Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.
I’m big into food shows. Not competitions or reality shows – they’re much more anxiety inducing than exciting. I watch food shows for the technique, the history, the stories, the politics, and the people aspect.
I’ve particularly enjoyed a show called Cooked, based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. Throughout the mini-series, Pollan explores four different ways of cooking – transforming food with the elements of fire, water, air, and earth – and following the evolution of each method through interviews with fascinating cooks and chefs.
The journey concludes at the present day, and as documentaries are prone to do, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. These days, the preparation of food has largely been handed off to those who can do it for us in less time and for less money and effort, to the detriment of our health and our bank accounts.
And I am a participant in that system. I’ll eat takeout or fast food when I don’t have the energy to cook. I’ll say yes if you offer me Little Debbie Swiss Rolls — blood sugar levels and nutrition be damned. I’ll put down money for food that shortens the time between getting home from work and eating dinner.
One line from Cooked has stuck with me. In the course of discussing processed and prepared foods in America, a food industry analyst named Harry Balzar said (to paraphrase):
You can eat anything you want.
Just make it yourself.
After taking a beat to consider the claim, a skeptic could have a number of responses: 1. Who on earth has time for that? 2. If I don’t cook, am I doomed to eat PB&Js for the rest of my life? 3. What’s wrong with paying someone else to make our food? (And, 4. I make a mean cheesecake — you’re saying I can eat the whole thing?)
All valid questions. But, hear me out.
This isn’t a call to abandon grocery stores and restaurants, and start threshing wheat in our backyards to make bread in wood-fired ovens, but it is an invitation to reconsider how we see our time, skills, and the story of our food in today’s world.
Time is a big issue when it comes to food. It’s a limited resource. Between work, meetings, school extra-curriculars, and getting a decent night’s sleep, there’s a lot vying for our time. Cooking requires planning, shopping, prepping, and clean-up, all of which does take time. Food marketers convince us that cooking at home isn’t something we need to spend our time on.
During the early days of the pandemic, most of us found ourselves with more time at home, and in the kitchen more often, to the chagrin of some and the joy of others. Now that we’re not bunkered down and restaurants are open and grocery stores are (mostly) stocked again, I imagine many are glad to be free of the task of spending time every day feeding ourselves.
But for a whole host of reasons, prioritizing time to cook at home has tremendous value: Pollan says it best in this video. For example, as home cooking rates go up, rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes go down. (Of course, all things in moderation. If I spend the time making that delicious cheesecake, or my aunt makes that juicy fried chicken, I would certainly appreciate every bite, make sure to share, and let none go to waste).
I understand that some people don’t like cooking, prefer not do to it, or simply can’t. Feminist movements have worked to enable women to spend their time and energy as they choose; some choose not to spend it in the kitchen, as their grandmothers were often expected to do. Some people would like to cook, but lack access to fresh food or the income to purchase it, or their work schedule doesn’t allow the family to be together at mealtime, which are important issues to consider.
Others don’t cook because they don’t feel they have the skills or the tools, and to those, I say it’s never too late to learn something new. You don’t have to be Julia Child or own the newest gadget to make a homemade meal. Set aside some time, follow a recipe (or not), and see what comes of it. Start small and simple. Taste as you go, when you can. It’s not easy, but mistakes are for learning.
Convenience foods have made a lot of things possible, but they’ve also distanced us from where our food comes from, what our food is made of, and how food changes from raw ingredients to finished meals. Cooking at home, with ingredients we recognize, using our hands to stir, knead, and chop, can bring us closer in to the story of our food.
So no, I’m not arguing that we need to swear off frozen pizzas and take-out burgers. Sometimes it’s just what needs to happen. Nor am I suggesting that all Oreos and Doritos need to be homemade (…or am I?).
It’s officially too late for New Year’s resolutions, but I, for one, would like to think more often, for more meals during the week, “Can I make this myself?” or, “Can I cook at home instead?”
Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.