By Matthew Yglesias
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.