Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Home Cooked Nihilism

Matt Yglesias had a rather cranky post this weekend regarding the pointlessness of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's advocacy for home cooked meals, saying:
Compared to people in 1959, people in 2009 have more money, less time, and less ability to call on socially sanctioned unpaid domestic labor. So obviously they’re going to cook less. Or to look at it another way, there are lots of things you can do in 2009 that you couldn’t do in 1959—read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand. There are also a lot of things you can do in 2009 that were prohibitively expensively in 1959—fly cross-country, make a long-distance phone call to your sister. But there’s no more time in the day. Which implies that people need to spend less time doing the things that you could do in 1959. Sometimes we can get out of this box by finding technological innovations that let us do things more quickly, but you can’t really speed up cooking from scratch.

He appears to mean that since we can't put the genie back into the bottle, it's no more realistic to expect American households to go back to the 1959 level of home cooking than it is to expect us to return to a hunter-gatherer existence... convenience food is here to stay, so stop your damn nagging! Or something to that effect. Yglesias then argues that there is no inherent reason why home cooked meals have to be healthier than fast food... and that people like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan should be using their bully pulpits to improve the quality of said convenience food, instead of trying to turn back the clock to a vision of America that can never exist again.

To this I can only say that Yglesias doesn't appear to understand the argument being made by people like Pollan and Bittman. As Ezra Klein notes... it's not the nature of our meals, but the number (i.e. snacking) that's changed over the years. I happen to think, based on Richard Wrangham's book, that processed food is terrible for us for more reasons than simply the fact that it's "easy"... but if we start from the premise that said easy calories are the problem, the point of a focus on home cooking is pretty clear. The more costly calories are to obtain, in time and/or money, the less we will consume... and while we all have different amounts of money, nobody gets more than 24 hours in a day. Advocating spending more time cooking is probably not very effective public policy... I don't imagine that putting up billboards or producing television commercials to that effect would effectively reduce our country's obesity rate... but at least on a personal level, trying to eschew prepackaged and processed food for home cooked meals seems a solid way to make your diet healthier... and by the bye, eating meals with your family probably has benefits beyond calories.

It seems to me that, while a "soda tax" or some such might be more effective in a public health sense... trying to get people to cook more is both a less controversial and more appropriate endeavor for a celebrity chef.

photo by flickr user sunface13 used under a Creative Commons license