Michael Pollan, the food guru who gave us The Ominivore's Dillemma, has a new book out this week. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, is an exploration of how earth, fire, water, and air eventually result in food -- real food, not the "food-like products" found on supermarket shelves that make us all fat, sick, and dead tired.
By now we all know that white flour, sugar, and salt -- the main ingredients in processed foods -- contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
But what started this stampede toward faux food oblivion? Was it the feminists, who under Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique manifesto abandoned the kitchen (and symbolically their families) in droves? After all, cooking was solitary drudgery, and the work wasn't over when the food hit the table. While Dad and the kids went off to watch Father Knows Best, mom put in another solid hour cleaning up the mess. No wonder women wanted out.
So is fast food feminism's fault? Pollan makes a brief but convincing case that the answer is no. Beginning in the 1970s women did go to work outside the home in unprecedented numbers. But that was as much because it took two incomes to keep the family afloat as it was about a desire to escape the suburban kitchen.
With everyone at work, who was left to cook? Nobody. It was Big Food corporations to the rescue! A generation later, new so-called "foods" -- like breakfast bars coated with sugared frosting to be devoured in the car on the way to school -- are invented everyday. Pre-mixed, pre-cooked, and pre-stripped of nutrients, we now have more fake food than ever to choose from.
And oh yeah, all the marketing is aimed at women -- especially mom. Our culture is stuck in the '50s when it comes to feeding the family. It's still her job, even if it now means picking up a pizza, or microwaving frozen concoctions that taste like the cartons they come in. Pollan urges both women and men -- along with their kids -- to get back in the kitchen, chopping onions and baking bread. A nice idea. But it ain't gonna happen.
Cooked won't teach you how to cook -- but it will teach you how to learn how to cook. If, that is, you have the money to travel and spend time with the high priests of barbeque, homemade cheese, kimchi, and artisanal bread. And it helps to live in a city where access to fresh ingredients is a given, and also to have a job only steps from your kitchen, where you can take a break any time you want to check on the progress of the sourdough or simmering cookpot.
Pollan tells us that in the 1970s KFC marketed its chicken buckets with the slogan "women's liberation." In today's fast food nation, adult women are now the majority of minimum wage workers, and many work two jobs to make ends meet. What we need is a new liberation -- from the low-wage treadmill that keeps us working 167 more hours per month than we did in the 1960s when people actually cooked. Until then, at least for the majority of women, going back to the kitchen to bake your own bread and lovingly prepare a multi-stage home-cooked meal (even with cooperative family members as sous chefs) will remain as illusory as the smoke over those back-to-basics barbeque fires Cooked so painstakingly extols.
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