Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Went Wrong in American Food?

In some ways this essay is a little out of date. Over the past few years, American food culture (at least in some places) has slowly been drifting away from the steak, potatoes, and processed convenience food full of sodium, high fructose corn syrup, and chemistry sets of preservatives, that was contributing to our national epidemic of obesity, while having the added bonus of greatly contributing to climate change. CSAs and farm shares are becoming more accessible. Non-profit organizations are finding ways to bring fresh food to the poor, who too often have to eat the cheapest of the cheap. More restaurants are committing to seasonal sustainable menus. Foodieism has trickled down an increased focus on what and how we eat. But obesity is still on the rise, so, even though obesity has many sources, our food problems are far from solved.

And all of this is recovery from an unhealthy, unsustainable, practically joyless food culture that prized convenience over flavor, cost over quality, and predictability over passion. We became a nation of reheaters. My question has always been, what went wrong? We had the two fundamental sources of a great cooking culture; diversity and poverty, and though “America” is an extremely young culture, especially in terms of food, we had already developed some fantastic new foods, from barbeque to potato chips. But then, well, here's what I think happened.

Compulsory Education: For most human history, people (women usually) learned to cook by watching their mother cook, who learned by watching her mother cook. Recipes weren't passed down in books, but through apprenticeship. Techniques weren't taught, they were absorbed. But with the modern education system, mom cooked alone, because the kids were at school. Many recipes, techniques, and traditions were lost because there wasn't anybody in the kitchen to watch them enacted. So, when those children grew up, got houses, and found themselves in the kitchen, they didn't really know what to do. It's not hard to see the appeal of “heat and serve.”

Better Living Through Science: When the American dream included a car in every driveway, we didn't know our car culture would eventually wreck the environment. It is impossible to predict all the consequences of our actions. The convenience foods we eventually developed had the best of intentions; to give women a little spare time. And who could blame them for finally taking the opportunity to read every now and again. We didn't know then, the effects the amounts of sodium and high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals needed to make shelf-stable foods taste like something would come with such dire consequences for our nation's health.

The Great Depression (but not for why you think): A lot of people got out of the Great Depression determined to never eat poor people food again. Americans had the money to buy pretty much whatever cuts of meat they wanted and so they bought the best cuts. If they were going to eat chicken they were going to eat chicken breasts. If pork, chops or loins. If beef, steaks or roasts. The market responded and now we have chickens that are essentially engorged breasts on legs and cows pumped with more hormones than East German Olympic swimmers (speaking of out of date statements). As dire as the environmental consequences are from the shift to choice cuts, a lot of cooking was lost. The source of the world's great food traditions are disgusting looking potential foods made palatable through technique. Oxtail doesn't look too tasty when it's just sitting there, but for most of human history it was either eat what was there or don't eat anything at all. And now we have oxtail soup. Oh man. Oxtail soup. Because we stopped eating poor people food, a lot of great recipes and techniques fell out of general knowledge.

The Unequal Distribution of Domestic Duties: Social movements are funny things, especially when they succeed. Women joined the workforce, but, for the most part, men didn't really increase their domestic workload. One result of the womens movement is that many, many women got home from work and still had to make dinner, and when they did, they had much less time and much less energy to do so. Furthermore, no one was around to tend to the all day dishes or bake bread or make pasta, or do any of the other time or labor intensive cooking that used to define daily domestic life.

What might be most instructive about our transition to a convenience food culture is how little all of these changes had to do with food. For the most part, a more general structure of society changed, and how we made food changed in response. Furthermore, all of these societal changes were, at least in terms of their intentions, for the best. The plague of advertising and the corn-centric agricultural subsidies have done their part of course, but food scientists in the 50s didn't rub their hands together in malicious glee and declare “Ha, this will contribute to an epidemic of diabetes by the start of the next millennium.” Compulsory education wasn't a conspiracy of the burgeoning microwave industry, and the organizers and activists of the feminist movement didn't conclude their meetings by saying, “And just think of it, one day we'll have the fattest kids on the planet.” Our destructive food culture was a result of people trying to make the world a better place.

As I said at the beginning of the essay, our food culture is changing for the better, but unfortunately, the changes are almost all from the top down. It's people with enough money to dine at sustainable restaurants and shop for fresh, sustainable food, with the time to consistently make it. Unfortunately, truly changing our food culture for everyone, will require more general and more drastic socio-economic changes. However, I do think, there's one food based change we can make that would quickly and greatly improve our food culture. Teach cooking in school again.

An hour or so, every month, through middle and high school would provide students with many of the basic skills needed to cook healthy food for themselves. Maybe some schools could offer an elective as well for those students who might be interested in working in the food industry. It won't replace the lifetime apprenticeship we used to learn to cook through, but it will mean all American men and women will be able to cook for themselves. Furthermore, the kids would eat what they cooked, providing a stigma-free, free meal to many hungry students.
Our food culture is improving, but there are a lot of forces, spread out through our society supporting our sodium and syrup rich convenience food culture. The physical state of kitchens in low income housing. The corn-centric farm subsidy system. Massive agri-business. The advertising assault on our consciousness. There are big picture changes that can be made, like a redistribution of agricultural subsidies, but the most effective way to improve the country's food culture starts quite a bit closer to home. The problem is not the existence of heat and serve dinners and fast food restaurants, but how much we use them. There's nothing wrong with throwing something in the microwave when you've got tickets to a game and don't have time to make anything. There's nothing wrong with getting fast food while you're on the highway. But there is something wrong with always heating and serving and getting fast food once a week. All that is really needed to revolutionize our food culture is a rational relationship with convenience foods. And, for everyone to start making their own vegetable stock. But that's another essay.

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of teaching cooking in school. Too many people, including -- to a degree -- me, grew up thinking the "basics" of food preparation were boiling a pot of water for mac and cheese or putting a frozen chicken patty in the toaster oven.

    Whenever I have time (and often when I don't), I find myself wanting to cook -- really cook, from scratch. It's relaxing, fun, and fulfilling, but more than that, I actually think there's something instinctive in it. Yuppie stigma against prefab foods aside, it feels wrong to me on a basic level when I go too long without creating my own food. Of course, it's not like I grow the olives and press the oil myself, but the closer I get to "basic," the better my equilibrium.