Cooking in the Climate Crisis

Shaved turnip, arugula and bok choy salad.

Ideas about how to cook are ubiquitous. Everyone — family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, chefs, dish washers, dieticians and scientists — has something to say about it. Almost everyone cooks. Talk about cooking can be devilishly engaging. Are there things we can do in our kitchen to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis?

It’s not clear how climate change impacts cooking once we get in the kitchen. We should minimize the use of water, electricity and natural gas while cooking. Many are and everyone should be doing so. Maybe that’s the point. Cooking is so common it’s hard to distinguish one process from another when it come to mitigating the effects of the climate crisis.

We recently lived through a rise in manufacture and consumption of pre-cooked and processed meals and ingredients, increased the amount of food grown closer to home, and changed consumer behavior due to national health scares originating in large farm fields in California, Arizona and Florida. Our collective actions to mitigate the effects of climate change, whether in the kitchen or elsewhere, matter in a time of hegemony of fossil fuels culture. For most, spending time cooking is when we nourish ourselves and practice culture that helps us deal with the complexities of a turbulent world. Cooking helps us focus on what we can control.

Inputs

Inputs set the stage for cooking. The focus is often on where ingredients originate and their environmental cost. That remains important yet I also refer to the framing of our lives in society, including land use, construction practices, kitchen configuration, water sourcing, energy sourcing, and education. All of these are inputs to cooking as they are to how we live our lives.

I’ve written about the importance of sourcing as much food as we can locally. My advice is get to know the face of the farmer where possible, and read the ingredient and nutrition labels on anything else.

If one has space, time and the ability, grow some of your own food. Not only can it taste better, time spent in a garden is enough exercise to avoid a trip to the gym or grocery store. Over our years in Big Grove I’ve developed a kitchen garden where what we eat and cook has become synchronous with seasonally available foods.

A cook includes ingredients grown or made a long distance from home where they offer something unique. Nutmeg and black pepper are examples of spices that serve a vital purpose but are not available locally. When the choice is learn to live without them or accept them for what they are, cooks will choose them as long as they are available. I don’t question that impulse.

Assembling and preparing ingredients on a counter t0 mix, saute, fry, steam, grill or bake them into a meal is fundamental. How much water, electricity and natural gas we use is part of background noise: important but seldom the focus of attention except when we configure our kitchen. Seeking energy efficient appliances and a faucet aerator are basic. Once a kitchen is configured few additional changes seem likely. Many of us don’t have the opportunity to configure a kitchen, especially when living in an apartment.

Simple practices like selection of cookware that retains heat, avoiding long preheating of the oven, keeping the oven door mostly closed while baking, and washing vegetables in a bowl instead of under running water have impacts.

A significant aspect of climate-friendly cooking is buying ingredients in a way that avoids food waste. Have a meal plan and buy only what’s needed for it. Plan to use up what’s in the ice box before it goes rotten when planning meals. These practices should be taught in the K-12 school system.

Our household eschews meat and meat products and has since we married in 1982. I’m an omnivore (just barely) and don’t understand the aversion to going meatless. Production of meat contributes to global warming and even if it is only one “meatless Monday” per week, reduction of meat consumption is basic enough that every household can do something.

Outputs

Cooking in our household is an irregular attempt to make something from ingredients that arrive unevenly over time. Cooking is about output, mostly what we serve for meals from our efforts. It is also about how we use what’s generated from the kitchen, including food waste, food storage and cooking by-products like carrot peels and pasta water.

I am a fan of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Shortly after I read the book in 2011 I spent time generating the next meal from the previous one as she suggests. Adler presents an example of how cooking can be an efficient process that produces delicious meals. While her book is not about climate change, by being an efficient cook less resources are required and it can be better for the climate as well as our pocketbooks… and taste buds.

Our refuse company picks up weekly but we seldom put both containers at the end of the driveway. We could do better in reducing waste but in the kitchen every scrap leftover from inputs and meal production is put to use. We save leftovers for following meals. When there is excess produce we freeze or can it. Because we have a kitchen garden there is never enough compost so organic material goes into a stainless steel bucket, then out to a household waste composter near the garden. Using the results of kitchen production has become a part of a life that would seem weird if we didn’t do it.

Conclusion

The climate crisis is real, it is happening now, and the potential for global warming to harm us and our society is ever present. Cooking is ubiquitous, and determining ways to cook efficiently and with a smaller carbon footprint is as important as many things we do to mitigate the effects of climate change. It is not everything. It is something.

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1 Response to Cooking in the Climate Crisis

  1. Very good ideas. Reminds me how much I miss my kitchen garden!

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