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Americans Cook Less Than Ever But Love Watching It on TV

Story at-a-glance -

  • Americans now cook less than ever, yet, ironically, love watching people cook on television
  • Food gathering, preparation, cooking and eating have been central to humankind since the beginning of time, and our recent trend away from these processes has had serious health consequences
  • The food you eat can heal your health and give you a long life, provided you’re willing to invest some time in the kitchen
  • Forms of food preparation worth embracing include fermenting vegetables or milk, juicing veggies, sprouting seeds, soaking nuts, preparing raw meals as well as some traditional cooking

By Dr. Mercola

Michael Pollan, the New York Times author who wrote the book Omnivore's Dilemma, has made a leap from agriculture to cooking in his newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

It's a necessary leap, after all, as his work promoting the virtues of local, sustainably grown food will be in vain if people aren't willing to cook it. Even the freshest produce and the best cuts of grass-fed beef that farm stands have to offer will spoil among a community of non-cooks…

His book reminds me of one of my favorite sayings with respect to your meals, and that is if you fail to plan then you are planning to fail.

Americans Spend More Time Watching Cooking Shows Than Actually Cooking

In the US, we're largely a nation of "heater-uppers" -- not cooks. As Pollan wrote in a 2009 newspaper column,1 Americans now cook less than ever, yet, ironically, love watching people cook on television:

"How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse…

Whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing.

But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture's continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

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 arrived on our television screens.

It's also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of 'Top Chef' or 'Chopped' or 'The Next Food Network Star'. What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for. What is wrong with this picture?"

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Getting Back to the Basics: Four Traditional Cooking Processes

For all of the time Americans don't spend in the kitchen, it's clear that many of us still have some form of inherent desire to cook, which draws us to watch the act on TV, even if it's been months since we've chopped up a green pepper or sautéed an onion ourselves. And why wouldn't we?

Food gathering, preparation, cooking and eating have been central to humankind since the beginning of time. Researchers believe that it was the shift to a cooked-food diet that gave ancient humans the extra calories they needed to allow their brains to get bigger. And today, food still has a way of bringing people together – and so too can embracing some of the more traditional methods of food preparation described in Pollan's new book.

The four processes reviewed -- barbeque, pot cooking, bread baking and fermentation – correspond, respectively, with the four elements fire, water, air and earth. Among the interesting tidbits offered include a discussion of why whole wheat often lacks flavor (the germ is taken out), and how using a sourdough starter can make your whole wheat bread turn out better. There's also a lengthy discussion of one of my own favorite "cooking" methods, fermentation. Pollan insightfully compares the art of fermenting foods with gardening:2

"The fact that -- it's a lot like gardening in that you're in this -- you have this engagement with these other species and you can't totally control them. And if you try to totally control everything that goes on in your garden, you're going to make a mess of it. You need to surf a little bit. You guide these other species. And in fermentation, that's what you do too, but these other species are invisible. But you sense them, you smell them, they bubble.

… Most of these ferments offer our bodies a lot that we don't get any other way. All that probiotic bacteria dwarfs the amount of bacteria in a supplement, and all that fiber, and all the lactic acid, which is also good for you. I found that process endlessly satisfying.

… Fermentation appears to be a cultural universal. And many cultures have a strongly flavored fermented food that is defining-- an acquired taste beloved by a people and regarded as disgusted by other people... People don't make the connection. They really don't. We don't realize that a third of our food is fermented."

A Prescription for a Home-Cooked Meal

The idea for Pollan's book came from a transplant cardiologist who, in the follow-up visit for his heart transplant patients, would hand over a prescription not for medication but for a home-cooked roast chicken. Pollan described the cardiologist as saying:3

" … they really expect me to give them a prescription for a drug, for Lipitor or whatever. And, he said, 'But I don't give them that. On my prescription pad, I give them a recipe for roast chicken. On the other side, I tell them what to do on day two, what to do with the leftovers, and how to make a soup on day three. And I give that to them.'

Therein lies the "secret" that many are missing, which is that the food you eat, more than virtually anything else, can heal your health and give you a long life. Personally, whenever I'm not traveling I purchase at least one four-pound hen a week, which I boil for several hours and make an awesome chicken soup. But it's obviously not about chicken, per se, it's about embracing the notion that food really can be your "medicine," or prevent you from ever needing it, provided you're willing to invest some time in the kitchen.

Getting Reacquainted With Your Kitchen …

I have long stated that one of the keys to optimal health is having someone in your family (or someone you hire) invest some time in your kitchen, preparing meals from scratch. This doesn't necessarily mean cooking -- personally I try to eat about 85 percent of my food raw -- but some form of food preparation that might include fermenting vegetables or milk, juicing veggies, sprouting seeds, soaking nuts, preparing raw meals as well as some traditional cooking.

As for the latter, you may have certain recipes and other culinary traditions that you learned from your mother and grandmother, which you plan to pass on to your children, too. This is important, as often these passed-down recipes rely on traditional cooking methods and real, whole foods – not the processed convenience foods that are so common today.

If you are seeking to use food to optimize your health, it is helpful to pay attention not only to the food quality but also to how you prepare it, being careful to use methods that do not seriously impair its quality. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking, such as:

  • Creating bone broth: Simmering leftover bones over low heat for an entire day will create one of the most nutritious and healing foods there is. You can use this broth for soups, stews, or drink it straight.
  • Extending a slow-cooked Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners
  • Learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat
  • Cooking with real ingredients like coconut oil and butter in lieu of polyunsaturated vegetable oils or margarine
  • Planning your meals around the seasonal produce available in your area

Quite simply, we've strayed too far from the foods we are designed to eat, exchanging the convenience of processed foods and fast foods for our very health. Going back to basics and refocusing your diet on fresh, whole, unprocessed, "real" food prepared in your own kitchen can improve just about anyone's health, and at the same time help you fulfill your own family's need for coming together over a good meal, rather than just watching one being prepared on TV.

Pollan summed it up well:4

" …it's hard to imagine ever reforming the American way of eating or, for that matter, the American food system unless millions of Americans — women and men — are willing to make cooking a part of daily life. The path to a diet of fresher, unprocessed food, not to mention to a revitalized local-food economy, passes straight through the home kitchen."