October 22, 2008

"No one knows how to cook anymore"

Two things converged in my mind today. One was this comment thread at Querencia, where various people link a perceived decline in hunting culture with Americans' increasing inability to deal with unprocessed foods (meats or vegetables) in the kitchen.

My title quote comes from Holly Heyser's comment, spot-on, as usual.

The second was a Denver Post piece about school menus changing in response to child obesity. Parents complain (!) that they cannot feed their children as high quality food at home as they get at school. Consider this:

Bridget Sandoval, a 30-year-old mother of four in the small farming town of Wiggins, sometimes struggles to throw together healthy meals for a family that's getting by on one income now that she's a full-time nursing student.

"If we have to make something quick, I turn to Hamburger Helper," she said. "It's not that good. The kids don't like it. I don't like it. But sometimes it's nice and quick. If you want a meal to be healthy, it takes time and money."


When I was teaching, I used to hear the same lament from some students: "We can't afford good-quality food."

Yes, you can. But you have to know how to cook. The problem is more one of cultural poverty than financial poverty.

Every traditional culture had its poor people's foods--boring, but nutritious enough to keep you going.

Think of beans and tortillas, rice and stir-fried veggies, oatmeal, cabbage, pea soup -- and a little fish or chicken when you can get it.

It's all still cheaper for the nutrients than Hamburger Helper, which is just an expensive way to buy pasta.

You can fix some of these foods in quantity and eat them for days --

"Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold / Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old" -- you think that's just a nursery rhyme? It's a memoir of 17th-century English life!

In the same comment thread, Steve Bodio writes,

last week we were in the two local markets doing our shopping. In one, the cashier asked what a squash was-- then asked how you cook it, having never had one. This is in rural New Mexico. In the second, another asked what CABBAGE was.

Hello!? New Mexico? Three sisters?

Cultural poverty. And neither Barack Obama nor John McCain can fix it.

(Of course, some people have restaurant-grade kitchen appliances and a quarter-mile of granite counter tops -- and they still eat take-out food. Same problem.)

8 comments:

JeffPeel said...

Given the 'theme' of this post I thought you and your readers may be interested in a new blog we have built (sponsored by McCain Foods) that focuses on school food. The site also features a questionnaire that can be completed by parents. Obesity is endemic in the USA and yet, often, school food is part of the problem. The blog is only going to be up for a short while and it would be great if your readers could have a look and add some comments.

The site is managed by me, Jeff Peel, and I'm an independent market researcher. I'll read every comment personally.

I'm sure you will agree that the foods that your children are fed in school will have an impact on their well-being. We're really keen to hear your views.

Jeff Peel
Quadriga Consulting Ltd
for http://mccainfoodsbetterforyou.com/

LabRat said...

I think the cycle went roughly like this, and began in earnest somewhere post-WWII.

1)My immigrant parents/my parents that survived the Depression cooked "poor people food", i.e. all those nutritious, low-cost foods.

2)I am prosperous. I will not eat poor-people food. I am also very busy. I will cook this new food with these new modern conveniences.

3)I am prosperous. I am now too busy to cook entirely. I will eat out and frozen/processed convenient food.

4)I am prosperous and I have the free time to cook. I will cook this high-grade food that is now a luxury and symbol of my prosperity and free time...

4a)I am not prosperous, and I don't have the time or the money to cook. I will eat the cheap processed and takeout stuff that is the food for poor people like me.

Matt Mullenix said...

"Cultural poverty!" Why didn't I think of that phrase? Perfect.

rozewolf said...

Along with that cultural poverty goes intellectual poverty. Our school systems rather teach to the test written by groups trying to figure out the best way to authenticate their instructional time than teach life skills. Those life skills include things like cooking, "shop" in all it's variations, and critical thinking. Being on the school board for 8 years left me with a level of frustration I never want to revisit. It opened my eyes to just how far off track we have gotten as a culture. Having a need to stock books such as Canning and Cooking for Dummies in our libraries just hurts!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks for the mention! Boyfriend (the serious cook in our house) and I talk about this all the time. We see an emerging nation of nutritional haves and have nots.

We are lucky because we have what it takes to acquire and prepare healthy, untainted food (time and money to hunt, a garden, money to buy organic, a family history of cooking instead of eating out or eating TV dinners).

But there's another class that has found it can get more calories for the dollar in boxes of chemical-infested crap at WalMart. This class, as you point out, has lost its ability to acquire nutrition cheaply, so all it does now is acquire calories cheaply.

Not only do I fear for that class of people's ability to relearn cooking skills, but I fear for their health. Not just diabetes and heart disease from the junk they're eating, but the huge variety of cancers that await those who, for example, don't get plenty of green things in their diet.

I really don't know how we get out of this situation, either. I just know that the food industrial complex has managed to destroy cooking skills and nutrition as it has searched for new and exciting ways to make us buy its products every day.

Don't get me wrong - I don't mind capitalism at all. I just wish food producers would be content to make money off real food, not hyper-processed products.

End of rant. :-)

-Holly

smartdogs said...

I think Labrat's got it right - but the good news is that I (who am a child of children of the great depression) am seeing a lot more people in my generation who are rebelling against our parents' "I won't be demeaned by eating/growing poor people food" attitude.

My mother would rather starve than can. My mother in law was absolutely horrified when husband and I planted a large vegetable garden.

The bigger problem may be that there is a younger generation here now that is so utterly divorced from nature, agriculture and basic food preparation skills that they may have a hard time recognizing - much less eluding the "cultural poverty" of hamburger helper.

Kristine said...

It constantly amazes me when people cry poverty but then can buy frozen food and fast food.

Cooking for yourself and using fresh ingredients is so much better for you and so much cheaper in the long run. Do the math and you'll find you can probably feed yourself for much less if you're buying fresh and doing the cooking.

Plus, it will taste better.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

I recently read that the under 40's are to become the first generation to be out lived by their parents.

A friend had to cook a differant shape of pasta for a grown woman (30+) who was a guest at his dinner party because 'i CAN only eat penne'.

words fail me
SBW