Since the beginning of the pandemic, and setting aside art purchases, our most expensive budgetary item for the past year has been food. This has been the case throughout most of human history. Food first, but the animals and manner of raising crops changed dramatically. We have eaten organic for years just like my grandparents would have. We prefer fresh or frozen food, strong flavors, and I am a good cook willing to try things.
I began baking bread as a child with my mother. I baked bread in college even as a full time student and working 18-30 hours a week. My studio classes did not meet on Fridays and I usually had that day off. I have always baked bread on occasion, but in the past year I bake weekly, usually sourdough, half whole wheat flour, and no sugar in my bread at all. It takes most of the day to bake sourdough, though less than an hour of actual work. The house smells of healthy yeast and the loaves that come out of the oven are tastier than anything I could buy. It is even convenient to bake it.
Americans eat badly because we have failed to start at the beginning by teaching children to cook.
Many women of my generation were resistant to learning to cook because they were understandably resistant to a sexist notion of a housewife’s destiny. They saw cooking and cleaning as Erma Bombeck did, as a trap for women. My own mother loved Bombeck’s humor (If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? etc.), but she knew how to do all those chores of canning and cooking and baking bread. She didn’t like doing any of them.
Even so, I was a member of the generation that went “back to the land” and joined communes. Though I did neither of those things, the idea of self-sufficiency had enormous appeal for me. I wanted to be capable of doing everything. I canned, baked, cooked beef stew, scrubbed the kitchen floor, wrote, and learned every artistic technique I could while still a young woman—everything from batik to gold leaf, scientific illustration to forging a sterling cup from sheet metal, bookbinding, weaving, printmaking, gauche. I know how to plant a vegetable garden, though I have never had room for a proper one. As a result, I am an ideal reader for friends who incorporate traditional crafts and housekeeping into their stories. I always find flaws because I have tried all those techniques and know them firsthand. (A favorite novel includes a weaving scene that is simply wrong, but since I love the book and it’s already published, I have never complained about it to the author, who is a friend.)
I know how to do things, and some of what I know, I learned in school.
When I was in Seventh Grade, all girls took Home Ec and learned about nutrition and costs. (There are salad dressings that are not sweet and poured from a bottle. Italian dressing and leaf lettuce were revelations to me at age twelve—something other than Catalina dressing on cut-up iceberg lettuce!) All boys were required to take shop. This changed by the time my brother came through that school a few years later. He was allowed to take either or both.
When I first began teaching at the local high school, Foods and Sewing were both offered as elective classes. In the late 1980s while I was substitute teaching, I was invited to sit at a table with four student-cooks and share their fancy dinner. Their mothers had told them turkey was too expensive and hard to cook. Students who had never actually enjoyed a complete home-cooked Thanksgiving meal learned to cook one. They also did the math to figure out what that meal cost. They were amazed that it was cheap. It was not even all that difficult.
My mother taught me that. Even though she hated housework of any kind, she was of a generation that accepted it as inevitable. A feminist housewife, but still she knew the job.
Mom convinced her best friend that buying canned peaches was cheaper than canning them herself. Mom penciled out the costs. That’s a pity to save a few pennies in exchange for an inferior product, but credit both my mother and Joyce for figuring out what things actually cost.
Turkey is cheaper than chicken and roasting a turkey is easy enough that I was managing it on my own in my mother’s kitchen before I was a teenager. Chicken? Simple. Either way, we should be eating less of it and not every day. If we understood proper nutrition, we would all be eating cheaper and healthier meals at home.
After firsthand experiences with food production including a hog farm and a cattle feed lot, I became a vegetarian (pescatarian). But you don’t have to be a vegan or even a vegetarian to eat a better diet than most Americans. Michael Pollan famously advised: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables.” He still likes his cheeseburger, but he’s researched food and health in order to write about it. Everything in moderation and mostly vegetables. Nearly every conceivable diet works to keep humans healthy somewhere in the world, he writes, except one that is a killer. The one exception is the diet Americans eat.
One problem is that the beef industry convinced us for decades that eating meat at every meal is necessary to health. (The half-pound and even full-pound steaks sold in restaurants when I was young are a disaster.) A Biology teacher used to warn me again and again about my vegetarian diet, but I’d penciled it out. I knew I that what I was eating was nutritionally sound. That teacher, on the other hand, was obese and diabetic and it’s likely her diet contributed to her health issues.
My mother insisted that it didn’t matter what she ate, and she ate very badly as a widow. She put on pounds and needed meds to keep her blood pressure down before she was my age. When she mostly stopped eating at all in her final years, I was with her when her new doctor pointed out that she didn’t need most of her medications. Her blood pressure was fine, she had not had an attack of angina in over twenty years, had only ever had angina once (maybe). Her spine was collapsing because she ate cookies instead of leafy greens and had made meat the center of every meal for most of her life.
Most of us would do well to take a long, hard look at what goes into our mouths. It might require substituting an hour of cooking for one of the many hours we currently spend texting or watching television.
Baking bread is not difficult. After a year of regular baking, I do not even need a recipe. The sourdough start gifted by neighbors (thank you again, Mary Jo and Dale) has not failed once. I have baked loaves with added rye and oatmeal, whole wheat and einkorn four, raisins and other dried fruit, cardamom and cinnamon, butter or olive or sunflower or avocado oil or no fat at all, with and without eggs, and simply with only flour and water and salt. I have forgotten the salt, failed to rest the dough, hardly ever added sugar (a touch of honey or date sugar or maple syrup sometimes), sprinkled the top with seeds and washed with egg, slashed lengthwise, diagonally or not, overwarmed and underprooved my dough, left it to rise for hours in a cold house, or too warm beside the wood stove. I have used big pans and small pans, a flat baking sheet, and a casserole. Not a single loaf has failed. I am patient. The bread rises. We eat it most every day.
And I have lost weight.
A friend asked me the other day if I’d given up carbs. No, I eat what I cook, I am careful to include vegetables in my daily diet, and if I get my walk and allow myself to feel slight hunger for a few hours a day, I lose weight—more than ten percent of my body weight so far. I eat well.
By the time I retired, Sewing classes had been gone from the local public school curriculum for decades, and a Foods class was offered to only a few students, mostly because one teacher insisted on being allowed to teach it. The expensive remodel of the Home Economics rooms focused on creating a space where a handful of students could learn how to cook gourmet meals for competitions rather than many learning to feed an affordable diet to families.
In the mean time, at the very time no one is required to take Home Economics or Shop classes, no one is at home teaching those skills either. Most local parents both work and were not taught such skills by their own parents. My parents had all those practical skills and I was required to practice them. Recent generations have not learned how to make a meatloaf or properly cook frozen peas or how it takes two minutes to make salad dressing. They think it’s cheaper and a better use of their time to eat fast food. No matter the impact on their health and our world.
Nicholas Kristof explains in The New York Times why cheap chicken from Costco is cruel (and unhealthy). Michael Pollan argues in The Washington Post that we have abandoned healthy food and strong supply lines in a misguided pursuit of efficiency.
We all believe we do not have time to cook meals and that we cannot afford healthy food. We all seem to believe it is too hard, too time-consuming, too expensive to eat well.
It’s almost true. But not quite.