'Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch' and what it means for your food and our animals
Anyone who knows me even slightly well outside of my silicon and stainless steel-infused professional environments can tell you something not-so-secret about me: I love to cook.
Every day, almost without fail, I pore over online food porn, scour the contents of my pantry and refrigerator, devise menus and stop off at my local farmer’s market for another few ingredients to add to my stash. Once home, I spend at least another thirty minutes putting it all together. On weekends I’ll often engage in culinary marathons distinguished by their slow pace and punctuated by lots of food-related backyard work (goats, chickens, etc.), computer time or a three-hour kayaking trip (complete with the ideal picnic). This is my idea of fun.
Some scientists and economists say my hobbies explain why I’m not obese. They’ve counted my calories and my work output and concluded that my time in the kitchen and obsession with food makes my family healthier. Their colleagues have analyzed my interest in food and determined that I engage in this practice of cooking, foraging, backyard producing and other food-related activities because it puts me in touch with my ancestral origins in a primordially satisfying way.
Gee, and I thought I just happen to like keeping animals and eating yummy stuff.
In case you’re wondering what this has to do with veterinary medicine and why I bring it up today, you should know that Michael Pollan, of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame, has just served up another seminal slice to his collection of writings: "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch." This time it’s in the New York Times Magazine...and it’s right up my alley, despite the creepy images that accompany it (see above).
Apart from delving into the American psyche on the issue of televised, glamorized food and why we love it so much, Pollan attempts to explain why it is we love to watch food shows and yet continue down the cultural downslope that leads to culinary illiteracy and lifelong obesity. He argues convincingly that the latter two items go hand in hand, citing studies that correlate time spent in the kitchen to calories consumed.
More depressingly, he explains that the rise in TV viewership on the subject of food is more about satisfying our fundamental desire to eat and enjoy food, more about serving our baser instincts almost pornographically....and far less about learning to prepare food. This is not your mother’s Julia Child, he posits. In fact, it’s more about your brother’s take on Giada’s rack.
The worst part? There is no end in sight to this phenomenon. In spite of an almost competitive interest in backyard barbecuing, though most of us can spout off the names of at least five kitchen superstars, regardless of our time spent in front of the TV kitchen, we’re a nation of non-cookers and we’re moving further away from the real home kitchen every day.
As long as our culture continues to prefer prepared foods over those we cook “from scratch” (and here Pollan urges you not to confuse the Sandra Lee-style of “open-a-can-of-soup” cooking with the real thing) and as long as we observe the more-food-for-less mantra professionally plated by Madison Avenue, we’ll never get beyond the health, environmental and animal welfare issues that plague us.
“The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen.”
His arguments should shock no one, and yet we continue in our collective strike against anything that takes up too much time in the kitchen. Never mind that even our children and our pets are obese as a result. Never mind that we’re losing touch with our once-rich cultural heritage in the kitchen. Never mind that every easy burger takes you one step further from protecting the animals you’d otherwise respect. Never mind that we’re spending sedentary hours in front of the television instead of enjoying a satisfying evening of comfy home-cooking in the company of our friends and family.
Needless to say, I was as depressed as Mr. Pollan seemed to be at the end of this piece. His arguments, as always, make too much damn sense.
Still, there is one light at the end of the tunnel that doesn't resemble an oncoming train headed to a feedlot: The significant trend towards “slow foodism” and anti-industrial farming. It encompasses everything from health and environmental concerns to animal welfare and the pure, unadulterated hedonism afforded by the kitchen, garden, coop and backyard stanchion.
Those of us who’ve picked up this ball with relish are more than just playing at farming and serving our hobby-God: We may believe in food as a lifestyle choice with near-religious zeal, but we also look for ways to evangelize pragmatically to the masses. In doing so, we may lambast the lesser demons embodied by television and fast food eating, but we semi-deify Martha Stewart’s vegetable garden perfectionism and free-range meat-supporting Chipotle Grill-style eateries, too.
Whatever it takes, we say. We see the light and it’s attainable by all. Which is why I’m disheartened to see one of the champions of the movement succumb to the doldrums over the state of the pop culture battlefront. (By the way, the pictures in this piece certainly didn't help my mood any.)
Sure, we may be temporarily losing the battle over hearts and minds, but it can’t last forever, we argue. There’s too much to lose: the war against poor public health and fossil fuel depletion––not to mention our very humanity when it comes to how we grow animals for food and whether we eat together at the dinner table or dine in our cars on the way home from work.
Maybe we are too fat and lazy to reverse the trend, a harrowing opinion one of Pollan’s sources espouses, but I’ll promise you this: One way or another, this ain’t over yet. We always knew it was an uphill climb. So let’s not hide our light under the bushel of one more Iron Chef champion or another kind of Rachael Ray kibble this time.
In fact, let's do something constructive: Agree to cook more...just one more day a week. Think of it as exercise for your brain, your body, your environment, your very culture...and for the animals who die to feed you, too.