In Defense of Food and Compromise

“What should we have for dinner tomorrow?”

The question crops up every night when we’re sitting down to the answer we hammered out the night before. After all, in 24 hours, we’ll have to repeat this all over again. The getting home late in a state more tired, cranky, and motivationless than we’d like. I don’t want to cook, even though I count anything food-related only second to writing in my list of passions. If I’m in a particularly nasty slump, cooking slips ahead to claim the top spot. But just as the thought of typing as soon as I pull into my driveway makes my head hurt, so does the idea of washing and julienning vegetables, deboning chicken, and coaxing rice and broth into risotto.

“Why don’t we have spaghetti?” I suggested to my husband Matt last weekend, when we were looking ahead to Monday. Asking this question on a Sunday is always hard, because we’ve just finished with the weekend, when we have the time and energy to unleash our culinary creativity. Matt slow barbecue-smokes brisket and chickens while I bake bread, toss together homemade cole slaw, and let a scratch barbecue sauce marinade overnight. For Monday’s spaghetti, I figured that I could use some of the nicer marinara sauce I bought at a specialty grocer, combined with sautéed ground beef and onions. “I’ve got some great jar sauce,” I said.

“Oh.” His face fell all the way down onto his plate. “We can’t make our own sauce?”

“Are you kidding me?” Start scratch tomato sauce like the Italian grandmother neither of us German kids ever had, at six in the evening? After working eight hours, commuting two, and hoping I can squeeze maybe an hour of time for an essay from the rest of my waking hours?

pollanOur dinner conundrum stuck in my head, and my craw, as I spent the next day’s lunch break reading the introduction to Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked. As a wonderstruck 22-year-old fresh college graduate, I became a disciple of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his rallying cry against the industrial food complex. I still agree with him on most all accounts. Corn and HFCs are terrible for our health and environment. Animals should be treated with dignity and respect, even if they are destined for our tables. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that the truth of why we are buying and eating the way we do isn’t as simple as we grew into a generation that believes canning and cellaring is stupid. As the meteoric rise of the Ball jar since the Great Recession has shown, quite the opposite. Looking back, it looks as though Pollan was skirting truths that I was, at the time, still ignorant of.

In Cooked, Pollan examines the phenomenon of not-cooking that has seeped in since (as he pinpoints) the 1960s. Of course, the implications of this timeline are self-evident. After the American household transformed from an earner-and-nurturer dynamic of husband and housewife to a two-income system, there was no Betty Crocker at home during the day to prep pot roast and make béarnaise sauce. In this introduction, Pollan laments: “How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook on television?”

Perhaps because it is not a choice, or at least one we would like to make. When having to decide between paying the mortgage and bills as only two salaries allows, and being at home to be more hands-on in our sustenance, the decision is already made. Work, or there won’t be anything to cook. There will also be none of the gorgeous artisanal ingredients Pollan urges us to “vote with our dollars” by purchasing, because as low- and middle-class working Americans, the few dollars to be had won’t be ours.

The sacrifice of our time for less and less payoff is self-evident. As The New York Times recently reported, “From 1973 to 2011, worker productivity grew 80 percent, while median hourly compensation, after inflation, grew by just one-eighth that amount, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group. And since 2000, productivity has risen 23 percent while real hourly pay has essentially stagnated.” While our pay stands frozen in time, the cost of living rises across every aspect of our day. Monthly housing rent rose 40% from 2000 to 2009. The cost of tuition  has jumped 5.4% above inflation annually between 2000 and 2010. The cell phone plan you paid $210 a year for in 2001 was averaged out to $760 per year in 2010. The price to fill our cars to get to those dreary offices has more than doubled since 2003. As a result, men and women who would prefer staying home and being writers or artists or caretakers can rarely do so without steering their families toward financial ruin.

It is not as if I enjoy having all of my side dishes plunked out of a bag by Trader Joe’s while we hastily grill some chicken, or toss together quick quesadillas with prepared salsa topping. The reason that we have to turn to semi-homemade meals comes down to the economy of time. When I get home from the 40 hours of work I have per week, my priorities are some time spent with my husband, writing, and maybe sleep. I can’t begin to imagine how people meet every day’s obligation once kids squeeze into the equation. Our culture’s love affair with Iron Chef America and Jamie Oliver doesn’t seem so baffling when you consider how much many of us miss the time we used to spend at a stove or table, showing off our skills or savoring the labor of love presented by another. Weekday cooking has transformed into another chore, but our hunger for the good stuff still remains. When we ask, “what’s for dinner?” the last thing we want to say is “frozen hamburger patties and Tater Tots.” But until our economy affords us any slack, the answer will not be “chicken bouillabaisse with ciabatta rolls.” And Michael Pollan can keep preaching the gospel about getting back to scratch-basics, and we will nod, and wish we could. But until he understands that we are not compromising with convenience because we’re too lazy and dumb to drive over to Whole Foods, the gaping disconnect remains between the idyllic and the struggle.

One thought on “In Defense of Food and Compromise

  1. I think that “semi-homemade meals” are the best of both worlds. For instance, buying a frozen Kashi or Trader Joe’s frozen pizza (which are usually pretty skimpy on the toppings) and then loading it with steamed spinach, cilantro, onions, asparagus, broccoli, corn or whatever else is in-season (hopefully from the garden, local famer or CSA) makes a fabulously delicious and nutritious meal. Plus, I feel like my input made a big difference. It reminds me a little of a marketing story about when packaged cake mixes first came on the market. If I remember correctly, all you had to add was the water — but the idea flopped. When manufacturers realized that people want to participate in preparing their family’s foods, eggs were removed from the mix and the instructions were changed to read, “Add 2 eggs, water, and mix.” Suddenly sales took off.

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