By doing it, they essentially redefined not cooking as a very progressive thing to do. And to a large extent it worked, and it worked for all women, not just women who were working. Cooking rates have fallen by half even among women who don’t work. It’s become acceptable to let others cook for us. It is absolutely true that we’re very busy and it can be challenging when both partners are working.
But I think we need to go back and finish that uncomfortable conversation and get the rest of the family back in the kitchen, and by that I mean the kids, as well. I’m convinced that the most important thing you can do if you’re concerned about your kid’s health — after the vaccinations — is teach them how to cook. It’s a lifelong skill that will do more to assure their long-term health and happiness than just about anything else you can give them. Too many people aren’t learning how to cook from their parents today. That chain of cultural transmission is broken.
Q: What set you on the path of writing about food?
A: It really goes back to my writing about gardening. I always liked to grow food. I first had a vegetable garden at age 10. I had a farmstand then and would sell whatever grew to my mother. That was my passion. In my first book, “Second Nature,” I wrote a lot about how gardening puts you in this very complicated relationship with the rest of the natural world, it’s not all sweetness and light. You have a quarrel with weeds and a quarrel with pests, and you have to figure out a way to navigate that.
And that, of course, is the problem of agriculture. And so it wasn’t a big leap to go from writing about what was happening in my garden to becoming interested in how farmers are dealing with pests and the challenges of growing food.
Q: What was your early writing about?
A: My first piece about agriculture was about marijuana growing, which is not exactly about food. But then I wrote about genetically modified crops and that happened in ’98, I wrote a piece just when they had been introduced. I got these genetically modified potatoes and I planted them in my garden. Then I went to visit potato farmers in Idaho and went to Monsanto’s headquarters and laboratories.
And I started learning about how we grow food. Frankly, I was more shocked by what conventional farmers were doing. I stood in fields so large and so soaked in pesticides that farmers would stay out of them for five days after they sprayed. They would grow organic potatoes by their houses because they knew how many systematic chemicals were in the potatoes they were growing in the fields. And the potatoes had to be stored for six weeks, I think it was, because they had to off-gas all the chemicals before they sold them — like a new carpet.
On that trip I began to see how we grew food. I was an Easterner so I hadn’t seen big farms. Farming in New England is still pretty picket-fency. You never see a farm that’s more than a couple hundred acres. To see these 35,000-acre farms and then the feedlots, I began to see that there was a story to be told on where food came from, which became “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“Omnivore’s Dilemma” couldn’t have been written 70 years ago because everyone knew everything in it. They knew how food was produced. They knew farmers. They had been on farms. They bought their food from farmers or were farmers. But we had gotten so far from the farm and so disconnected from our food that there was a story to be told. Think about it. A bestseller to be written on such an ordinary question: Where does your food come from?
Q: Why do you think people are so interested in food?
A: We’ve had this large culture-wide forgetting of what food is, where it comes from, how it connects us to nature, how it connects us to other people. We’re in the process of remembering all that, recalling it. That process has involved the work of some chefs and the work of some writers and storytellers. This industrial food chain, like most things in capitalism, doesn’t want you to connect the dots, doesn’t want you to pay attention to who made it, or where it came from or how it made its way to you (and that is true of clothing as much as food). But that’s breaking down.
And the reason it broke down is because things were breaking down in the system. We had mad cow disease, we had various outbreaks of foodborne illness, we had videos of abuses in animal factories. Suddenly people are asking hard questions about how the food is being produced and getting curious to know.
And they also got excited about more positive stories about how food was produced. They realized it felt really good to eat from a food chain that they knew something about and could feel good about. That’s how I see it. It began with a certain amount of fear. And there were important episodes in the growth of the food movement that were driven by things like mad cow disease and Alar [chemical sprayed on apples].
Each of these scandals, and they really were scandals, became teachable moments and they parted the curtains on the food chain briefly and people looked and they really didn’t like what they saw, and they began looking for alternatives.