Even in the longest lifetime, there are only a handful of events that are truly life altering. Some are quite predictable, like the day we were born, graduations, weddings, the eventual birth of our children, and, sadly, the death of loved ones would qualify as such events. There’s another experience common to all human beings, which though rather unremarkable, shares the same gravity as these previous examples. I’m talking about the preparation and eating of a meal in the presence of family and friends. The home-cooked and shared meal involves life’s most essential components: the people we love and the food that we need to sustain ourselves. And, because it’s a practice that’s quickly falling out of fashion in the modern world, it deserves greater consideration as an irreplaceable thread in the fabric of our culture. The question, “what’s for dinner?” has never been more important.
When considering the woes of a modern world, there’s no end to the culprits we can put in the lineup of blame; there’s social media and its almost hypnotic allure to anyone with a smart phone, global warming and its impact on weather and the environment, and the refugee crisis. Against these options, something as humble as a meal prepared and shared at home will no doubt seem not important. But when given the proper attention and analysis, the home-cooked meal’s importance to cultures everywhere may be as mighty as a mountain. Cooked meals eaten together with family are one of the few institutions that transcend race, ethnicity, geography, and even history. For example, in his 2009 book “Catching Fire,” Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham claims that the discovery of cooking is what set us apart from the apes and made us human. Furthermore, meals are important in both a grand cultural way as well as in day-to-day activities. And because it involves one of the most fundamental human needs as well as serves as a form of intimacy, why are we not cooking more?
People are cooking and eating meals at home less and less, and the lack of cooking in our culture is leading to the deterioration of those components of living, which make, well, living worth living. Currently, this problem not only hurts our relationships with our families, but our health, our finances, and the environment as well. Cooking gives us not just the meal, but also the occasion and the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. Part of the problem is that parents have also overbooked their kids with activities, and the stress of taking them to and fro has reduced their opportunities to cook. In his book “Cooked” from 2013, Michael Pollan argues that the dinner table is the place where our kids learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization, sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, and arguing without offending. Furthermore, a survey from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that out of 34 countries, Americans spend the least amount of time cooking, amounting to only 30 minutes per day. And the food that they’re cooking, well, it barely qualifies as food, considering the line share of it is frozen meals. In fact, frozen food sales have recently reached around twenty billion dollars in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal, and you don’t have to be Gordon Ramsey to know that the mass-produced frozen meal is a much different animal than a home cooked meal. For starters, processed foods tend to use more sugar, fat, and salt in their products. They also use novel chemical ingredients not found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. These chemicals raise our chances of obesity and all chronic diseases related to it. Now, we all realize that not preparing and eating a meal at home is hardly a crime against humanity, or is it?
The simple act of cooking more meals at home could dramatically change our lives. Cooking invites us into a web of social and ecological relationships with plants and animals, soil, farmers, microbes inside and outside our bodies, and with the people we are cooking for. This solution of actually cooking more homemade meals is not a difficult recipe to follow. We need to look at addressing this issue in our own families. Cooking means community, economy, and nutrition. Cooking supper and eating with the ones we love gives us a sense that we are one. As families, we need to make cooking fun by expanding our cultural horizons. Even the cookware we select is an expression of our families as a whole. My mother still cooks with my great grandmother’s tandoori oven, which is not only a connection to members of my family but to my cultural heritage.
So, it may come as a little bit of a surprise that a step we can take to improve the quality of our lives is not really forward, but backward—as in backward toward the not-so-distant past to a place where we prepare and eat our meals at home. The simple solution to this modern problem is so close we can almost taste it.