Will Work for Food? Increasingly, Americans Won’t and Don’t

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.

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