Would-be food policy actors need to understand that home cooking deserves a front and center positioning in the toolkit of city food programs. There is no aspect of food policy that can be implemented without identifying a lead role for home cooks.’—Wayne Roberts
I’ve been retired for eight years now, and a few months ago the reality of that caught up with my wife, Lori.
You know that deal we’ve had for 30 years, she said to me. Where you do breakfast and dinner salads, and I do the planning, shopping and prep for dinner. That’s over, she said. It’s time you did breakfast and dinner. Fair enough, I thought, she’s still working full-time, while I do occasional articles, speeches and coaching.
This newsletter reports on some things I’ve learned by planning, shopping, preparing and serving dinner. I’m an old dog, but I have really enjoyed learning some new tricks. More important, it is giving me a whole raft of new insights into the cooking side of food policy. A good stint at home cooking should be a prerequisite for anyone who’s a city food policy practitioner. Home cooking deserves to be on the front burner of good food policy.
First off, I’m okay with being mocked as a Johnnie-come-lately on this issue. I’m happy to make fun of myself as much as anyone makes fun of me for taking so long to get this. I’m also totally in favor of the rebellious spirit of #MeToo being carried over to food. We need women to say “I’ve kept silent about being stuck in the kitchen for way too long.” No good policy has ever been developed without a kick in the pants to get the policy process heated up.
That said, would-be food policy actors need to understand that home cooking deserves a front and center positioning in the toolkit of city food programs. There is no aspect of food policy that can be implemented without identifying a lead role for home cooks.
We can’t talk about food and equity without talking about who’s doing all the work for no pay. We can’t talk about reducing food waste without talking about resources and support for the materials management skills of home cooks. We cannot talk about obesity without talking about the cooking skills and nutritional knowledge of home cooks. We cannot talk about feeding a family on modest budgets without talking about planning, shopping and creative problem-solving skills being highly developed among home cooks. We cannot talk about rolling back chronic diseases rates without understanding that home cooks stand at Ground Zero of this campaign. We cannot deal with sustainable diets without sustained and sustaining home cooks. And on and on this list needs to go.
If we want to think in terms of a logic model for food policy, no policy is complete without a program to ensure access to the skills and knowledge to implement food policy in the kitchens and dining rooms.
If politics in general responds to the clarion call of “the personal is political,” food politics must be that many times over. As a person who promotes “people-centered food policy,” I believe home cooking is as people-centered as people-centered food policy can get. There’s no dealing with food issues without dealing with the people issues of home cooking. I’m talking respect. I’m talking resources. I’m talking school curriculum, from childcare to grad school at university. I’m talking hours of work and, for the precariat, predictability of hours of work. As someone has said in another context (must have been someone who did her time as a home cook), this changes everything.
This is just the first act of my public penance as a writer on this issue, so I want to start with respect.
For most of my life (give or take three months), I have been an assembler, not a cook. Breakfast for the last ten years has been a heaping tablespoon of full-fat yogurt and a heaping tablespoon of kefir, two servings of different seasonal fruit, and three servings of different nuts. Salad is mostly an assembly job, as are many one-pot soups and stews.
Cooking with multiple ingredients is a big step-up from that. You have to know food chemistry basics, so you know which foods are cooked first and for how long. You have to know time management so you can manage that – get that: two references to management in one short sentence. You have to have a whole series of things at the ready before you start working, which usually means you had to do some advanced planning to make sure you’re well-supplied for whatever you may think of cooking.
Doing this a few times is a good way to prep your mind to deeply understand food in terms of a food system – deeply embedded in a continuously operating and changing net of relationships and interactions and set of life realities, food chemistry, life skills and food culture.
I met Anne Bergman (she’s in the picture above) at just the right time to get nudged in the right direction. Anne had the good fortune to spend a lot of time as a child with her French grandma, who taught her how to shop at a farmers market, how to think about meals and gain the skills to prepare them with few ingredients, spiced with love and zest.
She used some of what she learned to run her company, put to bed for the time being, to teach these skills to others, so they could cook with calm and confidence. Her company was called The Kitchen Director. That’s pegging it at just the right occupational level.
Her company was premised on recognizing the importance of a take-charge approach to food preparation, as opposed to outsourcing that set of skills to the food processing industry. That, in turn, required getting over the absurd notion that people (specifically women) “are supposed to just know how to cook without having been taught,” she says. “The assumption has been that you just know it because it’s just food.” The guilt and shaming of people (primarily women) who lack the skills they weren’t taught takes away from the confidence and calm people need to become self-reliant, Bergman argues.
Indeed, it’s the ultimate put-down of home cooking skills and of the knowledge required of the people expected to handle it.
This anti-feminine putdown is the bread and butter of food processors, packagers and retailers – the interest groups with most to gain from food skills having been excluded from school curriculums and diminished within the food culture. If we’re supposed to train ourselves to ask “who benefits” when we examine social trends, the down-rating and deskilling of home cooking is also of advantage to elites promoting the notion that food is the responsibility of individuals, and is not part of a heritage that requires nurturing from communities and governments, just as any other valued legacy of human culture.
The time has come to cook up a storm.
Ed. note: This post originally appeared in Wayne’s October 3 2018 newsletter.