Cooking as a political activity

My mother was an excellent cook, baker and gardener. One of the best memories of my early childhood is the smell of fresh bread. My sisters and I often found fresh buns or bread, warm from the oven, waiting for us when we awoke from our afternoon naps. Warm bread, melting butter and homemade jam and peanut butter were our favorite snack.  We rarely ate processed foods when I was a child and meals were almost always eaten together. Even in harvest, my mother, between unloading truckloads of grain, managed to cook a meal which we ate together in the field. Cooking and baking consumed a great deal of my mother’s day. Feeding her family was a big part of her job. I think we learned to cook in part by simply being with our mother as she worked. She gave us small jobs and later allowed us to cook whole meals.

She taught me what bread should feel like when it had been kneaded enough, how to know if the jelly was going to get stiff, that egg whites won’t get stiff if there is any oil in the bowl or on the beaters, pie crust must be handled gently. My mom taught me essential and basic cooking skills. We never really questioned that we would eat together at the table.

Some years ago a friend of mine wanted to give a home grown turkey to a young couple who lived near him. His young neighbors turned the turkey down because they had no way to cook it. Their house had no stove, only a microwave.

Americans eat in restaurants as often as we eat at home. Even when we eat at home, often the food is prepared somewhere else and simply warmed up in the kitchen before dinner. Processed food has replaced cooked food. Instead of working at cooking, we work and pay someone else to cook.

The author Michael Pollan has written extensively about food from the history of apples in “The Botany of Desire” to the industrial food system in more recent work such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Food Rules” and “In Defense of Food.” In his new book, “Cooked,” Pollan uses a similar format and his usual careful research to look at how cooking has influenced culture. He spent months studying different kinds of cooking with experts, chefs, bakers, cheese makers, and brewers. He learned to cook.

One of the premises of Pollan’s book is that cooking our food is one of the things that separates humans from other mammals. Humans, according to Pollan’s research, are the only animals which cook their food. Cooking is not just about preparing food for our bodies sustenance, but meals encourage family relationships and community. There are numerous studies that show children benefit from regular shared family mealtimes. Meal rituals are part of every culture. Whenever we have guests, they tend to gather in the kitchen. We cook together. We talk while we cook. We eat together. We become friends over food.

Pollan’s book emphasizes the risks we take, not only for food safety, but for the breakdown of family and relationships when we outsource the preparation of our food. When we come to be dependent on someone else to grow, wash, peel, season and cook what we eat, we are dependent on them for our survival. We are also dependent on them for our health. Pollans point to the differences in processed food and home cooked foods. Processed foods tend to be higher in salt, sugar, trans fats, preservatives and flavor enhancers. A high percentages of chronic illnesses which plague our country are food related.

Pollan also points out that buying food prepared by someone else also has benefits. It has given us, especially women, more time to pursue other activities. It has made a wider variety of foods available to us and has expanded our tastes.

Pollan is at heart a political writer. He knows that politics is about power and that food is a source of power. What we eat, how we acquire food, how much we eat and who profits from the food we eat are all at the root of a large part of our economy. Whoever controls food and its production and distribution has power.

Pollan is right. Eating is a political activity. “To cook or not to cook,” says, Pollan, “becomes a consequential question.”

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains