So the big question is, if cooking from whole ingredients is so easy and cost-effective and healthy, why don’t Americans do it more—particularly the low-income ones who are affected the most by obesity? This is a much trickier question than it seems because it implicitly evokes two pernicious myths about Americans’ cooking habits that I uncovered in the course of my reporting.
The first myth here is that the poor do not cook. We tend to think that low-income Americans are flooding McDonald's, while more affluent citizens dutifully eat better meals prepared at home. In reality, it is the middle class that patronizes the Golden Arches and its competitors. (That’s because fast food may be cheap, but it’s still more expensive than cooking at home.) Indeed, beneficiaries of the Agriculture Department’s food-stamp program (officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) typically spend far more time than other Americans preparing their meals. (This trend may shift in the future, as some states have begun allowing some subsets of SNAP recipients to redeem their food stamps for fast-food meals.)
The second myth is that cooking is easy. Making food quickly and well is easy once you know how to do it, but it is a learned skill, the acquisition of which takes time, practice, and the making of mistakes. To cook whole foods at a pace that can match box-meal offerings, one needs to know how to make substitutions on the fly; how to doctor a dish that has been overvinegared, oversalted, or overspiced; how to select produce and know how long you have to use it before it goes bad; how to stock a pantry on a budget. Without those skills, cooking from scratch becomes risky business: You may lose produce to rotting before you get the chance to cook it, or you may botch a recipe and find it inedible. Those mistakes are a natural part of learning to cook, but they will cost you and your family time, ingredients, and money without actually feeding you. They also make a persuasive case that cooking is not worth the trouble and that Hamburger Helper is worth the cost.
There’s not much acknowledgment of these truths in the current discussion about the benefits of cooking. Instead, we divide ourselves into two opposing camps—“those who cook” and “those who don’t care.” When the stories we tell about cooking say that it is only ever fun and rewarding—instead of copping to the fact that it can also be annoying, time consuming, and risky—we alienate the people who don’t have the luxury of choice, and we unwittingly reinforce the impression that cooking is a specialty hobby instead of a basic life skill.
So here’s my proposition for foodies and everyone else: Continue to champion the cause of cooking, but admit that cooking every day can be a drag. Just because it’s a drag doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it—we do things every day that are a drag. We take out the trash, we make our beds, we run the vacuum, we pay the bills. These are not lofty cultural explorations, but they are necessary, and so we do them anyway.
This reality check is exactly what’s missing from our discussion about our meals. At least, it’s what was missing from mine. Three years after my stint at Wal-Mart, I’ve gotten over the idea that cooking is fun—or that it is even supposed to be fun. Sometimes it’s not. It certainly wasn’t when I was working at Wal-Mart, especially that first night when I lurched my way around the kitchen and came up with a makeshift chicken curry with cauliflower and onion over biscuits. I grumbled to myself the whole time, but I ate well and physically felt good for several days after without spending an additional penny thanks to leftovers.
Today, my approach to cooking is completely flipped from my pre-Wal-Mart days. I now think of it not as a choice but as a chore—and that’s been oddly freeing. I no longer fret over what fabulous recipe I’ll make. I don’t try to psych myself up, to frame cooking as a fun event with which to entertain myself. (When I find myself whining internally about having to cook, I find the following phrase to be useful: “Suck it up, buttercup.”) I remind myself that I do all kinds of things that aren’t fun in the name of living a reasonably mature life, and then I cook something from scratch, just like the Mark Bittmans, Michael Pollans, and Alice Waterses of the world suggest.
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.