Thursday, March 16, 2017


"I do admit to an irrational belief in the moral superiority of those who take time to prepare their own food as opposed to eating out all the time"

I watched a documentary on Netflix that was charming and fascinating called Fannie's Last Supper.  It was about the host of America's Test Kitchen (recommended) who took one of the many menus for a dinner party from the back of an old Fannie Farmer cookbook, and set out to prepare and serve it.
But since this is Chris Kimball, he decided to make it as authentically 19th century as possible, down to the wood-fired cast iron stove and ingredient selection -- hand made puff pastry, food dyes, etc.  It was an adventure just making some of the dishes, and well worth watching.
I liked it so much I decided to read the book, by the same name, and it was even better.  So much so that I want to own the book some day.  But there's a section in the book about food habits and shopping that is just fascinating to me that I wanted to share.
Kimball notes that its common knowledge in culinary circles that preparing meals at home is pretty much a thing of the past, and that people tend to eat out mostly.  Is this true, he wondered?  So he started doing some research.
There was no question that the time spent cooking at home ha gone down a lot over the last hundred years.  The key driver of this decrease is the movement of women out of the home and into the workplace.  In 1900, only 20% of women were in the labor force, versus over 60% in 2000.  For most women, life at home was neither easy nor pleasant.  In Fannie's day, a woman spent an average 44 hours a week making and cleaning up after meals and another seven hours in general cleaning: and then on top of that, there was child care.  Families were larger -- 20% of American households had 7 or more family members -- thus more to cook and clean up for.
Of course, in Fannie's day, even a smaller household would have at least one servant whose job it was to help clean, prepare, cook, and so on.  A larger home which would have set out one of Fannie's dinner plans would have a half dozen maids, cooks, and so on or more.
So while it took longer to get things done due to a lack of many conveniences we take for granted, there was also more help.  In fact, the larger family actually was a benefit: older children take up chores and help care for the children.
Technology changed matters, replacing servants with gadgets and devices.
Another big factor in time spent cooking was the availability of electricity.  As late as 1930, only 10.4% of farms were electrified.  A wood cookstove and no electrical appliances translated into a great deal more time preparing food.

By 1950, however, this picture had changed dramatically, with over 90% of rural areas now having electricity.  Electricity also meant the availability of mechanical refrigerators; by 1950 80% of American households owned one.  By midcentury, the typical American cook was spending only 20 hours per week cooking.
As the book notes, the late 1800s had an explosion of gadgets and cooking aides, from tools to help make noodles to the first real measuring cups and spoons.  This made cooking much easier and more standardized from even previous decades, reducing difficulty and time in preparation and making more complicated dishes available to a broader cooking public.
By contrast, as Michael Pollan wrote in 2009, people take much less time preparing and cleaning up today:
Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens.
Cooking from scratch gives you much better quality (and sense of accomplishment) than cooking from mixes and prepared foods, but Bisquick just makes life a lot easier, and canned beans are just as well cooked as beans from your slow cooker.  By Fannie Farmer's time, canned foods were pretty common, if not quite as reliable and safe as modern times.  
Food processors, quality knives, electric deep friers, and all the other devices we use today make things much more simple and speedy.  But despite that, we're told people are cooking less and less.  Is it cost that's making this happen?  Kimball doesn't find that to be accurate, although he did note that fresh produce is actually going up in price.
The cost of food has dropped enormously since 1900.  Back then, the average household was spending about 30% of its total annual income on food, 20% in 1960, and about 10% today.  When food is cheap, you spend less time preserving and reusing it -- it is no longer a scare resource.  (this does have a curious dark side, however.

Another common yardstick for decrying the lack of home cooking is the amount of money spent on dining out.  Fifty ears ago, 25% of the food dollar was spent outside the home; today just under 50%.  So one can claim that expenditures on eating outside the home have increased 100%!  Conversely, one might say, over half of all food dollars are still spent inside the home.  That sounds better.  Americans are still spending slightly more on food consumed at home than at restaurants.

Drilling down into the statistics, one finds that of the expenditures outside the home, 22% goes into food spent at snack bars, movie theaters, amusement parks, and sports arenas [where I should note, the cost is at least double what you'd pay at a store, driving up the percentage].These are hardly replacements for meals.  In fact, one might note that we are simply eating a lot more food outside of the three meals per day.The point is simple: although the percentage of the food dollar spent at home is dropping, the distribution of those expenditures is over a larger number of choices, snacking being a major category  That means that the percentage of food dollars spent on food consumed at home may not paint as disastrous a picture as we think.
How much did you spend last week on coffee?  Get a cookie or scone with it?  Catch a film and buy an $11 popcorn and $3 candy bar?  Eat a bag of chips out of the machine at work?  Those aren't meals but they jack up the price of your spending on food outside the home, is his point.
Kimball also notes that in the 19th century, the midday meal was the big meal of the day, not supper.  When more people went to work with a commute rather than at the farm or nearby walk to the factory, and more women went to work, it became inconvenient and even impossible to prepare and enjoy a big meal in the middle of the day.    And when people get home from work, they don't have the time or energy (or desire) to cook like they used to, so you don't see those big ornate meals so much any more.  Open a few cans and packages, microwave steam the veggies, and people eat at their computer or watching TV.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics put out a study in 2008 that claims that roughly half of the American population over the age of 15 does no cooking whatsoever -- takeout, delivery, and eat out. Kimball runs down some more numbers:
From 2000 to 2005, there were huge increases in prepared foods sold at supermarkets, including salads (52%), frozen prepared meals (32%), and desserts (25%).  In this period, flouer sales were way down (46%), as were sugar and chicken (16%).
Spending on baking ingredients has actually increased 18% from 2000 to 2005, butter alone by 1%.  Frozen prepared foods actually declined by 15% during this period -- a hopeful sign.  Sales of lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes all fell by less than 10%.
Sales of cookwaare have also been on the upswing.  In 2004, American cookware manufacturers shipped $992 million worth of product; in 2008, the total was $1,269 million.
I would suggest that, while there was a dip in home cooking and preparing in the 90s and early 00's, the trend is actually reversing.  Cooking shows are tremendously popular, and people are doing more cooking at home than before.  It is time consuming, but particularly in times of economic downturn like the last 10 years or so, its cheaper and more satisfying.  You can turn a meal into an entertainment opportunity rather than something to get out of the way and move on.  People coming together for a barbecue or dinner is time spent at leisure, particularly with how quick its become to prepare meals these days.
What interests me more is that its men who seem to be doing most of the cooking.  Recent research actually showed that men like cooking more than women; probably because it appeals to the male tendency to like goal-oriented tasks and building.  But its also possible that a generation of women raised to think any traditionally female role is demeaning, oppressive, and inferior have been trained to think of cooking as bad.
Culturally, a society cannot exist without someone to prepare food.  In less civilized and technologically advanced times gathering food was a day-long task of farming, hunting, and gathering.  Someone had to be home taking care of the place while someone was out getting that food.  Men are physically more able at the hunting and gathering part on average, and women better at homekeeping and child raising, on average. So when labor was divided along those lines, men were not doing the cooking.
In civilized times, men don't have the construction and hunting, protecting and providing roles they are designed for any longer, so they have to find new outlets for this natural tendency.  Cooking meals is one such opportunity, and its possible we'll see it growing more and more.
That's neither good nor bad, except for where it is the result of cultural conditioning women to think of home tasks as inferior and bad for them.  Women cooking and caring for a home is not an evil, it is a good thing, just not a compulsory thing.  The need to portray this as terrible and try to shoehorn girls into scientific and technological fields is not any better than forcing them into the kitchen.
Long time readers here know I favor men cooking, as an expression of masculinity -- and women do like a man who can cook well, trust me.  But I also favor women cooking and taking care of a home as well.  One need only look at our society and ask as a whole whether our culture was better off or worse than when women tended to be homemakers.
Its not so much that women being homemakers created a better society, its that the family unit is the roots that a culture grows up from and is anchored to, and that family eating around a dinner table is one of the best, most useful ways to build relationships and closeness.  Stripping that away has not created a better situation.

1 comment:

jHans Walther said...

I do all the cooking in our home, even food and treats for the dogs. I like the challenge to produce very good meals. I'm a 69yo male and have cooked my own food since I left home and got out of the military. I consider cooking and baking my main hobbies. Since I started baking my own bread, I haven't bought bread from the store since last September. I've cultured my own sourdough starter and bake exclusively sourdough breads. And the clincher is that I'm a better cook/baker than the wife. Even the dogs won't eat her cooking. I cook/bake, she cleans and takes the trash out.