November 19, 2009
“Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”
In “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”, Michael Pollan demonstrates the reasons for the decline of home cooking and the rise of processed foods, by taking the reader on a journey from the origins of cooking to it’s future. From the Stone Age to Julia Child, to ‘drive-thru supermarkets’, cooking and food in general has been a large part of not only American culture, but also a large part of our world’s culture.
In 1963, “The French Chef” starring Julia Child first appeared on the small screen. Julia brought cooking to life for viewers everywhere, taking the fear out of cooking culinary masterpieces. Child encouraged her audience to take chances and make mistakes because in the kitchen “Whooooo is going to see?” sings Child. “The French Chef” was taped live and broadcast un-edited and un-cut, unlike the shows seen on the Food Network today. On the Food Network, chefs such as Emeril, Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and Ina Garten bring cooking to nearly one-hundred million homes in America every day. Pollan wonders why people are so eager to watch someone glaze a ham on television, but not willing to do it themselves.
The Food Network means different things for different people. Some people like to watch for the dramatic competitions of “Iron Chef”, or how to stretch a chicken breast from now until Easter, or the inside hints on where the best BBQ in Tennessee is. For me, Food Network is all about creativity, watching the chefs cook and then doing it myself, unlike most American’s today. I like to add things to their recipes to make them my own. Not only do I make the recipes but I like to do the table setting, and tell others about fun food facts. Cooking is my hobby that I love to share with everyone. Maybe I’ll be the one to save home-cooking from its predicted demise.
The food companies persuade us to allow them to cook, so we can go do the ‘important’ things in life. The latest T.V. dinners such as Lean Cuisine© and Hungry Man©, are always advertised on the Food Network. “TV dinners plant us exactly where television always wants us: in front of the set, watching.” says Pollan. He then argues that watching the Food Network does not mean we are learning anything as viewers did with Child, and it certainly does not mean we are going to bounce up and make a five course dinner. “The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time.” Cooking shows only take the social anxiety out of ordering a fancy dish, when dining out at a fancy restaurant; the shows don’t give us tips on cooking it ourselves.
The average American spends twenty-seven minutes a day on meal preparation and cooking, and four minutes for clean up. That is less time then it takes to watch one episode of “The Next Food Network Star”. With the decline of home-cooking it is a surprise that the Food Network is one of the top-watched channels on television. Most people are happy to be rid of the monotonous rituals of cooking and favor having the task done for them. However, others are not ready to give up the emotional ties to cooking. So by talking about memories as we are watching a chicken roast on television, our emotional ties to the warmth of cooking fill the empty hole that the anti-cooking thoughts left in their destructive path through our lifestyle.
If you think hard enough, I bet you can remember at least one happy memory involving cooking or eating. Whether it was the family at Thanksgiving, or sneaking one of Santa’s cookies off the stove before you got caught, we all have happy memories in the kitchen. There is one memory that really sticks in my memory. Whenever I used to sleep over my Nana’s house, I was always greeted by the smell of eggs and toast early in the morning. The “fluffy-duffy” was a scrambled egg cooked in a circular mug in the microwave. Nana knew how to do it just right and when she passed, so did the recipe. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get my “fluffy-duffy” to taste like hers did. Maybe I’m missing butter?
But why has there been such a decline in home cooking? The rise of fast food, take out, processed foods, and TV dinners, along with our busy work-laden lifestyles, have greatly contributed to the steady decline of home cooked meals. The rise of women in the workforce has been a large factor in this process. After a long day at work, most women just want to relax and spend time with their families. So they turn to the built in ‘helpers’ in society, for Example, Chicken Pot Pie, a wonderful classic dish of Americana. In the early 1900’s the recipe was a little different then it is now. The chef would raise a chicken, kill said chicken, grow vegetables, milk cows, churn butter, and bake their own dough. Today, frozen pie crust, frozen vegetables, and frozen chicken, with jarred gravy are the main ingredients, with portion size and vegetable content lacking, all these pre-made and frozen meal helpers, not only are damaging to America’s current reputation for avoidance of home cooking but many times, are not the most nutritious offerings.
Cooking from scratch is very different today then it was thirty years ago, “Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee” is a perfect example. This is one of the only people on Earth that gets paid to teach people how to open a box of brownie mix, add an egg, and stir. These kind of ‘dump and stir’ shows gives cooking a bad name. Until recently, even I didn’t realize that opening a jar of premade spaghetti sauce and boiling a box of spaghetti noodles wasn’t cooking. But there is one thing that absolutely has to be made from scratch- well, sort of. I am known in my family to have the absolute best apple pie. I know what you are thinking, “ok frozen pie crust, and apple pie filling.”Right? Wrong. I make the crust from scratch, cut the apples by hand, and flavor them too; this is definitely no store-bought pie!
Cooking helped advance human civilization and human evolution. The discovery of fire in the Stone Age helped humans with their nutrition, and their egos. The idea of cooking made man superior to animals, man could eat warm, cooked animals and somehow feel at the top of the food chain, using fire for light, heat, and power. On the topic of evolution, cooking enriched our brains and shrunk the guts of our ancestors via a loss of parasitic infection in raw meat. Soon after the discovery of cooking came the practice of eating together at a set time and place. Sharing, and the introduction of ‘table manners’ further separated us from animals; humans had become the “cooking animal”.
There are shows on television geared towards men like, “This Old House”, “Dirty Jobs”, and “Cops”. But one Food Network show is the show of all guy shows, “Boy Meets Grill”. From the age of homo-sapiens, we have been obsessed with fire. Cooking with fire, playing with fire, and hey, even eating fire! But macho men everywhere, are obsessed with the grill. At every family BBQ they are grilling up those hamburgers and hot dogs like a pro. In my family it’s tradition to have a New Year’s Day Grill Off, and guess who always volunteers? My Father. There is something about cooking over an open flame that gives people a thrill, and if they don’t own a grill, they can just watch it on TV!
Over the course of time, humans have started to become more like the animals we separated ourselves from. Grazing here and there, skipping meals, and eating alone are all practices we should try to overcome. One might wish that the rates of home-cooking could go up rapidly, but at the same time, may not want to cook for themselves. We have to accept the fact that cooking from scratch isn’t the same as it was 50 years ago. Sadly, our new cooking regimen severely cuts our nutritional content. Packaged and frozen foods can not have the same nutritional substance as freshly grown produce from your own garden.
Those who feel that home-cooking will only get worse from here include Vice President of The NPD group. In his opinion, Americans are “cheap and lazy”. We already have supermarkets that deliver, but in his eyes, the next step is a drive thru supermarket. His solution to the downfall of home cooked meals is simple. “Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want-just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” Cooking went from a luxury, to a task, to a necessity and for our grandchildren, possibly something that doesn’t exist.
I feel that as American’s we have been spoiled. There are new inventions everyday that somehow “help” us to make our lives “easier”. In my opinion they are making us lazy and bored. Whenever I don’t have anything to do I whip together some flour, eggs, and sugar and make cupcakes or cookies, or brownies. One thing Americans need to learn how to do again is cook, not how to use the new microwave; but to heat the oven or light the grill. Home cooking won’t be something of the past if we put a stop to it! We all need to stand up and take charge of our eating and cooking habits, because if we don’t who will?