I knew that I would like the people behind the Chicken Farmers of Canada social media the minute that I saw their Twitter bio:
And how can you not like a group that organizes a free Toronto Food Bloggers Meetup with an interesting panel of speakers at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, complete with tasty chicken appetizers and free-flowing wine?
The topic of the evening was the decline of home cooking: hosted by Theresa Albert, nutritionist and cookbook author, and including Anna Withrow, food writer and founder of the LIVERight awards, Amanda Laird, food blogger, and Ryan Anderson, Web strategist and PR blogger. Theresa started by passing around a copy of the recent NYT article by Michael Pollan (author of several books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma), “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”, contrasting the rise of food-related TV shows that fetishize cooking with the decline of anyone actually doing it. His article points out that the average American spends 27 minutes per day on food preparation, which is less than half the time required to watch one episode of most of the hugely popular shows on the Food Network; what’s wrong with this picture? Even the word “cooking” these days can mean opening a few cans and heating something in the microwave, rather than actual cooking from scratch: food researcher Henry Balzer said that washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it is considered cooking by most Americans (and probably Canadians) these days. Food TV has jump-started interest in food and cooking, but also created has fearfulness about the complexity: if someone can’t even figure out what the ingredients are or where to buy them, it stifles any adventurous nature that they might have had. And how do movies like “Julie and Julia” impact our popular culture around food? Cooking has shifted from being a matter of survival to an art form.
This shift to more prepared and processed foods has a health impact, too: typically, you’ll find more bad stuff such as fat, salt and weird chemicals in processed foods, and less good stuff such as fiber and vitamins. A few years ago, Damir and I switched to a mostly macrobiotic diet – which eschews processed foods – for several months, and I never felt so good: I lost some weight (which was not my primary goal) and had a lot more energy. Some of those eating habits stayed with us, resulting in almost no processed foods at home, lots of whole grains and raw vegetables, and semi-vegetarian eating habits; today for lunch, for example, we had brown rice with toasted sesame seeds and raw sunflower shoots, which was delicious. People on non-standard diets, whether macrobiotic, vegetarian or vegan, tend to cook more and eat better, although there always exceptions, like one vegetarian I know who lives on take-out cheese pizza.
Getting back to last night’s panel, Theresa opened with some words about food as the “center of our universe”, related to both health and culture. She realizes that what she shows to an audience is limited as a Food Network chef; as she put it, “I stand up there and chop shit…the producers decide what you see”, and related a story of the producers cutting out a segment because you could hear the bone crunching when she spatchcocked a chicken: an indication of how disconnected we have become from how food is created. Anna agreed, saying that we need to recreate that connection with the nutrients, and how packaged and fast food has separated us from that. Unlike the research shown in the NYT article, she doesn’t consider mixing fresh ingredients into prepared food to be “cooking”, but admits that it’s better than just using prepared food. She has canning parties with her friends, which shows a greater dedication to being aware of what you eat than many of us have.
Ryan and his girlfriend have embarked on an interesting culinary experiment: for a month (which they are halfway through), they are cooking everything from scratch. And by “scratch”, he means making everything from tortillas to butter. He said that he didn’t realize that he was that good of a cook until he started cooking with friends, and contrasted his skills with theirs; what we might consider basics such as making a chicken stock or a roux is intimidating to others.
Amanda discussed the influence of coming from a family where there was a home-cooked meal on the table every night: she follows recipes fairly religiously, and plans ahead for meals five nights each week to avoid becoming overwhelmed and ending up eating take-out junk. I’m not nearly that organized, but I also rarely use recipes so my cooking can usually accommodate whatever happens to be in the fridge. She also mentioned some good starter cooking tips on Pretty Savvy, including her suggestion to make YouTube your sous chef.
The three competing factors in food today are cost, health and time: you’re usually trading off on at least one of these, whether you’re eating at McDonalds (bad for your health), buying gourmet prepared foods at Whole Foods (your pocketbook suffers), or cooking meals from scratch at home (if you have the time). With a greater awareness of health issues – thanks to Super Size Me and a raft of other information sources – many of us are only making the cost/time tradeoff, and with the economy in the toilet, lots of people are okay with spending more time if it costs less. Theresa pointed out that there are a lot of ways to save a lot of time while still cooking good food from scratch. For one, start using your oven again; food TV is biased towards stovetop cooking, which typically takes constant attention, but most things cooked in the oven are tossed in there are left on their own for a while, freeing you up for other activities. The same is true of slow cookers: she suggested that a student heading off to university could be equipped with a slow cooker, a rice cooker and a few basic recipes, and eat healthily all semester without spending a lot of time in preparation.
The panel seemed in agreement that if we lose the ability to cook, we become dysfunctional in many ways in our life. I also concur: in my experience, cooking what we eat isn’t just about eating better, it’s about making a house into a home.