Thanksgiving is rolling around yet again, and stress may or may not be running rampant among those of us hosting our families and friends for this annual belly-filler. But it’s becoming easier (and more tempting) than ever to hand over the reins to various corporate kitchens and let them take over what some would argue is the most stressful aspect of the holidays: cooking. Whole Foods, local grocery stores, and online companies like Foody Direct are among the many businesses that offer everything from fully-planned and catered Thanksgiving meals to a la carte sides and desserts when you just need “a little bit of help.”
How convenient, right? After all, in the words of the Trader Joe, “Less time in the kitchen means more time to enjoy!” I read this on a sign during a recent visit to the popular grocery store.
But, enjoy what, exactly? Visions of a dad throwing a football to his 8-year-old son in a leaf-strewn backyard popped into my head. A mom pushing a stroller down the sidewalk with a latte in hand, chatting to her friend on Bluetooth. A family sprawled out on the living room floor, hours deep into an intense Settlers of Catan game. Maybe this is what the sign meant: when you aren’t slaving away in the kitchen, you have many more hours to enjoy quality time with friends and family!
This is true. It’s pretty simple logic – if you free up hours that you would’ve spent in the kitchen, you can choose to spend them in a more enjoyable way. Certainly today’s society values and seeks out certain pastimes over others. Cooking for hours in high-stress conditions typically isn’t one of them. Even outside of holidays, we’ve long since signed the majority of our meal prep over to corporations so that we can busy ourselves with other, more pressing matters in our day-to-day life. Why should you have to rinse and chop kale or sweet potatoes or garlic when you can buy these in conveniently vacuum-sealed packages on your way home from work?
This is where the story turns. I’m not going to write about the glory of processed and prepared foods and how much easier they make our lives – quite the opposite, actually. That Trader Joe’s sign was one of the most depressing things I’ve read in a long time. I think being in the kitchen is a healthy and meaningful way to spend our time, for many reasons. Who influenced this mindset of mine? One of my favorite writers.
Anyone who’s asked me “what person, living or dead, would you most want to invite to dinner?” (which has happened oddly frequently this past month) knows how much I admire Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and a passionate food writer and activist. He has an impressive amount of books, articles, and other publications under his belt, and he’s even added a four-part Netflix series, Cooked, to his collection of inspirational and investigative media. His work explores the path that food takes to our plates and how that has changed throughout the years. In college, when I was beginning to take an interest in food beyond how it tasted and how much it cost, Michael Pollan’s views were what stuck with me beyond any other diet, trend, or scientific publication. He is a huge proponent of stepping back into the kitchen and taking charge of our meals and our ingredients – and Cooked, a read I highly recommend, will tell you all about it. Here, I mainly want to focus on how his ideas can help us feel empowered in our kitchens.
I don’t want to speak for Michael Pollan, of course, but I have a feeling he’d be all for each and every one of us making an effort to take back the responsibility for at least some (if not all!) of the Thanksgiving cooking this year. Maybe that’s what your family has been doing all along, and maybe you do always make an effort to prepare your dinners from scratch. That is so wonderful, and it really shows what is important to you. For many of us, however, the focus is on instant gratification. We want to get the meal on the table in the quickest, most convenient way possible. But this isn’t how it’s always been. Cooking and eating used to be about spending time with your family and bonding, socializing, and connecting with each other over a common necessity: food.
But decades ago, we started outsourcing our foods to corporations. We stepped out of our kitchens and gave the frying pan to someone else. And since then, there has been a rather alarming decline in the health of Americans and the land. Obesity and high blood pressure are just a few of the drains on human health, and farmland is brutally abused by industrial agriculture (it reduces biodiversity, pollutes the air and water, and contributes to climate change – and these are just a few of the threats). Corporations want to be profitable, and so they buy from big monoculture farms and big companies that only care about the most efficient (and frequently unhealthy) agricultural practices. They don’t give two shits about your local farmer’s market or the Slow Food movement. But many of us do give a shit, or we at least say we do. And if we look deeper, we’ll see that the success of the organic, local food moment that’s been gaining popularity lately is directly related to the revival of cooking. Those locally grown greens we just bought aren’t going to dance their way into a colorful salad all by themselves, after all! And when we assume the role of home cook, we are the ones who can best support small farmers because we directly buy and prepare their food products. It’s a way for us to say “no thanks” to the big guys and instead support the locals.
Aside from all the benefits to health and nature, I think time spent in the kitchen is personally rewarding. What an act of love it is to create something delicious from scratch and be able to serve it to your friends and family. We all need to eat, after all, so we might as well make it special! And our body is our constant companion day-to-day, so arguably, we should really want to treat it well. When we cook ourselves, we tend to use less salt, fat, and sugar than large corporations do (they simply want to make the food taste “good” with the cheapest ingredients possible, often in the form of these and other unhealthy additives). This means cooking often leads to better health. For me, cooking isn’t just about making my body feel good, although that’s a big part of it – it also serves as a fun stress-reliever. It allows me to become a producer and temporarily step away from the role of consumer that is a much larger part of my identity than I’d like it to be.
“We find time for what we value.” These are words Michael Pollan mentioned during a book tour for Cooked. This is ultimately what it comes down to. If we want to support local food, if we want to improve the health of ourselves and our families, if we want to take an active stance towards the health of our planet (and combat climate change!), we’re going to need to make the time to step back into our kitchens and cook. We can treat these everyday food choices as a vote for something, because how we eat directly shows our support for how we’d like the land to be treated. Do we want to see our planet abused through industrial agriculture? Or do we want to see it nurtured and cared for with good farming practices?
Sure, it might seem like a grand notion to assume that cooking our Thanksgiving dinner at home will save the planet. But the point is to stand for your beliefs and let your choices reflect your values. So let’s start small! Let’s start somewhere! And what better time to step back into our kitchens and cast our votes for a healthier planet than during a holiday that’s all about sharing with loved ones and showing gratitude for what we have? If you’re feeling frustrated about recent events, and helpless or unheard, cooking is something that you have power over. You do get another vote. Even Patagonia (an environmentally-minded company that has recently expanded to include Patagonia Provisions) stands behind positive change in the food industry, with an expert from their recent e-newsletter still bouncing around in my mind: “You can still vote with your stomach. As the dust from the election settles, we can all find hope for our planet in better ways to grow and harvest food.”
This is something I’m passionate about. And, yes, it’s a lot more complicated than I’ve made it seem above (there’s always the issue of affordability, among other things – eating local and cooking with fresh ingredients is certainly not the cheapest option). If we’re not quite ready to take the full plunge into cooking from scratch, it’s something that we can at least think about and shift towards the top of our priority list. We can start to appreciate cooking as an act of empowerment and a vote for our beliefs. So…pick up your frying pan (or sauce pot, or baking sheet, or preferred cooking vessel). Light a nice candle. Open a bottle of wine. Put on your favorite Spotify playlist. And let’s celebrate this holiday by giving Mama Nature a big hug!