#WhyCook #CSM #LifestyleCooking
I came across an article published by the Harvard Business Review in 2017 with a data point that astounded me: only 10% of Americans love to cook. The article’s author, a consultant for consumer packaged goods companies who did the study for one of his clients, also pointed out that of the 90% who did not love to cook, half hated it and the other half were lukewarm.
While I already suspected many Americans didn’t know their way around the kitchen, I didn’t expect how much in a minority avid cooks were and further, to find so disturbing the use of the strong sentiment hate to describe one of my passions. To add insult to injury, the author’s point was not that a valuable life skill was practically lost in this generation, but that groceries and food manufacturers risked market share decline and category obsolescence by not addressing the downward cooking trend. He advocated for a ruthless portfolio strategy that calls for food manufacturers to identify “long-term losers, and exit by selling them while they can.”1
My gig as a culinary educator had already began, but these data points upset me and fueled a desire to not just teach cooking, but to promote it as a lifestyle choice. Teaching how to cook dishes is not hard—you introduce new ingredients, demonstrate and explain the scientific principles behind basic techniques and share the recipes so they can be replicated. But that doesn’t teach you how to cook without a recipe; to cook when you have a busy week or to have fun. You don’t learn to fall in love with cooking this way.
You fall in love with cooking when you produce dishes you’re proud of. You fall in love with cooking when you find it brings family and friends together. And you know you’re in love when cooking stops being the thing you have to do to eat; or that instead of trying to fit cooking into a busy schedule, you make your schedule less busy because you’ve realized cooking is a worthier endeavor than other activities that fill your time: television, social media, video games. You’re in love with cooking when you’re having fun.
That won’t happen to everyone and it certainly will not happen overnight. Nothing worthwhile is instant, though we’ve been programmed to believe otherwise, since our culture worships convenience and speed. The barriers to entry are low: even dry, over-salted scrambled eggs, barely edible, will pass for cooking. But good cooking—producing food you’re proud of that you prefer more often to restaurant fare or store-bought packaged foods, or that non-family or friends would willingly choose to eat, well that’s different. It’s the same difference as when a drunk guest comes up to the band stand to say “hey, I also play in a band,” and I think, well okay, we’re professional musicians with decades of experience, so I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. While there are plenty musicians better than I, I’m willing to bet it’s not this inebriated fellow. But hey, I’m glad he’s playing music.
Good cooking, like playing an instrument well, has a higher learning curve. It will take my piano students many years of practice and scales before they can master a relatively simple piece like Fur Elise. But when they do, they will take pride, and that will be its own reward and a powerful motivator. Most of my students will have given up long before they get to this level of proficiency. It takes patience and commitment to play well. Like cooking, there’s a lot of competition for a piano student’s time—school, friends, social media. Fortunately for cooking, there’s an immediate and practical payback—dinner! It’s not hard to cook a simple dish well, but another matter to do it consistently and regularly. All of which takes time, practice and a certain mindset. To get to the point where cooking is its own reward, we’ll need incentives and a game plan to keep us on the path.
Lifestyle cooking is a term I’ve coined where we choose to make healthy home cooking part of our lifestyle. Lifestyle cooking isn’t just about cooking dishes, it’s reclaiming cooking as a valuable and enjoyable life skill and reframing what we know about the food and farming industries so we can make healthy choices; it’s learning how to shop, organize, share duties, be part of a community; it’s about eating and celebrating. It’s about helping the planet (and ourselves) because learning how to cook and shop means we can reduce the 68% of food we waste in our homes2, which will reduce the carbon emissions from global food waste that account for 8% of the world’s carbon footprint. If global food waste was a country, it would rank third, after the USA and China.3
So yes, I’d like to convince the 90% of Americans that don’t love cooking to change their minds. Tough order, right? But in a weird turn of events none of us could have foreseen, covid-19 happened, life as we knew it changed almost overnight and with many restaurants closed, people started cooking and gardening. Life slowed down and the Big Quit happened—where a historic number of people quit their jobs to reassess their work-life balance. Nothing like a seismic lifestyle shift and a brush with death to straighten our priorities. And that gives me hope.
When I launched Cooking Subversive last year, I mentioned that I saw cooking as a gateway to slowing down. But it works both ways: with the pandemic, slowing down became a gateway to cooking. But with many restaurants almost back on their feet, and those of us employed returning to work, cooking may fall to the wayside despite our best resolve. So we need motivation. And this is why I wrote the:
Cooking Subversive Manifesto
I Cook to Reclaim my Health
I Cook to Reclaim the Planet’s Health
I Cook to be with Family and Friends
I Cook to Create (which gives me Pride)
I Cook to save Money
I Cook because…well dang it, I like to Eat!
The Cooking Subversive Manifesto (CSM) is a proclamation of why I cook. It is a declaration of how cooking is not just a means to eating, (though that’s a pretty good incentive by itself), but fundamental to reclaiming rights to health and happiness for ourselves, the community and Mother Earth.
So in the next few articles, we’ll explore the tenets of CSM in the Why Cook? series: Six reasons to be a lifestyle cook. You might think these are self-evident. After all, who will debate that home cooking is good for our health? Though I will argue that what and how you cook are important determinants, in general we agree that home cooking is healthier than commercial alternatives. Would anyone doubt that home cooking brings family and friends together or contest that cooking something delicious and beautiful is a point of pride? The ubiquitous food photos on our social media feeds are proof enough. Yet, most of us have not been swayed to take the time to cook until the pandemic forced some of us to.
In a 2011 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that measured time spent on home cooking and food preparation across 28 countries:4
The United States is the only country where both the participation rate and mean time for cooking are at the bottom of the ranking. In other words, the American population attaches on average little importance to cooking relative to the other surveyed countries. The United States is also one of the countries where relatively little time is spent eating as a primary activity and where obesity rates are amongst the highest in the OECD.
So it begs the question, why haven’t these reasons been enough for us to take cooking seriously? And that is what we will unpack. Anyone can learn to cook. But becoming a lifestyle cook requires a change in mindset. This is only possible when we can understand the confluence of forces, whether accidental or deliberate, that made us think time spent cooking wasn’t worthwhile; that if we could afford to hire someone else to do it for us, whether it’s dining out, buying pre-cooked meals, or a private chef, then we should do so. We’ve outsourced cooking and missed out on all the benefits.
Let’s change that storyline.
Coming up next: I Cook To Reclaim My Health
NRDC’s own research of household food waste across three cities (613 households in Nashville, Denver, and New York) found that up to 68 percent of discarded food was edible.
https://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf (page 17)
United States Respondents and Participants averaged 30 and 58 minutes/day respectively, according to the report. As a point of comparison, Italy, known for the birth of the Slow Food movement, averaged 59 and 99 minutes/day. OECD (2011), Society at a Glance 2011: OECD Social Indicators, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/soc_glance-2011-en