While waiting in line at the grocery store the other day, I overheard a young woman debating with her friend whether or not it would be worth her time to learn to cook. “Sometimes it seems like kind of a waste,” she said. I wanted, at that point, to drop my sweet cream butter and celery stalk dramatically back into my cart and grasp this woman by the shoulders “Why,” I’d ask her with an intense and penetrating gaze, “would you ever consider NOT learning to cook?”
“A hundred years ago,” I’d say, the entire check stand pausing respectfully to hear my message, “A hundred years ago, EVERYONE produced food in one way or another… ranchers, farmers, cheese-makers, butchers, gardeners, bakers, brewers … a hundred years ago, food wasn’t a hobby. If you didn’t know how to blend flour and yeast to rise, to preserve ripe pears in hot jars and churn cream into butter, you simply didn’t eat. And then something changed. We evolved so people standing in line at the grocery store like you could ponder over whether learning to properly fry an egg was worth their time.
Don’t get me wrong … it’s not that I envy the drudgery of that life … especially for women. We’ve come a long way toward allowing people the freedom to choose how they use their time. It’s just that … we’ve become passive about food … about the one thing that people have been obsessed with since before homosapiens stood upright, the one thing that literally sustains our bodies and keeps our hearts pumping. The pursuit of food has become blasé. We have become consumers of food, and no longer are producers of it.
“What’s the big deal with being a consumer?” the young woman in the grocery check out line might retort, flipping her organic beef ‘n cheese burrito casually onto the conveyor belt and snapping her gum. “We’re getting the calories we need to sustain our pumping hearts … plus we don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. every morning to milk the cows.”
Point taken, young woman. As someone who values the snooze button as a major advantage of modern-day society, I appreciate the flexibility and ease of our food system. But the truth is, despite adequate calories, we’ve lost something by not being a producer of food.
First, We don’t understand food systems. We don’t really know how or where that chicken in the chicken salad on rye you had for lunch was hatched, raised, slaughtered or processed. We don’t know what was mixed with the meat, how long it was stored, how it was cooked, … an ignorance which leads to some weird effects. Major waste, for one. Occasional adulteration with things like e. coli. On the other hand, weird ideas about purity and health that really aren’t based on reality.
Second, our taste buds are manipulated. Chips are too savory, drinks are too sweet. We expect perfect apples and don’t know how to identify spoiled yogurt.
Third, we become food trolls … in the sense that everyone feels entitled to criticize what they put into their mouth without really understanding the standards they should be basing their criticism on.
Finally, when we are food consumers only, without dabbling in the production, we lose the simple beauty of food that has nothing to do with plating or taste or high cuisine. Peeling a carrot, the delicious warmth of melting butter, the satisfying content of slipping your spatula under a perfectly turned out biscuit. There is something written deep in our genetics to give us pleasure in the process – a process that many people don’t even get to experience on most days.
“But how can I become a culinary producer?” My young woman might ask? “Where do I start?”
Cook dinner. And don’t cook dinner by mixing cream of mushroom soup with a packet of ranch dressing. Start from scratch, if possible. It’s as simple as that. And then, if you want to do more, visit a gardener’s market. And, f you are feeling motivated, make jam from strawberries in season. Grow a zucchini and eat it. Chop up cilantro and tomatoes into salsa and store it in jars.
Being a producer, and not just a consumer is not easy, but it is an absolute privilege, a gift, really. Producers are empowered. They are happy. And they get full in a way that consumers never do.
This is Lael Gilbert for Bread and Butter.