10 Questions for Laura Shapiro

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GL: At what point in the last 60 years do you feel Americans succumbed to food manufacturers’ marketing and finally agreed they didn’t have time to cook?

LS: I think real life eventually caught up with the mantra, maybe in the ’80s and ’90s. Our work lives started to overwhelm us—and this country has very few social supports for working families. But there were other factors, too. The less you cook, the harder it is to cook and the more insurmountable the notion of making dinner seems. And by now we have lots of people who didn’t grow up cooking and just aren’t used to it.

GL: How far do you think food manufacturers today are willing to go in the pursuit of speed? We’ve got instant rice and instant noodles. What’s next? A pill?

LS: We’re there—not with pills, but with frozen meals and junk food. Power bars are now promoted as meal substitutes.

GL: If it took several decades for the food business and media to alter our perceptions and convince us we don’t have enough time to cook, how long will it take American society to undo this hurried view and return to the essential need to feed ourselves in a healthful way?

LS: It’s going to take a while. The last half century was just a turn in the road; the road itself has been settling into place since the Industrial Revolution. Our culinary values, the rhythm of our days, the very connotations of such words as food and eating and cooking—these all changed over many years. Now they have to change again, but in more useful directions, so that they serve all of us, not just the food industry.

GL: There seems to be a real dichotomy going on in the American marketplace these days. Farmers’ markets and CSAs are popping up more and more, selling produce that requires real work in the kitchen, while at the same time supermarkets are devoting far more space to precut and portion-size fresh fruits and vegetables. How do you reconcile this?

LS: When it comes to food, there’s no such thing as “Americans.” We are a nation of niche markets. Two people in the same town, on the same street, even in the same family can have totally different food lives. One person goes to the farmers’ market, another to the supermarket, still another to restaurants and takeout shops…and all those places are thriving. The rise of farmers’ markets is definitely a new strand in the fabric and one of the most important in decades, but it’s still only one strand.

GL: In an era in which we supposedly lack time to cook, what are your impressions of the DIY craze?

LS: You mean, having a goat in the backyard, or gathering spores from the air to make your own yeast for baking bread? Oy. The whole thing completely mystifies me. I can see gardening, I can see baking pies, I can even see putting up tomatoes. But I cannot see the appeal of premodernity as a way of life. In many ways modernity has been good to us, though I have to admit I’d rather get handwritten mail delivered twice a day than email around the clock.

GL: You have implied here—and stated outright at the “Tick-Tock” panel—that having solid cooking skills is the key to preparing meals easily and efficiently. So, what is the ideal way to teach Americans how to cook?

LS: People sometimes call for a return to teaching home economics in school. I would second that, if we radically revise what we mean by home economics. Teach kids about real food and basic kitchen skills, making sure that eating well and intelligently is a part of the curriculum. Traditional home ec often was basically a cake-mix curriculum designed by a food company. If a new version of home ec were to find a place in public school education, believe me, the food industry would jump all over it, offering to pay for the stoves and the mixing bowls as long as the curriculum incorporated their products. Then we’d be back where we started.

GL: Is there a packaged food or convenience food you secretly love?

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