Opinion: Get to know your friend, the kitchen

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

f Americans are feeling frustrated about food, who can blame us? It's not just the bugs in the burger or the hormones in Chinese seafood - or even the skyrocketing prices. It's that most of us feel powerless to fix things. We may be a nation of do-it-yourselfers when it comes to deck repair or tax returns, but even as our industrial food system grows less reliable, our reliance on that system has never been higher.

What's to be done? Growing our own isn't a solid option anymore. Beyond the occasional backyard garden, few of us have the capacity to produce our own food. But until the last few decades, most Americans still exercised a lot of control over the quality and cost of the food entering our home: We cooked almost every day. We bought ingredients and turned them into meals; we planned menus and stocked pantries, all of which required thinking about, and being connected to, our food.

Today, despite a mania for cookbooks, celebrity chefs and 24-hour programming on the Food Network, cooking is a dying art. According to the Department of Agriculture, half of our food dollars are spent on items cooked outside the home, and almost half of the meals served in the average U.S. household lack even a single from-scratch item.

Marketing surveys blame our crowded schedules, our "time poverty": The average American can spare just 30 minutes a day for the kitchen. But the sad truth is, many of us no longer know what that room is for. Cooking is an acquired skill, with specific tools and steps, helped by practice. Yet because so many of the roughly 100 million consumers born since the 1970s grew up in households where cooking was already passé, it's a skill we never learned.

Yet if we're serious about reclaiming control of our food -and if we're tired of waiting for Washington to fix things for us - the kitchen is where we have to start.

Declaring independence from the industrial food chain won't be easy, not least because it means rewriting one of America's most successful economic stories. Between 1900 and 1970, as consumers increasingly outsourced cooking to food companies, our daily kitchen time dropped from four hours to one. And if the food industry profited handsomely, consumers did too. We might have gotten less independent, but our food got safer, more varied and, above all, more convenient, freeing up hours to spend on education, leisure and, of course, earning extra income.

But by the 1970s and '80s, we had discovered some darker truths about this trade-off. Large-scale, high-speed manufacturing not only damages the nutritional quality of food, it makes it harder to control food-borne illnesses. And for all the benefits of convenience, the ability to eat anything at any time bore no small connection to our expanding waistlines.

And now we've found that "added value," the very core of the modern food business, isn't such a good deal either. A model based on selling ever more convenience requires either that consumers keep getting richer or that food keeps getting cheaper - conditions that are, suddenly, no longer assured.

Food companies are trying to keep the natives calm. They're cutting costs by replacing expensive ingredients, such as butter in cookies and crackers or cocoa butter in chocolates, with cheaper ones, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils. They're combing the planet for cheaper suppliers (although the Chinese food scandal points up the limits of that strategy). And some are considering bringing out less-expensive products to appease budget-conscious consumers.

But mainly, food companies are doing what they've always done, quietly passing on cost increases to us because, as far as they can see, we've got nowhere else to go.

They have a point. As a culture, we're so divorced from our food that we're not only cooking less, we often can't even recognize food when we see it. More and more of us accept warehouse-ripened fruit as real; we favor refined flours to whole-grain; we reject meats that aren't fattened on grain and pumped with artificial juice and flavor enhancers. For that matter, many of us have been eating synthetic flavors so long that we prefer them to the real thing. Benzaldehyde, or artificial cherry, is at least as popular today as real cherry flavor. And until the food industry withdrew diacetyl over concerns that it caused lung disease, the chemical had largely become "butter" for consumers of microwave popcorn.

But adversity is the mother of invention. If we've lost our kitchen skills and our connection to food, both can be regained. Schools are bringing back home economics classes. Cooking classes are gaining in popularity, and some cookbook publishers are simplifying recipes to help novices find their way.

Yes, we've heard about kitchen renaissances before. But this one comes with a potent incentive: When done thoughtfully, home-cooked food is not just healthier, safer and better tasting but much cheaper than the factory version.

Granted, there's still our time poverty. Hungry as we may be for change, we're still juggling work, family and errands. But let's be honest. We may be a busy nation, but the same "average" American who has just 30 minutes for the kitchen is somehow finding 240 minutes each day to watch TV. Some of that programming may even involve a celebrity chef. But if we're going to give food the priority it deserves, we'll need to spend a little less time watching someone else do the cooking.

• Paul Roberts is the author of the new book "The End of Food."



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