One of the fantastic things about caring about food and food politics is the convergence of my desires to eat really really delicious food and for that food to be humanely and sustainably produced. As one of the audience members at 826 put it, you don’t really have to make a choice between hedonics and ethics, because for the most part, the most humanely raised cow makes the best tasting beef. Sure, there’s always exceptions, but the cow that lived a long life munching the grass that its stomach was evolved to digest is going to taste better than a cow eating ethanol waste (!) and getting pumped full of antibiotics. The organically raised, locally grown early girl tomato just trucked from the farm to the farmer’s market tastes a million times better than the vaguely reddish balloon-like item at the supermarket that’s been sitting on a truck for a week. It definitely makes it easier for me to fully support conscious eating, because it doesn’t mean restricting yourself. I’d way rather eat a buttery tart filled with organic strawberries than a nasty-ass sugar-free snack cake or Hostess Twinkie and I feel better about where it came from (btw, read Twinkie, Deconstructed for a fascinating yet also horrific account of all the chemicals that go into both twinkies and…rocket fuel!)
The correlation between good-tasting food and well-produced food is a happy one, since I would have a lot of trouble denying myself if they happened to be mutually exclusive. Luckily, a lovingly and thoughtfully crafted croissant or pizza or salad is most likely to be made of the best ingredients. MP noted that most of the chefs who first started serving organic ingredients in their restaurants did so because they tasted better, not because they strongly disapproved of pesticide usage. However, the one place where eating tasty, sustainable food doesn’t align with people’s general food goals is the price. Organic is generally more expensive than conventional. Farmer’s markets in many places are more expensive than supermarkets (although not always!) However, all the panelists agreed that you can eat well and sustainably on a budget. But..you have to cook. And you can’t eat a lot of meat.
Clearly, this would be a huge shift for many Americans who work long hours, don’t want to cook at the end of a long day, and expect their usual 6-8 ounces of meat at every meal. Hitting up the McD’s drive-thru is easy, fast, cheap, and you only have to buy four Quarter-Pounders to consume an entire pound of nasty meat! MP mentioned how the rise in fast food paralleled the collapse in incomes (I think I quoted that correctly) and it just got easier to buy cheap processed meals rather than going through the time, effort, and cost of cooking. He touched upon the importance and value of the feminist movement in dispelling the notion of a women’s place in the kitchen and getting rid of sexist divisions like home ec for girls and shop for boys, but through that journey, cooking has become a chore to avoid for many Americans. In his words, cooking is a key part of evolving food culture that needs to be addressed, and we need to reinvent a way of cooking that is not sexist.
I agree wholeheartedly that cooking is extremely important for enjoyment and appreciation of food and that healthy, sustainable eating probably isn’t doable without it. Cheap, healthy, sustainable cooking is impossible without it. Cooking should be versatile according to your needs and desires, to help you prepare complex and beautiful meals to share with others or present to guests, or to whip up simple, fast, and healthy meals after a long day of work. Cooking should be enjoyable and entertaining and fun and give you an opportunity in your day to share and connect with others. Part of why I so enjoyed my time in Italy was because Italians seriously know.how.to.eat. Think four hour meals with multiple courses (antipasti! primi! secondi! dolci!) and enjoying food and discussion with loved ones. I appreciate that they place true value and importance upon the meal, it’s not something to finish quickly and get out of the way so you can continue on with your day. Americans need to embrace this style of eating, of sitting around a big table sharing food and stories with family, not sitting in front of the TV with a reheated frozen dinner watching primetime.
Seguing a bit for a second – MP mentioned a book he just read that said 97% of societies studied throughout history have had a food culture of women cooking in the home, and men usually cooking for public or communal events. I find this pretty fascinating considering how many celebrity chefs in the U.S. are men. I do think gender roles in cooking are evening out though, with the rise of cooking shows in pop culture and generational change. Maybe it’s because most of my friends, male and female, love food and therefore like to cook in pretty equal proportion. Anyway, my roommate Annie happened to tear out an Economist article for me about the evolutionary role of cookery and the hypothesis that processed food makes people obese because it’s softer and therefore easier to digest and therefore burns fewer calories (I also think processed food makes people fat, although that reasoning is new and interesting to me). Turns out the researcher is the same author quoted by MP. His name is Richard Wrangham, and his book Catching Fire will be released in a few months. Excited!
Returning to this whole idea of cooking as an essential ingredient to eating healthfully, sustainably, and affordably, it helps a lot if cooking can be easy, fun, and not an intimidating endeavor where you may burn the house down or set yourself on fire. Some people may never like to cook and would prefer to take a pill for their daily caloric intake, but I feel that if you like food and enjoy eating then you will probably have a good time playing around in the kitchen. I’m certainly no expert chef, but I know what I like to eat and what tastes good, and I feel that’s all you need to make good food. And I haven’t set myself on fire yet (although it’s been close). So one of the things I’d like to do with this blog is show some easy recipes for food that can be made quickly, cheaply, healthily, and sustainably whenever possible.
So. Coming soon from a kitchen near you…fun with leftovers!