What The World Needs From Its Celebrity Chefs

By Matthew Yglesias

Carrot 1

I have to say that I’m getting a bit tired of reading different versions of this article:

While he understands the allure of Home Wreckers and Big Macs alike, this British celebrity chef has made it his mission in recent years to break people’s dependence on fast food, believing that if they can learn to cook just a handful of dishes, they’ll get hooked on eating healthfully. The joy of a home-cooked meal, rudimentary as it sounds, has been at the core of his career from the start, and as he has matured, it has turned into a platform.

Grrr. I like to cook. Sometimes. I think it’s fun. And I”m certainly glad I know a few recipes. I hope to learn more. And everyone should know a few. But the idea that a large-scale increase in the proportion of home-cooked meals is the solution to the world’s public health problems really makes very little sense.

If over time people were getting poorer, but the number of hours in the day was getting longer, and gender norms were shifting toward the idea that women should get married young and drop out of the workforce in order to do unpaid domestic work, then obviously people would start cooking more. But that’s not what’s happening. Compared to people in 1959, people in 2009 have more money, less time, and less ability to call on socially sanctioned unpaid domestic labor. So obviously they’re going to cook less. Or to look at it another way, there are lots of things you can do in 2009 that you couldn’t do in 1959—read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand. There are also a lot of things you can do in 2009 that were prohibitively expensively in 1959—fly cross-country, make a long-distance phone call to your sister. But there’s no more time in the day. Which implies that people need to spend less time doing the things that you could do in 1959. Sometimes we can get out of this box by finding technological innovations that let us do things more quickly, but you can’t really speed up cooking from scratch.

The good news is that there’s no real reason to think that food you prepare yourself is for some reason intrinsically healthier than food someone else prepares for you. Indeed, a normal “home cooked” meal is mostly eaten by people who didn’t cook it. One or two people cook, and the kids or the guests eat. And at the same time, it’s not as if the good people at Taco Bell are serving unhealthy food out of some perverse desire to clog America’s arteries. They’re just trying to make money the best way they know how. If someone—Jamie Oliver, for example—devised an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier, well that would be an excellent thing for the world.

And maybe someone could do it. The world’s purveyors of processed foods have noted a real market demand for healthier products. Consequently, they’re poured a lot of time and energy into creating things that at least seem healthier. And so we really have a lot of healthy-seeming options. But they’ve never, as best I can tell, poured all that much effort into trying to create things that are actually healthier. But someone could. Jamie Oliver could do it. Mark Bittman could do it. Michael Pollan could do it. And it would be more likely to succeed than an endless procession of NYT Magazine articles hectoring people about how they should cook more.

7 responses to “What The World Needs From Its Celebrity Chefs

  1. I knew the moment that I read the emphasized text in the quote that it was Jamie Oliver. ‘Naked chef’ is what got me interested in cooking more seriously but Jamie has turned into such an arrogant ass that peddles untruths and falsehoods that I wish he would just go way.

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    Here I disagree – restaurants care about making their food delicious and the fact is, fat, sugar and sodium taste good. And it’s not just the Taco Bells that are to blame – eating out is unhealthier even at high end establishments.

    I think you’re right that there is a demand for healthy prepared foods. But when a person’s food memory is imprinted with the sugar-fat-sodium triple threat it is much harder to make healthy changes to that diet. Far better to start that individual eating right from the start with healthy prepared meals.

  3. Preach on!

  4. Like Katie, I have to disagree. You’re right that home-cooked meals are not *intrinsically* healthier than fast-food or restaurant meals, but they are far more likely to be. On its own, the fact that you know exactly what goes into your home cooking makes it more likely to be healthy. Sure, I can cook something at home that’s less healthy than a salad at McDonald’s, or even less healthy than a burger, but isn’t that like saying Froot Loops are a “smart choice” because they’re healthier than donuts? The fact is that when you have control and transparency over your food, you have more power to be healthy.

    When we make a habit of eating out, we let the industry decide what is healthy for us, and eventually forget how to tell for ourselves. The food industry is not interested in making us healthy – they are interested in our money, and will sell us any combination of good taste and dubious health claims that will get us to give more of our money to them.

    I would argue that, even as our time becomes more limited, cooking is a valuable enough practice that we should still make time for it.

  5. pseudonymous in NC

    My comments are at Matt’s site, but I’ll simply make the point that envisioning a range of “Pollan-approved Lean Cuisine” as the solution to a time- and knowledge-starved populace seeking out healthy food is the dumbest leap of mislogic I’ve read today, and today’s reading included Jonah Goldberg’s syndicated column.

  6. I think one of the largest benefits of getting people to cook beyond them actually preparing healthier food–and one that Yglesias seems to miss or dismiss entirely–is that people who cook have a better idea of what goes into food. Deep frying something even just once is an enlightening experience. That gets people wondering what is in their fast/prepared food, and they have the tools to learn and make better decisions. Hopefully they use those tools once acquired. Then, maybe, demand starts to change.

  7. While I agree that we’re never going to get the genie back into the bottle… and wouldn’t want to regardless (segregation and pre-womens’ lib FTL)… you seem to be missing the point of the “home cooking” focus of Oliver et al.

    I don’t know specifically about Bittman or Oliver, but Pollan, at least, thinks that calories are currently way too cheap and easy. From your blog I know you’ve seen that econ paper that Ezra linked to, which that makes this case. A simple way to make calories more expensive is to eschew processed and packaged foods and make as many things as possible from scratch.

    You could also get rid of farm subsidies and implement soda taxes and the like… but advocating home cooking is decidedly less controversial, and probably more appropriate for a celebrity chef.

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