Two trend stories that are pretty different:
- In the NY Times Magazine, Michael Pollan cites research on how “cooking from scratch” has decreased over the last century, especially since the 60s.
- In the local paper, grocery chains on recent changes in sales. In: flour, sugar, store brands, plants, hamburger helper, wines below $15/bottle. Out: cut flowers, pop, artisan breads, wine above $25/bottle.
Pollan’s argument is that Americans as a whole are eating less nutritious, more fattening food than they did 50 years ago.
I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, who explained that “people call things ‘cooking’ today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen pizza.” Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the NPD Group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by Balzer’s none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.
The local paper’s theme is that people are changing their eating, shopping, and dining habits this year to save money.
“We’re seeing people still using coupons and their shopping lists, but now they’re interested in health again. People figured out they can eat healthy without it costing more,” said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com.
“They buy a can of Hunt’s crushed tomatoes for $1.50 and add their own spices, instead of a jarred sauce that’s $6 or $7, that’s loaded with sugar,” he said.
Often, the canned tomatoes are generic, or what the grocery industry calls “private-label.” At Costco, private-label items are gaining ground about six times faster than usual.
These articles are discussing different things — but I read them on the same day and found the juxtaposition funny, so naturally I’m mashing them together here. Pollan is much more far-reaching, tying together the rise of The Food Network, Julie & Julia,* changes in food marketing and manufacturing, and social trends. But I do wonder if the periodic need to eat cheap will keep cooking alive longer than Pollan’s pessimism would dictate.
I did laugh at Pollan’s closing shot, itself a quote from researcher Harry Balzer:
“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
This might make people eat less. At first. But it won’t necessarily be the foods Pollan wants (I doubt he’s a Hamburger Helper fan ;)
Personally I view being able to cook is one of those self-sufficiency things: I can change a tire, I can assemble a bookcase, I can fix the toilet when it’s running, I can sew on a button, I can assemble a computer, and I can bake bread. It’s about being able to take care of myself. In day-to-day life, my husband cooks much more than I do. Partly it’s because he’s home before I am, but also he likes to cook more often than I do. I’d say we eat at home, or take lunches to work, about half the time. Lately it’s been over 90F each night and our AC is broken** and I’ve been going out for air conditioning as much as the food!
*Linking to the book, since I read it and loved it. It’s apparent Pollan has also seen the coming-out-this-weekend movie.
**According to the local paper only 13% of Seattle residences have AC. Repair appointments are a week out.