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The high cost of restaurant culture

Don't get me wrong, I like to eat out. And what parent of many doesn't like the idea of food they don't have to cook and dishes they don't have to wash. At times restaurants and bakeries even may provide more energy efficiency than home cooking, especially in small households - one industrial walk in cooler is more efficient than six fridges. .Of course, that's in principle, in practice, the cooler *and* all six fridges are running! Household appliance energy usage has risen over time, even though we are eating at home less - while the efficiency of any given appliance has improved, we have more of them.

At the same time, the fact that 1/3 or more of all calories are consumed at restaurants, that half of all meals involved someone else doing some of the cooking somewhere down the line and that one in every 3 Americans eats fast food on any given day all should give us pause. So is how our food dollars are being distributed - the vast majority of them go not to small bakeries and restaurants in our neighborhoods, but large supermarkets (where pre-made take out foods now constitute a major portion of sales), fast food restaurants and chains. We know that while energy intensity has been decreasing overall in most segments of the culture of the Global North, the energy intensity of the food system has been rising rapidly - which means that our food system is more vulnerable to energy constraints. That intensity runs in direct parallel to how much we are eating out and consuming pre-made and processed foods.

Harvard Magazine has an excellent article about restaurant culture and its full range of implications - including one that I think is very important, the ways that the "professionalization" of food and food culture transform our underlying assumptions about how food should be:

The danger as cooking becomes glamorized--producing rock-star chefs and glitzy television series--is that, just as with restaurant meals, cooking will be turned into another form of theatrical entertainment. Contemporary food television sets a different goal from its forebears. The earlier generation of cooking programs was instructional, attempting to teach viewers the skill, Willoughby says. Furthermore, "Julia Child is very unintimidating. She drops things, forgets things, she makes mistakes, and tells you it will all come out OK. But today, most of food television is not instructional. Viewers are just watching a talented chef cook, and getting a vicarious experience of cooking. It's like a celebrity reality show. These are professional chefs doing things in the kitchen that you cannot do--and that's not what home cooking is about."

Spectacularly entertaining gourmet shows can thus become an enemy of home cooking by implicitly suggesting that "everything has to be perfect," Willoughby declares. "Then people start feeling that they are unable to cook well--so they're not going to cook at all. People have become very intimidated by cooking, and they shouldn't be. If you publish a recipe with a mistake in it, you very rarely get letters saying, 'You screwed up this recipe.' What you get are letters saying, 'I made a mistake somehow when I made this--can you tell me what I did wrong?' Today there's a supposition on most people's part that they don't know how to cook, and therefore it's their mistake."

I think the cultures of watching food tv is bad for home cooks - it makes cooking more complex and intimidating, raises expectations and is about voyeurism, rather than eating. At the same time, I'm not convinced that the old ways were better - I like Julia Child a lot, but I don't think that the culture of food that she conveyed was all that great for us either. It was the women and men who discovered Julia who first left the kitchen - yes, they made stuffed breast of veal, but that's not what people eat on a regular basis.

Even Michael Pollan, who I admire a lot in many ways, is guilty of selling us the idea that food must be fancy and complex. Consider the last meal in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_ the one that he describes "fully paid for" - the one he produces himself. He ultimately concludes that the truly sustainable and homegrown meal isn't viable, it can't be done every day. But what was his meal? Roasted, hunted wild boar. Ummm.... On the other hand, you can make and eat a salad with a varying cast of greens and vegetables with some hardboiled eggs tossed in it with not a lot of effort. Yes, it takes some infrastructure work and attention - but the idea that the home produced meal must be complex, elaborate and ultimately a failure is part of a larger narrative that says that cooking and growing food are just too damned hard.

We should be incredibly suspicious of all the permutations of this story - the ones that say that Campbell's Soup is better than homemade and the ones that say that "real" cooking requires you to take out a second mortgage and buy books by a restaurant chef. Real cooking is ordinary, and often simple. It is done by ordinary and often simple people. Instead of elevating the artistes that transformed peasant cooking into an art form, perhaps we should elevate the ordinary people, mostly women, who actually created the art from the simple, constrained realities of their local farms and gardens.

This sounds like a screed, and maybe it is a little. I love restaurants, I really do. I love to cook, I love to eat new things, and I don't believe everyone has to cook everything themselves - I'm a huge fan, for example, of the street food cultures of Asia, which often provide fast food that is healthier, tastier and also brings a decent living to men and women directly. I just worry that the culture that worships restaurant food is forgetting what real, daily food is like.

My son Isaiah has loved to cook since he was tiny, and collects children's cookbooks. Once, several years ago, he had some birthday money to spend and we were at the local bookstore, searching the shelves for a new kid's cookbook. Isaiah, then 5, looked at a book by Emerill Lagasse for kids and opened it up. After a moment he turned to me and annouced firmly "There are too many pictures of him and not enough pictures of food in this one." Not only did I crack up, but so did several adults looking at other books nearby. I don't know if I could have said it better.

Sharon

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