As usual, blogger Bettina over at The Lunch Tray got me thinking today with her response to a widely circulated op-ed by the brilliant Mark Bittman.  Bittman’s piece makes the impassioned — and well-reasoned, which is unusual when people start talking about the taxation of anything — argument that it is not only POSSIBLE to fight obesity in America by taxing junk food and subsidizing healthy foods, but may actually be long overdue.  The time, he says, is ripe for a seemingly radical economic shift in the food supply game.  And, like Bettina, I think I largely agree with him.  But.  (Didn’t you just KNOW there was going to be a “but?”)

In her response to Bittman’s op-ed, Bettina points out the following:

“Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn’t possess the necessary knowledge — or the desire — to cook up a bag of navy beans and a sack of brown rice, even if they were readily available in their neighborhood 7-11 for 5o cents a pound…we’re really talking about not only the need for major cultural re-education with respect to cooking, but also a huge shift in the public’s expectation that food should always be tasty, cheap, fully prepared — and immediately available.”

Amen, sister.  See, here’s the thing.  Cooking, as I’ve mentioned before, used to be a necessary life skill.  If you wanted to survive very long in this world, you’d have to at least be able to sear some venison over your campfire, or boil basically inedible grains of rice into a palatable congee, or whatever.  But as we’ve become a busier, more industrious (note that I don’t say “more productive!”) society, with greater access to and market for “convenience foods,” cooking as a life skill has not only fallen out of fashion — it’s fallen off the face of the earth.  What was once a necessity is now more a status symbol, and the simple comfort-food ways of the family dinner table have given way to the rise of the foodie society.  As a member of that foodie race, I can’t and won’t condemn it; I think foodies are going to be part of what brings cooking BACK, fundamentally, as long as we can all get our noses out of the duck confit long enough to make a substantial social contribution to the world.  But the point is, people now cook because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to, and if they neither want to nor have to, then it becomes a lost art.

That would be a great enough problem in and of itself, but it’s been compounded by the fact that nature abhors a vacuum.  When cooking for necessity fell out of people’s lives, it left a neat, dinner-shaped hole, into which immediately rushed any number of time-sucking replacements.  For some, those replacements seem good and worthy and noble, like a second (or third) job, or volunteer work, or time spent cleaning our ever-larger homes.  For others, the replacements are (dare I say?) a bit less noble.  Facebook, anyone?  Many of us spend so much time farming virtual crops that we don’t actually get the chance to purchase, prepare, and eat them in real life. 

So when Bettina says we need a real perception shift in the way we look at food, she’s not kidding.  There’s an enormous amount to overcome here.  It’s not as simple as convincing people that they should care about where their food comes from and what’s in it.  It’s not as simple, even, as convincing them to go a step farther and actually begin preparing some of it themselves.  At the point we’ve gotten to, cooking from scratch is such a foreign, faintly quaint notion — and seems so UNNECESSARY to so many people — that we’d have to convince them that it’s actually MORE important than all the other things they’ve filled that time void with, in order to truly have a shot at changing the culture. 

Think about it.  Many mental health professionals will tell you that if you want to quit a bad habit, you’ll need to actively work at replacing that habit with something more positive, because otherwise your natural instincts will kick in and you’ll keep repeating the pattern.  It stands to reason, then, that if we want people to begin habitually engaging in a POSITIVE behavior like home cooking, we’d need to remove something else from their routines in order to find a place for it.  This is where that great time argument comes from; people often genuinely DON’T have the time to cook, not because they can’t make that time, but because they’ve filled it up neatly with some other occupation and are unable to see that there may be space for a shift.  We’re creatures of habit, we humans, in both the best sense…and the worst. 

So just as those who are dedicated to working out in the mornings know that they must give up an hour or so of sleep in order to hit the gym before work, those who are truly dedicated to home cooking — and I’m making a big leap of assumption here, in generously figuring that we can get people to that point in the first place — will need to understand that they’ll first need to remove something ELSE from their lives in order to put home cooking in its place.  That’s what’s daunting and troubling to me, when I step back and think about the void that exists in the readiness of the American populace to actually cook real food at home.  How to get people to routinely organize their time in such a way that they are able to physically cook, and help them to be so successful at it that they don’t give up and slide back into the old habits?

If you carry the morning workout analogy through, for many people, the best predictor of success in cultivating that particular habit happens to be a strong and active support system.  A personal trainer, a gym buddy, a morning exercise class…if there’s someone who will actually know and CARE that you didn’t go to the gym, you’re probably much more likely to go.  So maybe what we need, if we are to re-train our culinary habits and change our collective perspective on food, is cooking buddies.  Culinary trainers.  People who will actually hold us accountable for what we do in our kitchens, and will continue to push us to develop and cultivate the skills we need to be successful home cooks in the long run.

I know it sounds crazy, but it used to be the way things were.  It’s just that those people weren’t  called “cooking buddies.”  They were called FAMILY AND FRIENDS.

That’s right.  It’s we who are failing each other; it’s our communities that are letting us down.  Back in the day (forgive me as I wax nostalgic about an era in which I wasn’t even alive), if an adult human being — okay, woman, but I’m trying to be ungendered here for the sake of the modern analogy — couldn’t cook, there would damn sure be a mother-in-law, a Girl Scout leader, a church social group, or some other individual or group that would intervene and teach the basics.  Right up until maybe 20 years ago, no one would have DREAMED of attending a potluck or social function with a store-bought offering, because it was simply expected that you’d put some time and effort into the food you set before yourself, your family, and your community.  Now, it’s not only considered acceptable and almost de rigeur to pick up a last-minute potluck item at the grocery store, as if to prove that we are somehow busier than everyone else and therefore more valuable to society; it’s actually become a perfectly natural thing to forego the food altogether and find that everyone clamors to bring the BEVERAGES.  Let someone else worry about, you know, that stuff we eat to keep us alive.

I know I probably sound like the world’s only 30-something curmudgeon, but this is what scares me, when I examine the idea of changing our food perspectives radically enough to give Mark Bittman’s wonderfully possible proposal a shot at being even remotely successful.  We no longer HAVE the kinds of communities, and community ties, that would actually allow us to hold one another accountable for our cooking choices.  And those of us who do, have had to work hard to cultivate them and have to truly dedicate ourselves to keeping them.  As our social worlds become more global, and Facebook makes us all friends, our actual communities become smaller and less important to us in a way that reverberates throughout everything we do.

Churches, temples, and other houses of worship?  Anemically attended, many of them, particularly in certain areas of the country and certain faiths.  School functions, PTA meetings, and children’s recitals?  Hurried, harried, and often just the same old dozen or so people.  Block parties, community gatherings, festival days?  Sure, they still exist in many areas, but they’ve changed dramatically from the days when everyone would turn out for a day of merriment; instead, we’re so tired that sometimes we find it easier to just channel-surf through reruns of “Family Ties” than to actually go and socialize…especially if socializing means any effort on our parts to bring a food item to share.  (Enter the last-minute guilt-assuaging run to the store for those beverages!) 

Who’s going to teach us to cook?  And I mean really teach us.  The places I’ve mentioned are just a few of the many community touchpoints that might have kept cooking in the forefront of vital skills, something encouraged and even possibly slightly OVER-encouraged by adult peer pressure.  Sure, you can offer classes for those who might be able to afford them (and care enough to pay the money and show up every week), but that’s not going to make a significant dent in our food culture, nor increase the skills of those who may need affordable, home-cooked meals the most.  Okay, so we’ll make cooking classes available for free through community centers and churches and…all those other places people are too busy, too tired, and too stressed out to attend.  Perfect.  Unless you’ve got that cooking buddy to drag you to Wednesday night culinary lessons at the YMCA after you finish your 12-hour workday, I’m guessing you’re not going to go very regularly.

I’ve said this many times in my life, and it bears repeating, especially in a circumstance as complex and vital as this one.  IF YOU WANT TO REALLY HELP PEOPLE — REALLY DO THE RIGHT THINGS, THE THINGS THAT THEY NEED — YOU MUST FIGURE OUT A WAY TO REACH THEM WITH THE APPROPRIATE TOOLS WHEREVER THEY ARE.  In a disjointed world, where we’re less unified in our physical communities than ever before, just offering people cooking classes isn’t going to stop the clock and turn things back to the time when getting a casserole and a salad on the table every night was considered the most basic of necessities.  We’ve got to create a system that supports people in every possible way without relying on them to reach too far outside of their comfort zones.  In short, we can’t expect them to put forth a huge amount of effort, but we have to get them to make a monumental behavior shift.

I believe it’s possible.  And I have some ideas.  But before we can even start thinking about getting people to cook again, we have to convince them that cooking is not a lost art.  We have to make it essential to human life again.  So I turn to proposals like Mark Bittman’s, and I continue to wonder: Will we ever, as a nation, as a world, be brave enough to move backward — away from “progress” in the form of convenience foods — to finally move forward?