents, add cheese, 79. In a horrible way, this is cheaper than buying the raw ingredients and making lunch oneself.

While I deplore Mr. Balzer's comments, I'm saddened to say I agree with his long-term forecast. (I do enjoy darning socks, but no one wears out wool socks anymore and few knit them.)

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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I noticed when I was in college in the mid-1980s that most of my friends couldn't prepare beef other than burgers and hot dogs, chicken other than boneless breasts if that, or fish in any style, or any kind of roast. More recently I've noticed that the first roast that many people that I know prepare is a Thanksgiving turkey, the first time that they have family over after getting married.

Then if I invite people over for a dinner party, people ask my if cooking is my "hobby," and I've never thought about it that way. It's a life skill. I have to eat, so I might as well eat something interesting. I never really set out at some discrete moment to start learn to cook, and I've never owned many cookbooks. I just started cooking as a kid, because my father liked to cook, and it seemed like something that everyone had to do, and it was enjoyable.

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Chris, that's sad.  The ascension of prepared foods is well documented. But I though that BBQ was the one form of home cooking that was still thriving.

It may be that the kids just hadn't seen a charcol grill. When people bbq today, most do so on a gas grill, so it wouldn't be uncommon for kids today to be unfamiliar with the glow of charcoal coals.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Interesting article and thread... As a matter of fact, the very last thread I just read on this site was once concerning IKEA's restaurant and food. The poster concluded that the food was excellent value, and tasted pretty good to boot.

Normally I'm a cynical old goat, but in this case I'd like to say that the sky is in a continious mode of falling, but will never actually hit the earth.

Now, it's true that many of the world's population have lost the skill to prepare food. When giving cooking lessons to kids many are "grossed out" to find that eggs come from the back-side of a hen. And yes, my brother was included in the ranks of college students who considered mac n'cheese or porkchops burried under a can of Cambell's cream of mushroom and shoved in the oven for two hours "Cooking". I say "was", because now 20 years later he has become a fairly competant cook.

My pets can eat the same dog/catfood day after day, year after year, without complaint. Not so for us, it is human nature to want variation in our diet. We suffer from cravings of well prepared food,--not junk food or fast food, but well prepared food every now and then. And all humans are curious. Curious enough to want to actually learn how to cook, how to recognize fruits and vegetables, how to give a darn about raw ingredients.

So, yes, a large portion of the public will not enjoy well prepared meals, claim ignorence in matters of cooking and baking. BUT, a smaller, albeit significant portion of the public will want to learn this and enjoy cooking and all the trappings that go with it. Cookbooks still sell, Celebrity Chefs still exist, there is still market demand for exotic ingredients and produce.

The sky is falling, but it will never hit the earth. I hope.....

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It may be that the kids just hadn't seen a charcol grill.  When people bbq today, most do so on a gas grill, so it wouldn't be uncommon for kids today to be unfamiliar with the glow of charcoal coals.

Sadly, they didn't know that heat cooked food. Seriously.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I imagine that breaking all this down by demographics will reveal a different picture. If you go to a Whole Foods, even though there are indeed a lot of prepared foods on offer, you're going to be hard-pressed to say that cooking is in decline. The typical Whole Foods is jam-packed full of middle-class people climbing all over one another to buy ingredients that need to be cooked. Likewise it's hard to walk through any Chinatown and conclude that people aren't cooking. Immigrant cooking is, I have to think, alive and well.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Immigrant cooking is, I have to think, alive and well.

I know quite a few Chinese immigrant families in western Canada who depend on take-out entrees from the shopping centre food court. Some of the stuff represents good value, good taste, and more importantly, is READY TO EAT after working a 12 or 15 hour day at two jobs.

Karen Dar Woon

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One of the characteristics of a healthy food system is the availability/accessibility of food, i.e., "real food", not prepared food.

My observation is that the mid-20th century model of urban/suburban development was centered around the use of the automobile, and so sprawling residential areas with a distant shopping district were the norm. There were, therefore, very few, if any, grocery stores within walking distance of many homes.

By the late 20-th century, purchasing prepared food became more popular, as society was led into the "leisure age" and we wanted more time to play. Also, in the urban centers, the business model for a quick-serve outlet allowed for use of smaller spaces than food shops. Sometimes it's hard to rationalize purchasing $20 of groceries for 1 or 2 meals, against purchasing a $5 wrap sandwich. Especially for someone who does not consider cooking enjoyable.

That said, many community groups, who are interested in establishing sustainable, healthy food systems, are finding ways of teaching cooking skills to "at risk" groups: young parents, young single adults, low income adults, teens.

FWIW, I know a number of college students who won't purchase meat (especially roasts or whole chicken), because they don't know how to cook it, and are afraid of wasting something which is so expensive. And then they don't have the opportunity to learn how to cook it...

Karen Dar Woon

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When I read the article, the thought that came to my mind was, "There are pockets of resistance". I'm in one right now. Some people will always be interested in cooking. I deplore the idea of cooking as a hobby, because, as David rightfully points out,

It's a life skill.

I don't plan on outsourcing showering or brushing my teeth or getting dressed any time soon. There are other people who think like me, and as long as we keep it going, keep buying unprepared food to prepare ourselves from people who grow or produce food for people like us, then cooking won't die.

However, I feel like I have to be a bit evangelical about it. I was standing at the Halifax farmers market the other day, a once a week affair that attracts a lot of the yoga-reiki-willow-basket-carrying set, waiting to buy some vegetables, when a man and his wife came up to the table I was at. It looked like their first visit to the market - they stuck out with their lack of eco bags and with their (non-fair trade) Tim Horton's coffees in hand. The table in front of us was full of pint after pint of pattypan squash. The man looked down in amazement, looked at me and asked, "What are those?" I told him, and he asked, "What do you do with them?"

"Cut them in two. Brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill them."

His wife lit up, and said,"We saw those on the food network - with the lady? She stuffed them!" I nodded. "Or you could stuff them."

Someone further down the table leaned in and said, "I like to chop them up in a soup."

And so it went.

Seized with excitement, he bought two pints, and a pint of heirloom eggplants, because he liked the stripes.

Living in other countries, I often meet other foreigners who feel intimidated by cooking dishes from locally available ingredients, and find themselves living off of things available from the 7-11 or similar. In those cases, I always invite them over for dinner, ask them to come early, and show them one or two simple recipes to make. I don't convert everyone, but some people get it, and go on to feed themselves. I consider that a victory against the Balzers of the world.

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FWIW, I know a number of college students who won't purchase meat (especially roasts or whole chicken), because they don't know how to cook it, and are afraid of wasting something which is so expensive. And then they don't have the opportunity to learn how to cook it...

That seems perfectly rational, to me.

I doubt many young people need to buy a giant piece of meat, anyway, no matter how cost-efficient that pork shoulder may be.

It is quite easier to experiment with cooking for one person, or using cheaper ingredients. Heck, you should see how much reading and research I do before really trying something new (curing, making cheese, braising).

Fortunately, I have the disposable income to allow for error. If my salmon doesn't cure correctly, I can just toss it and chalk it up as a learning experience.

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My observation is that the mid-20th century model of urban/suburban development was centered around the use of the automobile, and so sprawling residential areas with a distant shopping district were the norm. There were, therefore, very few, if any, grocery stores within walking distance of many homes.

By the late 20-th century, purchasing prepared food became more popular, as society was led into the "leisure age" and we wanted more time to play. Also, in the urban centers, the business model for a quick-serve outlet allowed for use of smaller spaces than food shops. Sometimes it's hard to rationalize purchasing $20 of groceries for 1 or 2 meals, against purchasing a $5 wrap sandwich. Especially for someone who does not consider cooking enjoyable.

Certainly there are structural issues that prevent some urban and suburban dwellers from cooking. If ingredients are hard to come by, then you'll have to way other than cooking to feed yourself.

It seems, though, that there are largely cultural issues at play. I'm constantly shocked by how little interest many of the vendors at my local farmers market (I'm in New Orleans, but they're coming from outside the city) have in the produce they sell. They grow items like Swiss chard or artichokes, but will tell me they have never tasted them and clearly have no interest in trying them.

I'm sure these farmers do cook, but the lack of curiosity about what they grow suggests that a very limited repertoire of dishes are being made at home.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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Do not give up. I am just beginning to cook seriously at the ripe old age of nearly 70 and after a lifetime of trying to cook as little as possible, finding just about anything else to do instead of cooking.

My Mother did not teach me to cook and I did not teach our daughter to cook. My DH did much of the cooking and both our sons cook. One son has a wife who does not cook.

However, I have always enjoyed darning socks and would not dream of feeding my dogs canned or dry food once I learned what goes into it. Our dogs have eaten real food for over a decade now. And they eat a variety of foods too.

Different strokes et al...

Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

Cheers & Chocolates

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Being in the demographic I and many of my friends are in (late 20s/early 30s), many of them are trying to learn how to cook for themselves seriously for the first time. Almost all of them suffer from a lack of a good traditional background that might help them along. Growing up, my mom was a restaurant cook and I learned from her how to dice an onion or bell pepper rapidly, how easy it was to make stock, and the importance of proper temps for proteins. Few of my friends have this background, so it takes forever for them to cook and they often feel defeated by their attempts. They also think I'm some sort of cooking wizard with magical abilities. This mentality is not encouraging for them--I tell them over and over that something like knife skills or the bounce of a properly cooked steak takes practice. But they're busy and don't want to devote so much time to it and really I can't blame them.

For many people in general, I suspect its not that they're not curious or that they don't want to cook, I think many people feel intimidated by the enormity of the task of making potato salad even as easy as it may seem to someone who's made it a million times or has good guidance (most cooking tasks, it you break them down step by step are incredibly complex and require a lot of active mental energy). Add to this the fact that many people tend to have really crappy equipment with dull, cheap knives and junky cookware and that they have no idea what good stuff is and might be afraid to buy good stuff because they think they aren't good enough to need it.

People still try though, even if to their minds they fail more often than they'd like (many people, it seems, resign themselves to a repertoire of "specialties" they make and don't see cooking as a constant quest for new avenues of flavor and a drive to hone technique, like I do). I'm really surprised that someone living in the same world we live in wouldn't know that fire cooks food and though this is a shocking anecdote, I wonder how representative it is. Also, I reject the notion that cooking isn't a hobby. Sure, its a life skill but it's also a hobby. When I make pasta during the week, maybe it's a life skill; when I make my own sausages over the weekend, that puts it over the line into hobbyland.

nunc est bibendum...

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Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.

Uh just about everybody that hunts does this. I don't hunt but often I get game from an uncle who does on the condition that I come over and clean and butcher the animal. Plucking feathers from a goose is not fun but I do it because I want to cook the goose and I enjoy the end result.

The author is over doing it. There are more fresh food and ingredient options then ever before.

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Balzer loves him the hyperbole, but his point is soild, I think: a century ago people in the US performed certain practices for sustenance that very few people now perform, and when they do, it's for recreation. Is the person you mentioned hunting fowl because they need to eat them to survive?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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In Hawai'i, particularly among native Hawai'ians living on Homestead land or land that has been in their family for a long time, subsistence agriculture, hunting, and fishing aren't so unusual, and a few people are reviving or adapting ancient aquaculture practices. There are remnants of hundreds of fishponds that would have been sufficient to feed a huge native population at one time.

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DH and I are not hunters. We do know hunters in our area, east central Ontario, and they do not eat what they kill. Hard to take.

However, we know hunters in Utah and they rely on what they kill to get them through the winter. It's a way of life with them. That I can respect fully although it is not part of our life.

Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

Cheers & Chocolates

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It may be that the kids just hadn't seen a charcol grill.  When people bbq today, most do so on a gas grill, so it wouldn't be uncommon for kids today to be unfamiliar with the glow of charcoal coals.

Sadly, they didn't know that heat cooked food. Seriously.

Well, when they need to get a job at Burger King, they'll find out. (at least I think so ...)

*****

"Did you see what Julia Child did to that chicken?" ... Howard Borden on "Bob Newhart"

*****

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