Last week, video of Michael Ruhlman calling “bullshit” on people’s claim that they don’t have time to cook made waves online. The exchange started when IACP panelists Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg confessed that even though they’re highly visible food writers, they sometimes use a favorite packaged sauce to speed up dinnertime. The panel was titled “The Death of Recipes?” and in a disclosure moment I should confess the inflammatory title was mine, since I helped put the panel together and engineered all the panelists on the stage along with Amy Sherman.
These few moments of exchange were my original aim. Does a confident cook need recipes, or just structure? Is a recipe meant to be blueprint or could cocktail napkin-style conceptualizing suffice? Or, sure recipes remain relevant, but does the world need 739,000 Google hits for the term “tuna casserole recipe?”
In a subsequent piece on The Huffington Post, Ruhlman clarifies that he wasn’t saying bullshit to Page and Dornenburg, but to the notion that people “don’t have time to cook” in general.
Ruhlman wrote: “I wasn’t responding to Karen Page personally–she was simply voicing what everyone seems to believe and propagate: that we all lead such busy lives that we have no time to cook. To repeat: bullshit. Maybe you don’t like to cook, maybe you’re too lazy to cook, maybe you’d rather watch television or garden, I don’t know and I don’t care, but don’t tell me you’re too busy to cook. We all have the same hours every day, and we all choose how to use them. Working 12-hour days is a choice.”
The premise of his piece is that whenever food writers advocate “30-minute meals,” they subtly help to relay a clandestine message on behalf of big food conglomerates. Namely, that people need their processed foods since we’re all so terribly busy.
I agree with Ruhlman on this. As part of research for my next book, I’ve been going into people’s homes to learn what lurks in their pantry and how they truly feel about cooking. I find that much of people’s thoughts that they are too busy to cook comes from a perceived lack of time, rather than an actual time crunch so extreme that there’s simply absolutely no time to cook.
There’s an odd concept that to spend time cooking is to waste time. Why? With food everywhere, you don’t need to cook. To some people, making a cake from scratch would be akin to washing clothes in a river. A student in one of my writing classes told me she lent a friend her beloved copy of Pierre Franey’s classic The 60-Minute Gourmet. To which her incredulous friend replied, “You’re kidding, right? You expect me to spend a whole hour on dinner?”
But as Ruhlman notes, time spent in general is a choice. I have a friend who works full-time and has two kids who have soccer practice three times a week. She used to stand watching along with lots of other bored parents, and then take them to McDonalds for dinner afterward. When she swore off fast food after seeing the film “Food Inc.” she scoured her schedule and found that “soccer practice was five hours a week, easy.” She arranged for a friend to ferry them there and back.
“I decided that the best thing I can do with that time is make them a good dinner rather than stand on the sidelines, watching them run drills,” she said. “It works out for both of us. I just make extra of whatever I’m doing for dinner and give it to my friend when she drops them off.”
But she’s lucky that she had the ability to make that choice. Not everyone does. Beyond time, the reasons why people aren’t cooking often evolve into something more complex. Among them is what I refer to as “the will to cook.” It’s the mental challenge of focusing mental and physical energy on the task of cooking. We live in a complex world, and I know that at the end of the day, I’m weary from stimulus. That’s the space where processed, takeout and fast food appears most appetizing — and where food companies strike hardest to maximize profits. They aren’t marketed as “convenience foods” for nothing. “Oh, I’m so tired, it will be easier to stop at the drive-thru.” Such thinking if why some fast food chains such as Taco Bell sell 65% of their food through a sliding window.
Or, another common scenario. A person opens a cupboard and pulls out a box of pasta mix. “Oh, I worked hard and need to relax. This will be easier and cheaper than cooking pasta from scratch.” Let’s take one product, Parmesan Cheese flavor from Pasta-a-Roni. It’s meant to approximate the flavor of pasta tossed with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. It contains 28 ingredients. On top fo that, it requires adding milk and margarine to cooked pasta.
What’s the realm of modern food writing needs isn’t more quick recipes but more basic consumer reporting. Pasta Roni costs $1.89 at my local Safeway. Sounds cheap, right? It equals $4.88 a pound for pasta, dried cheese and some chemicals. By contrast, the store’s brand of organic whole wheat pasta is 89 cents a pound.
As Ruhlman states, if you love this product and your life is great, fine. But with high sodium, low fiber and low in other nutrients, it’s not a terrific food choice if you’re overweight like two-thirds of Americans or suffer from high blood pressure like 35%.
We need to focus more on encouraging people to think about their food choices. We should make more of an effort to convince people if they have the time to make pasta and add milk and butter, they have time to make it themselves.
Even in her day, Julia Child fought the war of convenience food. She was advocating technique and whole foods even as the well-intentioned Poppy Cannon went around waving her can opener. She persevered. She influenced, inspired and educated.
In my research, I’ve listened to stories of frustration, self-doubt and guilt over not being able to cook. Getting people to cook more lies less in diminished cooking times and more in promoting confidence and knowledge. That’s what I think Jamie Oliver is attempting in his Food Revolution. To me, that’s the story.
Selling people processed food — basically dressed up army rations — requires the food industry to continually sell people the idea that they have neither the time or skill to feed themselves. This results in everything from factual slights of hand to bald-faced lies. After all, this is the industry that claims Sugar Corn Pops can be “part of a nutritious breakfast” and Doritos are “heart healthy.”
Food writers can help counter all this disinformation. We need to help re-educate a nation of potential cooks who have lost their way to the kitchen. There’s one important point in all of this that’s squarely in line with Ruhlman’s argument, even if it isn’t obvious. Namely, cooking for yourself frees you from being taken advantage of by The Man. Everyone loves that.
“Hey, you there, are you happy allowing faceless multi-national conglomerates to feed you? The same companies so interested in their bottom line that they have sold you tainted milk from China, laced foods with pesticides and carcinogenic food additives? Did you know that even though it seems cheap, a lot of processed food is significantly more expensive and also damaging to the environment? Did you know that big food companies invest in health care companies? Will you feel as good about that $1.50 can of tuna once you know that they’re being hunted to extinction?”
In her keynote at IACP, Ruth Reichl noted that each of us has power to wield over companies. “You get to vote for a president only once every four years. But you vote with your dollar every meal, every day.”
My call to action for food writers, including food bloggers, is call bullshit on food companies more often. Ask harder questions. Be better reporters. Wrest yourself from what I call “the Foodie Bubble.” Don’t wax poetic on ramps and perfect peaches at the farmer’s market. Start spending time watching real people shop in your local supermarket. Hundreds of stories lie in those middle aisles.
Our goal should be to help more people decide for themselves that they don’t want their dinners to come from the fast food lane or the frozen food aisle. All are worthy goals, no matter how long it takes to spread the word.