Tuesday, September 16th, 2014
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Pastoral Romance


592295~Woman-Looking-at-Victory-Garden-Harvest-Sitting-on-Lawn-Waiting-to-Be-Stored-Away-for-Winter-Posters.jpegBetty Jo Patton spent her childhood on a 240-acre farm in Mason County, West Virginia, in the 1930s. Her family raised what it ate, from tomatoes to turkeys, pears to pigs. They picked, plucked, slaughtered, butchered, cured, canned, preserved, and rendered. They drew water from a well, cooked on a wood stove, and the bathroom was an outhouse.

Phoebe Patton Randolph, Betty Jo’s thirty-two-year-old granddaughter, has a dream of returning to the farm, which has been in the family since 1863 and is an hour’s drive from her home in the suburbs of Huntington, a city of nearly fifty thousand people along the Ohio River. Phoebe is an architect and a mother of one (soon to be two) boys, who is deeply involved in efforts to revitalize Huntington, a moribund Rust Belt community unsure of what can replace the defunct factories that drove its economy for a hundred years. She grew up with stories of life on the farm as she watched the empty farmhouse sag into disrepair.

Recently, over lunch in Betty Jo’s cozy house in a quiet Huntington neighborhood, I listened to them talk about the farm, and I eventually asked Betty Jo what she thought of her granddaughter’s notion of returning to the land. Betty Jo smiled, but was blunt: “Leave it. There’s nothing romantic about it.”

Leave it? But isn’t Green Acres the place to be? Listening to the conversation about food reform that has unspooled in this country over the last decade, it’s hard to avoid the idea that in terms of food production and consumption, we once had it right—before industrialization and then globalization sullied our Eden. Nostalgia glistens on that conversation like dew on an heirloom tomato: the belief that in a not-so-distant past, families routinely sat down to happy meals whipped up from scratch by mom or grandma. That in the 1950s, housewives had to be tricked by Madison Avenue marketers into abandoning beloved family recipes in favor of new Betty Crocker cake mixes. That the family farm was at the center of an ennobling way of life.


Evidence of the nostalgia abounds. There is an endless series of books by urban food revolutionaries who flee the professional world for the simple pleasures of rural life, if only for a year or so: Growing A Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land; Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg; The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir. A new crop sprouts each year. There’s Michael Pollan’s admonition, in his bestselling book Food Rules, to not “eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” And then there are countless articles about the young and educated putting off grad school to become organic farmers. A March 5 piece in the New York Times is typical. Under the headline, “In New Food Culture, a Young Generation of Farmers Emerges,” it delivers a predictable blend: twenty-somethings who quit engineering jobs to farm in Corvallis, Oregon—microbrews, Subarus, multiple piercings, indie rock, yoga. This back-to-the-landism is of a piece with the nineteenth-century, do-it-yourself fever that has swept certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn, complete with handlebar mustaches, jodhpur boots, classic cocktails, soda shops, and restaurants with wagon wheels on the walls.

The surest sign that this nostalgia has reached a critical mass, though, is that food companies have begun to board the retro bus. PepsiCo now has throwback cans for Pepsi (the red-white-and-blue one Cindy Crawford famously guzzled in the 1990s) and Mountain Dew (featuring a cartoon hillbilly from the 1960s) in which they’ve replaced “bad” high-fructose corn syrup with “good” cane sugar. Frito-Lay is resurrecting a Doritos chip from the 1980s (taco-flavored, a sombrero on the package). When nostalgia is co-opted by corporate America and sold back to us, as it invariably is, the backlash can’t be far behind. Consider this the opening salvo.

It’s unlikely that most serious food reformers think America can or should dismantle our industrial food system and return to an agrarian way of life. But the idea that “Food used to be better” so pervades the rhetoric about what ails our modern food system that it is hard not to conclude that rolling back the clock would provide at least some of the answers. The trouble is, it wouldn’t. And even if it would, the prospect of a return to Green Acres just isn’t very appealing to a lot of people who know what life there is really like.

I came to Huntington last November with my wife, the food writer Jane Black, to research a book about the effort to build a healthier food culture there. This is where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver last year debuted his reality television show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, after the Huntington metro area was labeled the nation’s most unhealthy community by a 2008 Centers for Disease Control study. It is a place that has suffered the familiar litany of postindustrial woes: a decimated manufacturing base, a shrinking population, a drug problem. It is also precisely the kind of place where the food-reform movement must take hold if it is to deliver on its promise of large-scale and enduring change.

How would the messages and assumptions that have powered the movement in the elite enclaves where it took root over the last decade—like Brooklyn, where we live, Berkeley, Washington, DC, etc.—play in communities like Huntington? Places where most people don’t consider Applebee’s and Wal-Mart to be the enemy. Where the familiar and the consistent are valued over the new and the exotic, especially when it comes to what’s for dinner. Where a significant portion of the population lives in poverty or perilously close to it.

Jane and I suspected that the environmental, social justice, it-just-tastes-better case for eating seasonally and sustainably that our foodie friends consider self-evident would be met with skepticism—or shrugs—by people who have more pressing concerns than the plight of tomato pickers in Florida or the fact that cows are meant to eat grass, not corn. Nostalgia, though, did not immediately register with us as part of the movement’s message problem. Perhaps because we live in the same world as the people who write those My-Year-Doing-X books, foodie nostalgia only seemed an innocuous, if annoying, bit of yuppie indulgence.

But in Huntington we kept meeting people like Betty Jo. Alma Keeney, for instance, who also grew up on a farm, is baffled by her daughter-in-law Shelly’s decision to launch a goat-cheese business. Shelly runs the fledgling Yellow Goat Farm with her friend, Dominique Wong, and together they tend their Nubian and Alpine dairy goats on a small plot in Proctorville, Ohio, just across the river from Huntington. The eighty-seven-year-old Alma, Shelley told us, prefers individually wrapped American slices of cheese, not “farm food,” which brings back memories of hard times. Jane and I started thinking about the uncritical, even simplistic way that our agricultural past—and our kitchen-table past—are referenced in American society generally, and in the conversation about food reform specifically.

The farmer is among the most enduring figures in the American pantheon. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, his classic work on the promise of the American experiment. The agrarian ideal—a belief that the family farm is the soul of the nation, a pure embodiment of our democracy—is a recurring theme in the national narrative. In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in his Letters from an American Farmer, celebrated the notion of independence and self-sufficiency that is central to the story: "Where is that station which can confer a more substantial system of felicity than that of an American farmer, possessing freedom of action, freedom of thoughts, ruled by a mode of government which requires but little from us?"

The exalted status of the farmer has influenced political strategy and policy decisions throughout our history: in New Deal legislation that sought to place the family farm, which struggled mightily during the Depression, on par with other industries primarily through price supports; in an amendment to the Selective Service Act of 1940, which granted deferments to young men who were “necessary to and regularly engaged in an agricultural occupation”; in the creation of the U.S. food-assistance program in 1954, which pitted the stalwart American farmer against the menace of Soviet collectivized agriculture. And it surely informs the nostalgia that shrouds today’s food-reform movement. One can essentially trace a through line from Thomas Jefferson’s romantic image of the farmer to a recent defense of rural America in the Washington Post by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: “There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important.”

Today most of us are so removed from the agricultural life, and so ignorant about its realities, that this wholesome and nostalgic lens is the only one we know. Research by the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank employed by nonprofits to strategically reframe public conversation about social issues, found that for Americans, “Rural Utopia” is the dominant image of life beyond the cities and suburbs: a countryside “filled with poor but noble, tough and hard-working people living healthier and fundamentally better lives than the rest of us.” This despite the fact that the reality in rural America today is one of decline: unemployment, rising divorce rates, a scramble to get out. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, farming is the nation’s fourth-most-dangerous job.

Still, nostalgia has been a useful tool for the food-reform movement. It has provided a blueprint for how to think about and act on the daunting environmental, moral, and health problems associated with our industrial food-system for people who have the resources—financial, social, and educational—that allow them to participate in the movement if they so choose, and that predispose them to be sympathetic to the cause in the first place. Whether they started raising chickens in their backyards or simply became better informed about how their food is produced, this idea that we’ve lost our way has helped make food important, and in ways that go beyond simple sustenance.

Most of these food revolutionaries won’t become actual farmers, and most of those who do—including those microbrew-swilling kids in Corvallis—won’t make a career of it. But the movement has, I suspect, permanently changed their attitudes toward food, and this alone is already forcing modest systemic change. Since 1994 the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has risen from 1,700 to more than 6,000. And between 2000 and 2009, organic-food sales grew from $6 billion to nearly $25 billion—still less than 4 percent of total U.S. food sales, but it’s a start. Twenty years from now, most of these young “farmers” will have rejoined the professional ranks. Like their middle-class forefathers who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out in the 1960s, the appeal of financial security and a climate-controlled office will, in most cases, win out. That said, they probably won’t be regulars at McDonald’s, and they’ll instill these values in their own kids.

Nevertheless, a “bourgeois nostalgia” pervades the food-reform movement, as Amy Trubek, an anthropologist at the University of Vermont who studies food and culture, points out. This is a perception of our food history that is the luxury of people who have little or no experience with farming, or more generally with manual labor. A perception that appeals to those who have never had to cook from scratch, let alone milk cows, kill chickens, and bake bread, just to get food on the table every day. A perception of people for whom it makes perfect sense to redefine their leisure time to include things like making guanciale or Meyer-lemon marmalade. As such, it may not resonate with great swaths of the public who don’t fit this demographic profile, and it is a perception that ignores some crucial truths about our food history.

The reality of America’s food past is far more complicated, and troubling, than is suggested by the romantic image at the heart of our foodie nostalgia. In Revolution at the Table and its sequel, Paradox of Plenty, the historian Harvey Levenstein provides a more sober, and ultimately more useful, accounting of that past. Levenstein shows how, starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the twentieth, food preparation steadily migrated outside the home. The reason is simple: if you have no choice but to plan and prepare multiple meals every day, cooking not only isn’t cool, it’s tedious and damned hard work.

Jane and I experienced this firsthand in West Virginia. We both are skilled and enthusiastic cooks, and as part of the reporting for the book, we wanted to see how well, and local, we could eat, and for how much money, preparing three meals a day. But we also understood that we were the kind of people for whom cooking is a hobby. Outside our door in Brooklyn, there is a cornucopia of options for the nights when we are busy or not in the mood to cook. In Huntington, though, most of those options are missing. Three months in we began to notice, with dismay, that as soon as one meal was finished, we had to start thinking about the next. Four months in, the joy of cooking was replaced by a growing irritation, a longing to amble down the block for banh mi or a bowl of ramen. By mid-March, Jane wrote in her journal, “Officially sick of cooking.”

Between 1880 and 1930, the fruits of industrialization—canning, bottling, the growth of food manufacturers and restaurants—enabled the outsourcing of food preparation that Levenstein describes. Improved transportation—first the railroad and then the automobile—and food-preservation processes—refrigerated rail cars, for instance—brought an end to seasonal and regional restrictions on what we ate. Soon, people in Kentucky had the same food choices as those in New York or California.

The standardization of the American diet, so bemoaned by people like me, is what many—maybe even most—people want at mealtime. It is reassuring to have what everyone else has. The desire to have the same Big Mac in Syracuse as in San Diego is a big part of why fast-food outlets became America’s default dining-out option, and why suggesting that as a nation we return to a more seasonal and regional way of eating will be a tough sell.

The family farm itself was not immune to these developments. By the 1920s and ’30s, the gap between city and farm diets had begun to collapse, as processed foods became high-status items in rural areas. Poor Appalachian farmers began to prefer canned hams to country hams; farm women who could afford store-bought canned vegetables and other processed food embraced this new convenience without a second thought that they were abandoning a purer, nobler way of life.

There’s a reason that less than 2 percent of people in this country are engaged in farming today, and it isn’t simply that they’ve been driven off the land by Cargill and ADM. Just like Betty Jo Patton, many of them wanted things to be easier. This revolution at the table—the one that produced the food culture that today’s revolutionaries are trying to counter—was considered a tremendous leap forward. It was modern. It gave people time for things other than keeping the family fed.

There is an even more fundamental concern about our nostalgia: America’s food system has always depended on the exploitation of someone, whether it was indentured servants, slaves, tenant farmers, braceros and other guest workers, or, now, immigrants. In his ode to the American farmer, Crèvecoeur made it clear that he had a little help on his farm. “My Negroes are tolerably faithful and healthy,” he wrote. This is an aspect of our agricultural heritage that rarely gets mentioned in the mainstream conversation about food-system reform, and it raises thorny questions about who actually grows, harvests, processes, and prepares the food in a capitalist society. We have no history of a food system that does not depend on oppression of some sort, and it seems unlikely that we will be able to create a future system that avoids this fate. The leaders of the food revolution have, in recent years, begun to speak out on the matter of farm-worker rights. But few acknowledge—at least in the public debate—that if a central goal of the movement is a more equitable food system, then the notion that we once had it right is deeply problematic.

Exploitation is as true in the kitchen as in the field. Women have always borne the burden of transforming the raw to the cooked in the American home. Interestingly, it was a confluence of these two inconvenient truths about our food past—its reliance on women and exploited labor—that helped set the stage for our national embrace of fast food.

During the Gilded Age following the end of the Civil War, and continuing into the early twentieth century, America’s rapidly expanding ranks of wealthy industrialists used extravagant dinner parties, featuring French haute cuisine, as a way to showcase their status. Hosts and hostesses sought to outdo one another: chefs were imported from France; eight courses were standard, as were menu cards, elaborate centerpieces, and a labor-intensive style of service known as à la Russe, which involved a butler carving and arranging the food on plates at a sideboard, which were then delivered to guests by servants. (The traditional style had been to fill the table with platters and bowls and let the guests serve themselves.)

The fetish for French cuisine, and all the attendant showmanship, quickly trickled down, and the nation’s middle-class, which also was expanding, sought pecuniary emulation of this conspicuous consumption. Competitive dinner parties became a fixture of middle-class social life. And it wasn’t just at dinner; there were also multicourse luncheons and high teas to pull together. The problem, though, was that middle-class households couldn’t afford the number and quality of servants necessary for this kind of entertaining. This “servant problem,” as Levenstein calls it, became something of an obsession for American housewives, who saw it as the main obstacle to fulfilling society’s expectations of them.

Their plight led to various time-saving experiments, including cooperative kitchens—in which meals for multiple families were prepared for pickup in a central location—and the first home-meal delivery services. The former failed because they were regarded as a violation of the “ideal of American family life,” a critique that had more than a whiff of antisocialist sentiment. The latter, it turns out, was simply an idea ahead of its time. These delivery services conformed to what was then considered the standard for a “proper meal”: three courses and a menu that changed daily. As such, they were too expensive to be sustainable. The inability to solve the middle-class servant problem led, eventually, to a new conception in American society of what constituted a proper meal: simpler, cheaper, and of course, faster. We know how that story turned out.

By misrepresenting—or misunderstanding—our food history, we make a realistic conversation about what to change and how to change it more difficult than it already is. America will not revert to a nation of family farms. Convenience will always be important. Seasonal and regional limitations on what we eat can only go so far. If Americans want to cook like their grandmothers, fine, but the fact is our grandmothers, by and large, made only a handful of meals, they made them over and over again, and they used plenty of shortcuts, courtesy of the industrial age. My grandmother’s cornbread, which still remains the gold standard for cornbread in my family twenty years after her death, began with a Martha White mix.

Nostalgia is part of a larger message problem that food revolutionaries face as they attempt to broaden the appeal of their cause. For example, when Wal-Mart announced earlier this year that it would, over the next five years, reduce the amount of sodium by 25 percent and added sugars by 10 percent in its house brands, and pressure other food manufacturers whose products it carries to follow suit, the overwhelming response from within the food-reform community was, “That’s not good enough.”

In Huntington, and in communities across the country, Wal-Mart is where a lot of people get their food. They like the way the food there tastes. If that food has less sugar and salt—incrementally less so that they will still like the way it tastes—that is an important, and realistic, step toward a healthier food culture. Wal-Mart has many bad policies, but it’s shortsighted to write off every initiative just because it comes from Wal-Mart. New ideas about food need to conform to people’s social and economic aspirations, and those aspirations are going to be different in 2011 than they were in 1900, and they will be different, too, in Huntington, West Virginia, than in Brooklyn, New York. Achieving fundamental and lasting change in our food system will require the efforts of those yuppie farmers in Oregon who can afford to step outside the mainstream food culture and, as they say, vote with their forks. It will also require the more hard-won, incremental reforms at the big food processors and sellers, like Wal-Mart, that feed the great mass of people who either can’t or won’t vote with their forks.

Somewhere in the middle of these two efforts, hopefully, we can eventually arrive at a food system that makes sense for the twenty-first century. But the process of figuring out what that will look like needs to begin with a full and honest accounting of where we’ve been, and what’s possible given where we are.

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Excellent article. I agree with so much you said.

    Posted by Jim Schmidt on Thu 16 Jun 2011

  • I've recently observed the fact that, as you point out, cooking for many of us is a hobby. The vast majority of the meals we consume in my house are prepared elsewhere. I've always wondered what would happen if we actually had to cook for ourselves any longer than a week.

    Posted by Miller on Sun 19 Jun 2011

  • If cooking three meals a day for four months overwhelms you, or if the "vast majority" of meals consumed in your home are prepared "elsewhere," then you're either cooking the wrong things or simply prefer the way the wrong things taste.

    As the world's most refined cuisines have demonstrated for centuries, the best dishes are almost always the simplest. A decent mid-week dinner shouldn't take you longer than 30 minutes to prepare and, even at that, ought require so little of your direct attention that you can sit out some of the cooking time at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of wine and reading a book or magazine.

    Good grief. How long does it take to boil a pot of pasta? Or poach or scramble an egg? With a simple can of garbanzo beans, some olive oil, garlic, salt, and a blender, you can make delicious hummus. Sliced fresh tomatoes with garlic salt and black pepper make a wonderful salad. (Crush some fresh garlic if you can somehow spare the time.) Buy a cheap rice maker: in the time it takes your rice maker to steam rice, you can have a tasty pilaf.

    Shove some lamb chops under the broiler, for cryin' out loud. How long can THAT possibly take? How intellectually or physically taxing can it be to broil lamb chops?

    The possibilities are endless.

    I've cooked two to three meals a day for decades, usually for as few as two or three people, and often for as many as six or eight.

    It's really not that big of a deal IF...

    You're dealing with people who aren't picky or fussy and who like simple food. Which means people who pretty much like all vegetables in all their forms. Which means people who pretty much don't demand that all foods be deep-fried. (Which is a messy time-consuming process, although, quite often, a tasty one.)

    So, basically, I've a hard time understanding what Mr. Cunningham and his wife were doing in their kitchen that caused them to surrender so quickly to culinary ennui and despair.

    I know for certain that it wasn't *good* cooking, or at least what the world's greatest cuisines consider as such, because *good* cooking is the least fussy and demanding and requires little, if any, manhandling or manipulation.

    Why the Cunningham's freakishly low threshold for tolerating domestic routine should serve as any sort of thoughtful or illuminating counterpoint to the perceived romanticism of back-to-the-land foodie-farmers is beyond me.

    "I hate cooking" really means "I'm a fussy, finicky eater who really can't stomach the sort of honest, simple food that doesn't require much cooking at all."

    Posted by Hugo de Toronja on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • Thanks for this article. However, I tire of the argument against good ideas simply because they're currently largely adopted by the more privileged.

    The road to better food production is not easy and it's not going to be cheap, at least initially. Those who do have the luxury of choosing to opt for a better way can and are helping to make sustainable food systems better for everyone.

    There are times when I could afford to eat more sustainably, and live in a house with room for a garden. I can't now. But that doesn't mean that the sustainble food systems movement doesn't work. It means that there's still more to be done to increase access for those with fewer means than those who have access now.

    Posted by Annie Stewart on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • So who's buying that goat cheese? The locals? Or is she driving it to DC or another large city?
    If you're working all day at a stressful job, the idea of cooking something isn't nearly as attractive as the commenters above seem to think. Yes, you can boil up some pasta and dump bottled sauce on it, but somehow I don't think that's all that appealing. Lamb chops? In West Virginia? Get real, Hugo.

    Posted by Belinda Gomez on Mon 20 Jun 2011

  • I have lived all my life in a society (south India) where people (used to) cook all their meals from the ground up. It's not pleasant. Women are/were practically enslaved to the kitchen because after a meal and cleaning up, there is barely time to rest and have a hobby before it's time to start work on another meal--and men weren't around because someone had to work either in the fields or at a job to get the raw materials for that meal. The mindless romanticism of Hugo above is exactly what the author rightly rejects. It is ironically true that traditional cuisines were eminently practical--the starving masses had proportionately low time and material to cook while the wealthy had servants to manage abundance.

    Posted by Matthayichen on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Belinda says, "If you're working all day at a stressful job, the idea of cooking something isn't nearly as attractive as the commenters above seem to think..."

    I've not only worked all day at a "stressful" job and managed to prepare three meals a day, there have been years when I worked all day at a "stressful" job and managed to prepare three meals a day in parts of the world where political realities made shopping and commuting to and from work exceptionally stressful, at least in terms of bombs going off on public transportation and in markets, and people being shot and blown to bits at bus shelters.

    How long does it take to make a grilled-cheese sandwich? An omelette? A salad?

    Belinda says, "Yes, you can boil up some pasta and dump bottled sauce on it, but somehow I don't think that's all that appealing. ..."

    I don't think it's all that appealing, either. Which is precisely why I didn't suggest that anyone ought dump bottled sauce on their pasta. Why would any *sane* person ruin perfectly good pasta that way?

    It's surprising simple to dress pasta with a little butter, black pepper, salt, and crushed garlic. If you have any fresh tomatoes on hand, you can chop them up and toss them in, too. Maybe a handful of fresh spinach or other greens. The entire preparation oughtn't take more than 30 minutes. Italians have been eating, and enjoying, one version or another of this dish ever since they started cooking pasta.

    Belinda says, "Lamb chops? In West Virginia? Get real, Hugo."

    All right. Yours is admittedly literalist reading of my remark, but I'll just go with it nonetheless. OK. Forget the unrealistic lamb chops. Let's try chicken thighs and drumsticks instead, shall we? They do have chickens in West Virginia, don't they? And I imagine they're the sort that broil up quite nicely without a lot of fuss or painstaking attention.

    Matthayichen says, "I have lived all my life in a society (south India) where people (used to) cook all their meals from the ground up. It's not pleasant. Women are/were practically enslaved to the kitchen because after a meal and cleaning up, there is barely time to rest and have a hobby before it's time to start work on another meal..."

    This is a rather curious objection, because I at no point advocated that people would do well to adopt the culinary methods common to South Indian housewives of little means.

    I was instead addressing the apparent malaise experienced by Mr. Cunningham and his wife after four months spent preparing three meals a day in a 21st century American kitchen.

    Matthayichen says, "The mindless romanticism of Hugo above is exactly what the author rightly rejects..."

    Would you, please, explain to me the "romanticism" you managed to locate in my explicit assertion that preparing an endless variety of decent, tasty, and nutritious meals in a 21st century American kitchen shouldn't be wearying or overwhelming?

    What, exactly, is the argument you're trying to make? And to whom do you believe you're making it.

    I'm but one generation removed from poverty every bit as hopeless and grinding as the South Indian poverty you describe. Both my mother and father could cook, and cook quite well, and they chose to do so, despite their both working all day at "stressful" jobs, for the obvious reason that simple homemade meals were not only economical, but tasted far better than the mass-market commercial stuff preferred by people who, for one reason or another, consider cooking too onerous for reasonable, busy people.

    It's rather obvious, isn't it, that people who say that cooking is too time-consuming or bothersome are really finicky, picky eaters who turn up their noses at simple, nutritious, things that take just minutes to prepare, such as salads, grilled meat, chicken, or fish, fresh or frozen vegetables sauteed with just a little oil or butter, or plain pasta dishes dressed with whatever spices, cheeses, or vegetables you have around the house.

    Posted by Hugo De Toronja on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • I can not agree more with Hugo De Toronja!
    It's true -- a simple home cooked meal should not be seen a burden, it should be a delight. And for those who say "get real" it takes five minutes to put a roast in the oven, lentils on the stove or throw a salad together... probably less time than it does to get in your car and drive to a fastfood restaurant...

    Posted by Jacqueline Becker on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Thank you, Ms. Becker.

    I polled my non-fussy, non-finicky family as to their favorite recent meal, and the consensus was Sunday's dinner...

    Cauliflower gratin: take head of cauliflower, break it up, rinse under cold water, place in oven-safe dish, microwave until tender (4 mins +/-), sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and grated Swiss cheese, slide under broiler, remove when cheese has melted and is nice and crusty.

    Sauteed fish fillets: heat butter or olive oil in pan, sprinkle granulated garlic and fresh ground black pepper and, if you have it, a little curry powder or paprika, onto oil, when fragrant, toss in handful of thinly sliced onion, when the onion is translucent, slide frozen fish fillets into pan. Cook only briefly (5 mins +/-). Pour in 1/4 cup white wine, beer, or broth. Remove from heat. Cover.

    Dessert: sliced fresh ripe bananas drizzled with sweetened condensed milk (mixed with a little vanilla).

    Post-dinner snack: fresh mangos (Yes, Belinda, I know. Fresh mangos? In West Virginia??? How about some fresh apples? Or some other fresh fruit in season?)

    I don't think I spent more than 25 minutes engaged in actual hands-on cooking. (By the time the cauliflower was out of the microwave, it was time to slide the fish fillets into the pan.)

    Posted by Hugo de Toronja on Tue 21 Jun 2011

  • Farming is a LOT of work, no doubt about it. One of my cousins, who works in a factory, also runs 10,000 laying hens and does various other farm-type activities. I visited him one day, and helped him (i.e., followed him around) all afternoon.

    He wore me out just watching him. He was never still. He would do one task on his way to do two other tasks. Whew!

    Posted by Larry E on Thu 23 Jun 2011

  • I think that it's wrong to leave out the ecological argument for organic/local/ecologically sound farming. I assisted in ecology field research on many organic farms in Nebraska, and the farmers that I spoke to had made careful (non-nostalgic) decisions to go organic. They were concerned about the negative consequences that industrial farming had on their land and the surrounding wildlife, and some went for organic production because of its growing economic potential - it could give them a better chance of surviving. This, despite the fact that obtaining and keeping organic certification carried great uncertainties and short-term losses.

    So yeah, a lot of unknowing people are in love with this idea of slow, sustainable food, but so what? If the switch to organic/local makes farmers' lives better, satisfies consumers, and helps the environment then I'm in favor of it.

    Posted by John on Sat 25 Jun 2011

  • The romanticism is the problem - not the farming. My maternal grandfather grew up on a farm in Nebraska; my grandmother on a farm in Wisconsin. My dad's father grew up on a farm in Georgia (he died in an industrial accident in 1948), while his mother grew up on a farm in Florida.

    Despite a job as an auto executive, my grandfather had a huge garden throughout my childhood - we "helped" by pulling weeds, etc., but that was his stress relief after a hard day in the office. My grandmother canned or froze whatever he grew, and they ate those vegetables (and fruits - he had three fruit trees, too) all year. He also chose a calf every year and paid a friend who had a farm nearby to feed it and care for it, and then he would butcher it and freeze the meat for the family to eat all year. He only stopped doing that when they sold their house so they could travel more.

    Their children all pursued a more "enlightened" or progressive culture of desk jobs, higher education and modern convenience-filled lives. As of this writing, though, my parents live in a rural community where they grow reasonable garden, my aunt (dad's sister) lives on a farm in Missouri (raises a substantial garden), and my mom's remaining sibling lives in a wealthy suburb of a northern Midwestern city with ready access to farmers' markets. To the extent that the families didn't eat home-grown, organic meats, vegetables and fruits, they didn't live as long or as healthy lives.

    Say what you want about the "romanticism" of farming - while people who lived such lives never thought of it as romantic, they still saw farming or gardening as a healthy way of life that encouraged self-sufficiency and a strong work ethic, in addition to providing a need for their families. Sure it's hard work - anything worth doing well usually is. It's only "romantic" to someone who doesn't understand the basic principles behind farming or gardening as a way of life, and it's only foolishness to someone who didn't have any other choice.

    Part of the problem is that people think that farming or gardening is inexpensive. It only is less expensive than buying everything from someone else if you can generate seed, properly store/preserve what you make, and not spend money you don't have on other stuff.

    You aren't likely to make the kind of money you are accustomed to making (or want to make) at a paycheck job by just farming. You have real and personal property taxes, equipment replacement/repair costs, and the cost of stuff you can't grow or raise by yourself. And that's assuming that you already own your land outright - the pressure is increased tremendously if you have mortgage payments on top of the other costs. Farming is a business; gardening is a somewhat less complicated business. Both are still business ventures that have to be approached from a cost/benefit perspective to be rewarding or successful.

    And there is little if any romanticism - pastoral or otherwise - about business.

    Posted by Cheryl on Mon 27 Jun 2011

  • It seems a bit simplistic and naive to assume that anyone who tires of the day in, day out task of cooking must be a picky eater.

    I enjoy cooking, but I loathe that what once used to be a pleasurable task is now just one more chore that has to be squeezed in between laundry, carting children to and from school, working full-time, mowing the grass, another Little League game, caring for an elderly mother and another seemingly endless list of obligations.

    Frankly? I don't so much mind cooking as I mind cleaning up after the fact. Dirty dishes, sticky floors, spilled drinks and messy countertops will forever be my nemesis.

    Posted by Jenny on Mon 27 Jun 2011

  • Alas, like so many articles either praising or deriding yuppie culture, this one misses the larger point. Sure, romanticism about the past is annoying, but certainly not worth the thousands of words this author dedicates to it. Like he says, there are more important issues to worry about than the misguided few who gloss over the past. I understand why Betty Jo would disdain "farm food," she had no choice but to labor constantly for it.

    But with all due respect, times are changing, as they always do. Many of us womenfolk have partners who are willing to help with kitchen tasks. A good portion of homes have dishwashers now--what a godsend--in addition to many other modern conveniences that cut down on work in other areas (vacuums, laundry machines, indoor plumbing).

    I'm no yuppie, and I have no illusions about how much of a pain in the ass it can be to cook everyday in a kitchen scarcely the size of a yuppie's closet with the most modern conveniences being an ancient fridge and stove. However, as Hugo says, it really isn't that hard to through some meat and herbs into a pan and some veggies and pasta into a pot for daily sustenance. I will echo the "environmentally, social justice, it-just-tastes-better case" for cooking from scratch and buying raw and local ingredients. It is a better way, even for a person of limited means.

    I recommend the cookbook, "How to Cook Everything." Despite it's gimmicky title, it even taught my kitchen-inept father how easy and healthy daily homecooking can be. If you think buying pre-made food is more economical, think again. I think we can all agree that it's certainly not more healthy.

    Posted by Ali Simpson on Tue 28 Jun 2011

  • I am surprised no body mentioned left-overs. If one cooks just a little more than is needed, at least one and often more meals can be constituted by left-overs which taste more delicious because no effort is involved other than heating for which microwave is a boon.
    As one of you mentioned, our spouses too work in the kitchen with us so the work is shared and our two sons saw us doing this night after night, helping when they felt like it.
    So now both are excellent and willing cooks for their families and their wives are delighted.
    Yes, the basic thrust of the article is right, one should not romanticize the past but lets not go over the top with the criticism either.

    Posted by Meenal Mamdani on Wed 29 Jun 2011

  • I think some of the above comments may have missed the point of the article. How hard is it to boil a pot of pasta? Pretty damn hard when it starts with planting the wheat for the flour and raising the chickens for the eggs. Even making pasta from "scratch" having purchased the raw ingredients takes me a good 45 minutes. Canned garbanzo beans, blenders, pre-packaged pastas and microwaves are all examples of kitchen conveniences that our great grandmothers would not have had and the point the author is making (I think) is that many of us might not have such an easy time getting dinner to the table if we returned to a time without them.

    Posted by Julia Bobak on Wed 29 Jun 2011

  • Brent Cunningham's tirade against the elitist romanticism of foodies--while not without some substance--reveals his own elitism. The true strength of the food movement in this country does not come from the highly-profiled yuppies he easily derides but from the food justice movement growing among the 50 million food-insecure people in the USA. The underserved communities in our major cities (and in our breadbasket) are suffering unprecedented rates of diet-related diseases. Young people's life spans will be shorter than that of their parents. THis is thanks to a food system that directly and indirectly subsidizes bad, mass food. Access to affordable, healthy food not a whim or a fad, but is a matter of survival for literally millions of people in our country--the richest, most productive country in the world. Interesting that the author does not interview any established farmers, or better yet, those gone broke. Why not give George Naylor, grain farmer from Churdan Iowa and former president of the National Family Farm Coalition a call? He'll give you an earful on Monsanto, ADM, Wal-Mart and on the perverse system of subsidies that keeps farmers on the brink of bankruptcy and good food out of reach for most of us. Its true, our food system was never fair and those who claim it is now "broken" and needs to be "fixed" are also romantically assuming it once worked well for everyone. In fact, today our food system is working exactly as a commodity system dominated by financial capital is supposed to work: it efficiently concetrates profits and political power in the hands of a few monopolies... the $150 billion a year in national health care costs to pay for diet related diseases and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico are just some of the externalities that society--not industry--must pay. Unless the author engages in more rigourous enquiry into the causes of our dysfunctional food system, his anti-romanticism is sadly just another cheap form of false realism.

    Posted by Eric on Thu 30 Jun 2011

  • RE: Julia Bobak & Jenny

    Julia Bobak says, "Canned garbanzo beans, blenders, pre-packaged pastas and microwaves are all examples of kitchen conveniences that our great grandmothers would not have had..."

    "Pre-packaged," or commercial, pasta, has been available since at least the 13th century, and "canned" vegetables and beans, either in tins or Mason jars, since the mid-19th.

    As for blenders, I have on many occasions used the local version of mortar and pestle to make enough hummus for four adults. Were I even to include the crushing of garlic and squeezing of lemons, the entire process takes me no longer than ten minutes. (Should you hate cleaning up, please know that you can serve the hummus in the mortar itself, which lends a jolly "rustic" or "artisanal" touch.)

    As for microwaves, they're not much good for anything other than boiling water or steaming vegetables or melting butter *when the stove-top's fully occupied*, so I don't know that our "great-grandmothers" would've necessarily regarded a microwave as an invaluable time-saver.

    Jenny says, "It seems a bit simplistic and naive to assume that anyone who tires of the day in, day out task of cooking must be a picky eater. I enjoy cooking, but I loathe that what once used to be a pleasurable task is now just one more chore..."

    If cooking has now become "just one more chore" for you, then you're doing too much "cooking."

    How many raw vegetables and fruits does your family eat? How many salads?

    In our family, one our more popular weekday dinners is:

    * Buttered whole-wheat toast

    * A salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions

    * Canned sardines dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and black pepper

    * Dessert: yogurt with jam and/or honey and/or brown sugar

    You'll notice that that only "cooking" in this dinner involved putting slices of whole-wheat bread in the toaster.

    If people who complain about "time consuming" cooking aren't picky eaters, then I really don't know what it is that they're cooking and eating.

    In our house, weekday dessert is fresh fruit or yogurt. Cakes, cookies, ice cream, etc., are once weekly or holiday or birthday treats.

    In our house, people are as happy as clams with a dinner or lunch of soft-boiled eggs and toast and salad. They're even quite happy to make an entire meal out of a big hunk of sharp cheddar cheese and sliced apples and pickled onions and butter and crackers.

    Unless you're actually going to the trouble of making your own crackers and sharp cheddar cheese, and pickling your own onions, such a meal shouldn't take more than ten minutes to put on the table. (And if people don't like soft-boiled eggs, there's a good chance they'll enjoy scrambled.)

    Once again, to make myself absolutely clear...

    If you complain that "cooking" takes too much time, then you and your family DO NOT like to eat fresh vegetables and fruit and salads. You PREFER highly processed or fast-food. You PREFER the bland high-salt, high-fat taste of highly processed food or fast food.

    Be honest.

    You're not fooling anyone who's smart enough to know how long it takes to slice a tomato or peel a cucumber or crush a clove of garlic.

    Posted by Hugo De Toronja on Mon 4 Jul 2011

  • @Hugo - I look forward to the book: both the bits which will have me walking over to the cooker, and the bits which will have me throwing it at the bin!

    Posted by Francis Norton on Mon 4 Jul 2011

  • I like supermarkets. I like the way my food tastes. Yes, my wife and I cook from scratch, but I also like the taste of pasta sauce from a bottle. Food is food. Get over it. I love a fresh salad with greens and tomatoes from my garden, but I also like macaroni and cheese from a box. Organic, local, natural are all the words of pretentious people who ascribe way more to food than it ever deserves. The nostalgia for farms of the past is filled with ignorance of the back-breaking, dangerous work that it was. People are healthier today than ever before. Can we do better? Yes, but it will not be by returning to a fake nostalgia that never existed. give me food produced with today's technology anytime.

    Posted by David Miller on Wed 6 Jul 2011

  • I have 37 diaries from a poor farm family from NY state. Most of them are one woman's accounting of her work from the age of 18 (1890s) until her death in 1923. She churned butter that didn't firm firm up, baked bread that didn't rise, picked stones out of beans, cut mold off of rotten potatoes and was grateful for horseradish greens in the spring. She spent most of her days indoors, preparing food, washing clothes and cleaning. It was not bucolic. When she could finally buy white bread for 10 cents a loaf, she did. That doesn't make the white bread a nutritious choice, but it makes it an understandable one. I eat fresh from my garden produce, and I buy local meat, but I don't do it out of nostalgia or a wish for a simpler time that didn't exist. And, after reading these diaries, I say a silent thank you, every day, to my refrigerator and my washer/dryer.

    Posted by Terry Golson on Fri 8 Jul 2011

  • I am blown away: I am about to go to settlement on a homestead in West Virginia so I can grow chickens, fruit, eventually a cow, and heat with wood....And I have been concerned that, after commuting, I'm going to have to work physically alot more than I imagine. It is true that things are highly romanticized....Yet I think that we need to keep reviewing the present and the past and integrate the best practices. If you have a little space, keeping chickens makes sense! If you build a place logically, it needs less energy and work to heat and cool. If you can do something with similar amounts of effort, one with electricity and one without, why use electricity? I know we're romanticizing things, but there's so much more going on. As I reflect, no matter what choices you make in lifestyle, eventually those choices will dictate some later decisions, as in if you keep chickens, you will have to make arrangements if you want to travel. If you always eat convenience foods, you would have to take steps to keep healthy. With this in mind, I want to choose something that is in touch with creation and I think healthier, too. Grow as much of my food as is practical, compost and fertilize with it, heat with wood in an efficient way, compost the ashes, and continue the circle of life.

    Posted by Cara on Wed 3 Aug 2011

  • Here in Pakistan it is customary for us to cook all three meals at home. People hardly ever go out, except for big cities where eating out is done more frequently.We are never bored with our cuisine. It is always delicious, nutritious, stimulating, and fresh.

    Posted by Ahmad M. Qamar on Wed 17 Aug 2011

  • @Francus, David, Cara, and Ahmad

    I'm not writing a book about "Fantastically Healthy, Tasty Meals You Can Prepare in Less Time Than It Takes to Stand in Line and Order Greasy, Sloppy, Filth at a Fast-Food Restaurant."

    But I did forget to mention that for several years, when I was quite young, I cooked three meals a day on two "hot plates" and with a (somewhat hazardous) crude, rudimentary version of a "toaster oven."

    And I've been thinking that my early training -- my learning to cook with very minimal tools and appliances -- probably formed my approach to cooking and eating for the rest of my life.

    When your resources are very limited, and your kitchen is extremely, if not ridiculously, basic, then you naturally learn to make the most out of simple, common ingredients that require the least amount of preparation and cooking.

    Which is why, very early on, I learned to rely on fresh fruit and vegetables, salads, lentils, poached-soft-boiled-scrambled eggs and omelets, yogurt, hummus made from canned chickpeas, etc. (Pasta was particularly efficient because, by the time it took a pot of water to come to a roiling bowl on a hot plate, I'd already finished preparing the rest of the meal.)

    Maybe if people were required to learn how to cook *efficiently* with very basic tools and ingredients, they'd see that cooking needn't be much of a chore at all, and that very, very simple things can be delicious, not to mention inexpensive.

    Posted by Hugo de Toronja on Mon 19 Sep 2011

  • Hugo de Toronja, you are my hero.

    I agree with everything you say and can think of very little to add to it.

    I've scratch-cooked delicious, simple meals for my family of five every day for 20+ years. While working full time and running my own business.

    If you cook rarely and let yourself fall back on convenience and take-out food, cooking never gets easier. It's one of those practices that becomes less onerous, faster and more enjoyable the more you do it.

    I agree with others, you can easily prepare numerous pastas, risottos, sandwiches, pizzas, egg dishes, soups and salads in less than half an hour.

    As you become more experienced in the kitchen, you figure out short cuts for more labor-intensive dishes. To make my own "convenience food", I depend on:

    * A slow cooker to cook beans. I make a pound then freeze them in smaller portions for ready use.

    * Double-batch cooking. Chill or freeze half for later use.

    * Weekend cookathons: Advance prepare one or two meals so they're ready for weeknights.

    * Planning ahead and buying everything I need for the week. Nothings is more self-defeating than a bare cupboard.

    Regarding folks who buy their food at Walmart and "like the way the food there tastes." Let's hope they can develop better taste. Because their appetite for meat-heavy, salty, sugary, fatty processed food is as much a disaster for their bodies as it is for the environment, for factory farmed animals and for the workers who grow and process our foods.

    While I don't advocate for a return to 19th century food production, the current system must change--and it can.

    Posted by Lorraine on Wed 19 Oct 2011

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Brent Cunningham is managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. With his wife, the food writer Jane Black, he is writing a book about the efforts to improve the food culture in Huntington, West Virginia. It is scheduled for publication in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

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