'If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day: what you make to eat. . . . Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.' -- John Irving from The World According to Garp
Labor Day in the United States should be one of the gastronomic high points of the year. By the time it comes around, most parts of the country are entering their fourth full month of frost-free weather, which means that there is an unparalleled bounty of fresh, local ingredients available. Yet, when it comes to bringing these ingredients together into a meal, be it on Labor day or any other day, Americans are increasingly saying 'the less labor, the better'.
The studies bearing this 'easier is better' trend out are numerous. According to one, the average amount of time spent preparing meals will soon be down to 15 minutes per meal. Another estimates that only 25 percent of us know what we will cook for dinner by 4 p.m. each day. Yet another calculates that 40 cents of every food dollar is spent on food eaten away from home.
So has the family dinner bell sounded its death knell? Well, not quite, but there are some dangerous and even deadly trends associated with America's penchant for convenience foods. The first is that the easier food becomes, the more we tend to eat. The example I like to use to demonstrate this is a bowl of nuts. When I used to live in Europe, my family saw a country doctor who always kept a bowl of walnuts on his waiting room table. The nuts came from a beautiful chemical-free tree growing in his front yard and were presented au naturel in their shells with an old-fashioned cast-iron nutcracker next to the bowl. It was a real treat to pay the doctor a visit in the fall when the fresh nuts were at their white and meaty best. Like his other patients, I enjoyed cracking one or two open to get at the treasure inside. I cannot help but wonder how many nuts our doctor (and I) would have gone through had they been offered shelled -- at least twice as many, I'm sure. And I'm also sure that I would not have enjoyed them as much as I did.
The problem, of course, is that Americans are not helping themselves to larger portions of shelled organic walnuts, but to other easy foods that are considerably less wholesome: highly processed concoctions that are loaded with sodium, fat, and sugar and bereft of just about everything else. The health consequences of the 'no labor' diet are truly alarming: 31 percent of American adults and 15 percent of children are now clinically obese -- with both figures on the rise. Public health officials estimate the direct economic costs of America's obesity epidemic to be in excess of $100 billion a year (compare this with the $70 billion spent on the Iraq war thus far) -- not to mention the priceless human costs.
Some people, including a number of Europeans, often conclude that the fast/convenience food diet is proof that Americans are just not that interested in their own gastronomy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Americans crave home-cooked food just as much the Italians and the French; the difference is that fewer Americans have the cultural or culinary background to produce a tasty, healthy meal from scratch. There are entire generations of American adults -- Boomers, Xers, Boomlets, GenY, and N-Gens -- who never learned to cook and who don't have the time to learn. Consequently, they go looking for the shortcuts John Irving refers to which the agrifood industry is very happy to offer.
So what's a hungry, well-meaning person to do? Developing a healthier and more pleasurable way of eating for many Americans will require a questioning and reordering of personal priorities. It's true that cooking a meal from scratch takes time, but it's also true that the average American watches four hours of television per day. Surely, there's a way to shift some of our attention away from our TV and computer screens and towards tonight's dinner. It's also a fact that whole foods that are local and organic often cost more than processed, industrial ones coming from afar. Yet, if we accept that an unhealthy diet comes at a heavy price, couldn't we rationalize spending a bit more for a healthy one, especially if it tasted better and helped our local economy?
I am convinced on the basis of my own experience and that of those around me that the more one gets involved in his or her food -- anticipating it, growing some of it, shopping for it, preparing it, sharing it -- the better and, yes, saner one feels. So on this Labor Day weekend, put a little labor into your own gastronomy. You'll be paid generously in smiles of contentment.
Roger Doiron is the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (www.kitchengardeners.org), an international nonprofit organization that celebrates home-grown, home-cooked food in its many international forms.