Sustainability Work Life

Revolution in the Home Kitchen

My Great Grandmother
Great Grandmother

LAKE MACBRIDE— The idea that a revolution should take place in the home kitchen is not unique to this blog. My focus on the relationship between the home kitchen and local food— that the latter won’t be viable in the way it could be without changes in the former— is not unique either. However, a recent New York Times article, “Pay People to Cook at Home” by Kristin Wartman demonstrates the disconnect between what is going on at the grassroots level regarding local food and priorities in urban cultural centers.

Wartman, a nutritionist and blogger, posits the following,

“Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans.”

Her solution, as the title of the article suggests, is to pay people to cook at home, “(to place) a cultural and monetary premium on the hard work of cooking and the time and skills needed to do it,” including a government program. My suggestion is she hop on the shuttle from her home in New York City down to Washington, D.C. and witness the vast sea of farm industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill. She may then realize that hell would freeze over before any help in paying home cooks would be forthcoming from the federal government.

One can agree with the idea of placing a cultural premium on the value of home cooking, although we don’t necessarily want to return to the era of my great grandmother and her kitchen garden (see photo). The question is how, as a society, do we get there?

The future of local food and a revival of home cooking with whole foods is more dependent upon economics than upon time. If the economics are great, people will find the time. It is common knowledge among local food enthusiasts that the current economic paradigm regarding food, cooking and eating depends upon cheap energy.

Wendell Berry recently asked Michael Pollan, “what will be the effect on farming, gardening, cooking and eating of the end of cheap energy? Are physical work and real cooking going to remain optional?” Readers can listen to Pollan’s answer here. The gist of it is that as cheap energy fades from view, people will be required to become more self-reliant as a form of adaptation to the environmental crisis. This would likely drive more of whatever were least expensive, including local food and home cooking if they provided superior value, something it is not clear they do, at least for now.

The relationship between local food systems and cheap energy is important. I dismiss so-called food miles as an overly simplified argument. There is a complex but valid argument about the relationship between artificially low energy prices and high prices in local food systems that is worth pursuing. It is further complicated  by the fact that the end of cheap energy will be delayed due to the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing and the abundance of natural gas it produces. The complexity of the relationship between energy prices and local food requires further exposition in another post.

People can agree that obesity is a national and local problem. They can agree that chronic diseases, related to eating habits (including salt, sugar and fat consumption), drive a segment of higher health care and related health insurance premium costs. Where there is difficulty agreeing is in answering the question whether to take a homemade brown bag lunch to work, or spend the 30-minute break going to the gas station to have $1 per slice pizza for lunch. Today, the economics of direct food prices drives the decision at one of my workplaces.

The revolution in the home kitchen will begin once we deal with the environmental crisis, cheap fuel and the false notion that there is not enough time for what is important. The economics of food are driven by these things. That won’t happen anytime soon, not until the importance is escalated by some imminent, existential reality. It is not as simple an answer as creating another government program.

A better answer may be to seek ways to recognize the value of all work in society. That too is a complex problem wanting an answer. Something this blog is working toward.