Part 2: A single parent with a high-school education working full-time at a low-paying, physically taxing job may be having a hard time feeding a family at all, much less well. And it’s a lot easier to fight against prevailing culture if you aren’t exhausted. Let’s be honest. It takes time and a fair degree of skill and knowledge to make fresh vegetables, beans, rice, pasta and canned goods into something a child would find tastier than a BigMac and a Coke. This may not be right, but it’s a very real fact. We very quickly develop “bad” habits from our built-in taste for salt, fat and sugar. As a result, obesity has come to carry a class stigma—the rich are thin, the poor are fat.
If you are poor and choose to cook for your family, you don’t have a well-stocked spice cabinet. You may shop once every few weeks and consequently opt for frozen or canned veggies rather than fresh if you are cooking at all. Your cheap and plentiful supply of meat isn’t humane; your bargain eggs aren’t free range; your fish isn’t line-caught, but likely in a can. At the same time, you are presented at the store with a dazzling array of cheap convenience foods that have morphed from end products into “ingredients” in “recipes”. Back of box recipes abound that combine several convenience products with some cheap meat to create a new “thing” that masquerades as a home-cooked meal. This is your world.
Yes, you can absolutely cook healthy food from scratch quickly and easily, but nothing on the broccoli tells you how to do that. It is likely, though not always the case, that you have not acquired basic scratch cooking skills. (We have taught classes at the Oregon FoodBank and in many cases children, young children, are the family cooks in homes in which there may only be a hotplate.) You would not encounter books like Food Matters or The Omnivore’s Dilemma in your daily routine and if you did, it wouldn’t be high on your list of essential items. At the supermarket checkout, where a simple guide to cooking would be helpful, the cheap pamphlets on the rack almost universally promote convenience products.
Rushing frantically from one task to the next, joylessly fueling up on what is at hand and expedient, the simple struggle to survive trumps any dogma. “Quick and easy” remains mass market gold because, as they are constantly told, the working poor have neither the time nor the skills to cook. Surely this calls for revolution, not recipes? In a country where the distribution of wealth and leisure time is massively skewed, how can we not think that would permeate into every facet of culture? Good food can take time and be complicated and have many ingredients—none of these things are bad in and of themselves. Ironically, in fact, many of the cheapest, most healthful traditional peasant foods are just that—slow and on the labor-intense side. But time and skill can’t just appear out of thin air when we are two, or maybe even three generations away from a household in which cooking everyday was the norm.
In Part 3, next week, we’ll put forward some ideas for change.
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.