Bullshit, revisited

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.



Filed under book two, food politics, food writing, iacp, julia child, made from scratch, McDonald's, Rants and raves, Ruhlman, sustainable food, Uncategorized, weight

32 responses to “Bullshit, revisited

  1. Charlotte

    Great post. Wow, you can really write. I can’t wait to read your next book.

  2. Great article. I’m a huge believer in the “recipe”, not only can we control what we feed family and friends by using a recipe but some of our cherished recipes are surrounded with many special moments and are a wonderful legacy to preserve. I know that even if you are not a great cook, having a few important special recipes that work will give you confidence.

    Thanks for a thought provoking article!

  3. Jen

    Love it. We met briefly at IACP. I recently saw Food Inc. and it changed my perspective, too. I think that you are correct that there’s not enough writing on food issues. Excellent piece.

  4. Jane Bonacci

    This is a really important point and call to action. Thank you for throwing down the gauntlet to food writers/bloggers. It IS important to reinforce the concept of cooking from scratch and quit feeding people’s insecurities. Bravo Kat!

  5. A powerful and evocative piece. We need to move from food porn (ode to a ramp) to real foods people really eat (or should eat) if we are going to help others see the value in cooking, fresh foods, etc. I’d add the economic and political viewpoint as well. Unprocessed food is one of the last big industries left in the U.S. that is “made in America” (and even that is changing very rapidly). Cooking and eating real food helps support our economy and our values re food health and safety in some very real ways.

    Another point about “convenience foods” is they often take almost as or as long as making the dish from scratch.

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  7. great message kathleen! keep spreading the word!

  8. Wonderful and inspired piece. This is right on the money. I think you’re right about the foodie bubble. So many food blogs sound exactly the same. If even a fraction of bloggers focused on real issues around food, rather than making a dish and taking a pretty photo of it, we could make a difference. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!

  9. Janice in Tampa

    Excellent. Love, love, love this message. You can hear the passion in your voice. Loved your first book, but if this is a glimmer of the next one, I have a feeling that the next one will change people’s lives.


  11. Arthur Greenwald

    This is a fine article, but the next-to-last paragraph should be the lead. We can’t change behaviors unless we really listen to — and respect — the perspective of beleaguered consumers.

    Ruhlman, Waters, and other foodie oracles marginalize their own good information by constantly indulging in judgmental pontification.

    However important, the so-called “food revolution” remains a tiny segment of the food economy. If people believe they’re too busy to cook, then they are. We’re hardly going to persuade them by calling them lazy or worse.

  12. Great post, Kat. I love the math of converting the Pasta Roni to a per-pound cost. There’s this weird perception that it’s cheaper to buy processed food than real food, but then you see the math and see that it isn’t true.

  13. Really smart post, beautifully written. Honestly, if Ruhlman had posted his thoughts as insightfully as you do, I wouldn’t have felt the need to argue the other side. Not pro-processed food, but pro-cooking quickly. Because sometimes it *is* necessary (I’m thinking of the new moms I teach to cook), and a meal made in under 30 minutes can be just as healthful–not to mention satisfying–as one that takes hours. (For the curious, my post is here: http://wordstoeatby.blogspot.com/2010/04/dear-michael-ruhlman.html)

  14. Hallelujah, Kat. I’m reminded of my call to you last year after spending my birthday at a kitchen-included airport motel trying to cook a grass-fed steak & some eggplant on a super cheap stove using even cheaper pots & pans and utensils. It was a wake up call that it’s not just our food which has been devalued but that even if you try to cook for yourself and/or your family, there are hidden barriers to success. Crap ingredients (it was a crappy steak, perfect example of a grocery store trying to do as little as possible to fill a consumer need) and crap cooking equipment might lead anyone to choose prefabricated, already warmed edibles instead.

    ps Is that better? Still wishing I’d not held back at my artisan beef tasting at the IACP.

  15. S. Chavis

    I think you have delivered the message better than Michael Ruhlman did… I read his argument and felt that he was out of touch with people (especially parents and single parents), and that his message was elitist. I thought he had good intentions, but a poor argument.

    His focus on time didn’t make sense. You don’t need an hour or more to make a healthy meal with fresh ingredients, and just because something’s cooked an hour doesn’t make it good. (Please don’t cook my steak, shrimp, or green beans for a whole hour!) There are many nights I tell my boyfriend I can turn out a home-cooked meal faster than he can get to the fast food joint, and I do, and he’s more than happy. I also didn’t understand why Ruhlman picked on Jamie Oliver – I never see Oliver tricking out Hamburger Helper. And, if a parent has limited time in the evenings, I can’t make them feel guilty for wanting a fast meal so they can spend more time physically being with their kids… reading, talking, playing with them. That’s precious and worthwhile, too. (And again, fast doesn’t have to mean processed or unhealthy.)

    I’m still left feeling that both you and Michael Ruhlman have good intentions but are missing important realities of every day life for so many people. I feel that both of you assume that people have access to fresh, healthy and affordable food; and that people make a livable wage on one 40-hour a week job.

    Sadly, we live in a nation where access to fresh food is not a right for everyone. Grocery stores go where they can make profits… not where there are people who need a grocery store. Food deserts and community food security are serious problems that impact access to affordable, healthy food; and lack of access to healthy food is linked to increased incidence of life-threatening diseases.

    We also live in a nation where pay disparities still exist, where minimum wage barely pays rent and leaves families food insecure, where many of the men and women serving our country in the US military are paid so little they need food stamps / SNAP, where fathers do not pay child support and school breakfast and lunch are the best meals their kids get all day. People have lost jobs and suffered pay cuts because of our current economic crisis. And many more have taken on second jobs not for play money, but to make ends meet and provide for themselves and their families. And, the USDA recently projected food prices will go up this year.

    At best I can only assume that you are assuming a privileged audience for your “time is a choice” message. But honestly, I think you and Michael Ruhlman need to acknowledge how people of varying socio-economic statuses and family structure live. To people who aren’t as privileged as you assume, the “time is a choice” argument is insulting.

    I’m with you and Michael Ruhlman both in the goal of encouraging people to eat more fresh, healthy food, and I’m with you both personally and professionally (I am an editor at a national magazine, and I specialize in diet). But what you and Michael Ruhlman have proposed in your messages isn’t enough, and people who have different lives need all of us to listen and respond. I think we also have to change the environment of our country so that fresh, healthy food is affordable and accessible… Change it so that people who want or need it can have access to soil suitable for a garden plot. Give people better public transportation so they can get to grocery stores or farmers markets. We need to address minimum wage, and pay disparities, and our corporate culture of incredibly long work hours and being obligated to work even when you’re supposed to have time off.

    I appreciate what you & Michael Ruhlman are arguing for, but I can’t cheer your message and overlook the entire environment that’s contributed to our national reliance on cheap and fat-salt-sugar loaded foods.

    • Anna

      I agree that there are a huge number of social issues that influence the way people are eating. But I do not agree that they should be used as an excuse for people not changing their behaviour.

      I think it is an issue of personal power – each individual living in a rich country (one with resources such as libraries, access to clean food and water) has the ability to educate themselves and to make their health a priority. If fuelling their body in a healthy manner is not a priority then they are choosing that. To throw their hands up and say that it is external forces beyond their control stopping them is bullshit.

      If you can afford fast food you can afford basic ingredients. If you can afford the time to drive to get your food then you can afford the time to cook it.

      If people start taking their power back change will be inevitable. Social change starts with the individual.

  16. Agreed! Anyone who thinks they don’t have time to make a tasty, real-food dinner doesn’t know about pasta puttanesca. That’s where recipes are useful: it’s the THINKING, CREATIVE part of daily cooking that’s hard at the end of the day. Anyone who can read can cook from scratch, and eventually they will find favourites that they can make from memory.

    One step at a time!

  17. Unlike the above commenter, I don’t think either of you are ignoring the realities of American eaters both rich and poor. My boyfiend and I started cooking at home as a way to save money and eat well while we were still toeing the poverty line.

    We educated ourselves about the state of food in our area (without govt prompting, simply because we like to eat well), and proceeded to track down local farmers to buy bulk items directly from them. The prices were about the same as the grocery store, but the difference in quality of food (and quality of life for the animals) was vast.

    Now we cook at home five days a week relying on local ethnic take out the other two, grow a small garden and literally cannot stomach processed foods. Once you’ve gotten off the processed food bandwagon it’s a shock to the body and tastebuds to return. Point is we did all this without any intervention, help, guidance or extra funds.

    Cooking at home is very much a choice, although spending an hour on dinner is simply unnecessary. So many meals can be made entirely from scratch rather quickly that it puzzles me when people start opening jars and bags. Anyhow long story short, to make the most impact vote with your dollars and tell Congress (again and loudly) to stop the food subsidies that are at the heart of the crippled agriculture.

  18. R.M. Koske

    Nice article, definitely, especially since I’m sorta one of those that needs convincing.

    I have food allergies that mean I cook *way* more food than most people (Right now I only get cake if it’s home baked, no exceptions) but I’m not a foodie. I don’t particularly enjoy food. Or maybe I should say I enjoy food, but not enough to spend extra time on it. I enjoy showers too, but I don’t make them a significant part of my life.

    I don’t have to be convinced that home-cooked is better than pre-packaged or fast food, I understand and believe that. Since I don’t want to cook and I can’t/won’t eat prepackaged and fast food, I eat a lot of sandwiches and love those half-hour recipes, when I’m willing to spend that long on it.

    When I do cook, I take shortcuts that are not approved by many of the food writers I’ve read. I use frozen pre-chopped veggies. I might buy a sauce or a bread mix. And I’ve run into food snobbery about jarred chopped garlic so many times I’m developing a complex about it.

    Maybe I’m an example of what Carrie Oliver was talking about above: I’m missing *something* that makes the extra effort translate into a noticeable improvement in my cooking. Freshly chopped garlic tastes exactly the same in recipes to me as the jarred stuff, and my chopping skills are abysmal. My brief attempt to use a garlic press was awful – I couldn’t get it to work at all the way I thought it should. I might be getting poor quality garlic but I don’t know how to tell.

    I could improve my knife skills, sure. But why? Spend hours practicing in order to spend an extra five minutes chopping and washing the board and knife every time I cook when I can’t tell the difference in flavor? There’s a barrier that I can’t clearly see and don’t know how to get past here.

    Ruhlman says if I’d rather watch TV that’s okay (my activity of choice is reading, actually), so how about some love or at least tolerance for the folks who don’t really want to cook but still want to eat moderately well? I have the time, I just don’t want to give it to *this*. I don’t deserve to be lumped in with the totally clueless who always have fast food because I don’t want to chop garlic, but I’m reluctant to read food bloggers talking about anything but the actual recipes because I’m afraid I’ll discover I’m doing it even more wrong than I think, and that’s discouraging. If using jarred garlic is a horrible crime against food, then why should I bother at all? Hot dogs and tater tots are filling, all the dishes are machine washable, it only take 2 minutes of prep time, and I get an extra half-hour to read.

    And you know, foodies look like they’re having a lot of fun. I’d like to be enthusiastic about food like this. Maybe if you convince me to spend a half hour every day, then that extra five minutes might start to be something I don’t mind so much, and I could turn into someone who knows that the chopping actually does make a difference. But you’re not gonna convert me from sandwiches to 60-minute meals without giving me a lot of help.

  19. anita

    Why can’t food writers and bloggers rhapsodize about ramps and perfect peaches? If it inspires one person to TRY those items, isn’t that good, too?

  20. I found this post linked from a friend of a friend’s blog. Excellent piece. I really enjoyed reading it and have championed this idea that people are *not* too busy to cook, for years. Very well written.

  21. This was a well written call to something that is very important. I’ve often thought about people’s shopping habits in my time but have never taken it to the blog.

  22. Jen

    I agree with a previous poster who wondered why dinner has to take an hour. On a busy weeknight, I can put together a frittata and salad in 15 minutes or so and it’s still good, satisfying, real food. I save the more elaborate stuff for days when I have motimeLier. I love the real-food message, but people can get real food in a way that fits with their lives.

    I do have to wonder what is in the Pasta-Roni (besides pasta) box if you have to provide your own milk and butter. Chemicals, thickeners, and salt, I’m guessing. Do you know that the original Alfredo sauce was just butter and parmesean? I’d much rather have that on my pasta, and I could put it all together in less than half an hour and make veggies while the water boiled.

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  25. magdalenaperks

    I got linked to you somehow, and I`m glad it happened! Great post! This is how I think about food – it doesn`t have to be expensive, organic, gourmet – but it has to be real food if it`s worth eating. (Although I`m not above the occasional A&W burger.)

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  27. I do think the comments about choosing to work 12 hours a day sound a bit ignorant of the stats on the number of working families below the poverty line in the States.

    Still, it’s a great post and the message within it is really sound. Thanks for giving me something good to think about.

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  29. Hi, thanks for your post. It is really informative.
    Keep the good work! 😀

  30. Marta

    As an ex-pat living in Tuscany and living and cooking for an Italian man I can say I’ve learned to make something out of nothing almost everyday. we don’t have much money and my partner isn’t a big fan of meat but with a decent pantry one can put together a variety of pasta sauces, risotti, etc. Leftover meat gets turned into polpette or a pasta sauce, vegetables go into a soup. You get the idea. A variety of pasta, beans, tuna, pancetta, polenta, olives, canned tomatoes, fresh vegetables, cheese, eggs, some dried herbs and spices,a little imagination and a decent everyday cookbook will go a long way. I make a bolognese ragu and freeze portions to sauce pasta for two.I can’t remember the last time I ate anything processed but that’s not to say I couldn’t sit down with bag or Doritos and call that dinner.
    Why do people watch all the foodie shows and then open a box of mac and cheese?

  31. Savannah Parish

    Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers!

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