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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reticence about cooking

Cathy Erway writes a brilliant blog called "Not Eating Out in New York", and among the topics she tackles is justifying why she chooses not to eat out in a city with as diverse a restaurant culture as New York City. Her recent article says that she doesn't need to be coddled; that in addition to the economics and educational aspects of it, cooking at home is empowering - and should happen everyday. She bemoans the fact that we are training our children to order out of a menu before how to peel an orange; the corollary I take from this is that cooking is somehow below the cultured members of society, and should be delegated to the unseen dregs of humanity (discussing the food service industry's reliance on exploited undocumented immigrant labor is another topic for another day).

I find this dovetails into the recent TV series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, where the noted British celebrity chef attempts to reform the dining habits of the town of Huntington, WV. It's surprisingly entertaining and educational - and affirms some of my own observations here in the Houston area. I don't need ominous music to feel depressed in witnessing children who can't identify vegetables, or an educational system so detached as not to teach children how to use knives, or parents so oblivious to the amount of sugar in the milk the children are drinking. Heck, using French fries (yes, I am impressed at how carefully Oliver has adopted the American name for chips) as a means of fulfilling the dietary guidelines for vegetables is the culinary equivalent of teaching to the test.

And the waste. When Oliver tries to bring in healthier food (never mind the labor complaints, or the nitpicking about rules), the children don't eat the food, and it goes to the bin. And there I see a problem: these children aren't hungry. They are entrained to the idea that they can afford to be choosy; and of course, they'll choose these processed, salt and sugar laden stuff because they're already addicted to it. You don't let addicts choose if you want them to break the habit.

Jamie Oliver is experienced in this; he knows that the key to healthier dining is to cook the food yourself, from scratch if possible. Many of the tactics he's chosen has been televised before in his earlier show, Ministry of Food, where he converts an entire working class English town to cooking. It's a great show to watch if you have the chance, and is only four episodes long. But here's the key difference between that show, and the current American incarnation: there's very little actual cooking being shown on this side of the pond. Despite having the message that cooking food is a healthier practice that outsourcing it to a factory, Food Revolution's footage of cooking are but one second snippets of generic food prep, MTV-esque cut abouts of flipping pans, and long looks at food being plated and eaten. No actual cooking instruction is done.

Go watch the British version some time. Oliver actually gets to demonstrate a few recipes on air, from beginning to end.

To make it palatable to the American public, a show that is meant to demonstrate the virtues of cooking has to actually emasculate the very act it espouses. Ironic. Sad.


  1. This is a fascinating topic. Food processors have done a really fantastic job of using human biology against us. We evolved in a low-fat, low-salt environment, and our cravings for fat and salt were selected for. Indeed, we've also evolved to be suspicious of new flavours so we don't poison ourselves by eating that strange flavoured mushroom. So what do successful large food processors do? Give us high-fat, high-salt food that is consistent. Most people don't want to have new flavours. Indeed, even amongst so-called foodies people debate "authenticity" which is another way of saying consistency. Humans don't want to taste new things. We want salt and fat that tasted like the salt and fat we had yesterday.

    I am extremely skeptical of the ability of any TV personality to change peoples' thoughts on this matter. He's working against 50,000 years of human evolution, and 100 years of food processing experience.

  2. That's a topic for another posting I'm still cogitating about, the fact that the very definition of food not so much a biological one as it is a cultural one. But it does impinge on the adaptations of human evolution.

    Jamie Oliver has had tremendous impact in urban British dining, but I don't think studies are planned to determine the long term effects of his projects.