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Food + Cooking

10 Questions for Laura Shapiro

Published in Gourmet Live 06.20.12
Americans should just slow down and learn to cook, the renowned food historian and author tells Gourmet Live’s Kemp Minifie
Laura Shapiro

Mention fast food, and visions of golden arches and chain eateries immediately leap to mind. Yet the concept of fast food—of meals quickly prepared and just as swiftly consumed—has gone far beyond the rapid-restaurant sector to shape what’s sold in our supermarkets and the way we cook and eat at home. In the face of constant hurry-up messaging, Laura Shapiro—author of Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century and Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America and a former columnist at Newsweek—shares some urgent recommendations and startling revelations.

For starters, the promise of easy, speedy meals we’re bombarded with today by marketing and the media is actually nothing new, Shapiro asserts. And she takes issue with the bedrock assumption that America’s home cooks—today or a half century ago, when the drumbeat began—are really in that much of a hurry. She has the long view to back it up, having devoted much of her career to studying how changes in society and the food industry have affected American home cooks—and vice versa—from the 19th century to today. Shapiro is also the co-curator of Lunch Hour NYC, an exhibition opening June 22 and running through February 17, 2013, at the New York Public Library.

Gourmet Live: You shocked attendees at a February 2012 panel discussion, “Tick-Tock: Cooking Against the Clock,” at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York City, by rejecting the long-held notion that Americans don’t have time to cook as a “big lie” pushed for decades by food manufacturers. Yet all of us have friends and family who seem sincere in their complaints that they really do lack time to cook. What makes this a fallacy?

Laura Shapiro: The whole idea of “no time to cook” was invented out of thin air to promote packaged foods. During World War II, food companies got pretty good at supplying the armed forces with canned and processed foods, and after the war they wanted to keep going and develop a civilian market. So they launched a new rhetoric around home cooking, in which smart, modern women were much too busy to spend time on old-fashioned drudgery like kitchen work. But to the surprise of the food companies, the new products were a tough sell. Most homemakers just didn’t need them. Meals were simpler in the ’50s than they had ever been: Most people had gas, electricity, and running water; you could buy chickens all plucked and cut up; you weren’t scrubbing clumps of dirt off the carrots or picking weevils out of the flour. And women were accustomed to cooking, so they knew how to toss a meal together.

A lot has changed in the last few decades. Adults are working full time or even more, and kids have their own packed schedules. What constitutes a workday has expanded until there are practically no boundaries between home and work. When people say they’re busy nowadays, they’re right. But—too busy to cook? If you’re comfortable in the kitchen, you can assemble a simple meal faster than it would take to get Chinese food delivered. If you’re not accustomed to cooking, or if you’re totally wiped out at the end of the day, preparing even a simple meal will seem impossible. Those are all true human conditions of the present day, but they aren’t about time.

GL: So if 1950s women weren’t actually feeling burdened by cooking, why would manufacturers force this notion of needing to rush? Why would they try to convince consumers of this, rather than simply ask consumers what they really needed and retool their products to meet that demand?

LS: It’s my impression that market research has never been about what people might “need.” I think manufacturers choose to develop a new product because they believe they can sell it, and once it’s developed they do whatever they can to get people to buy it. If the system were based on “need” or even “want,” we’d have good-tasting, sustainably grown fresh fruit available everywhere at affordable prices. Instead, what we have—available everywhere at affordable prices—are processed apple slices packaged with glop to dip them in.

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?

LS: I don’t believe in secret loves when it comes to food. The whole concept of “guilty pleasures” in food is damaging and wrongheaded, and I would like to see it permanently deleted from our food talk. I love many things in the supermarket ice cream case, especially ice cream sandwiches and what we used to call “chocolate-covereds,” the vanilla ice cream bars coated in chocolate. There’s nothing wrong with a Dove bar, but I really prefer the original, cheap version.

GL: Do you see any positive developments on the American food horizon?

LS: When I was at Newsweek, my office was stacked with cookbooks, and the younger employees and interns often asked me if there was a cookbook that was really basic, for somebody who knew nothing. These kids were right out of college, living in New York, going out all the time—and they were starting to get tired of it. They had a yen to cook. I think that yen is instinctive, but the circumstances of modern life, plus the relentless drumbeat of the food industry, have made cooking seem unnecessary, or just a frill. But cooking isn’t a frill, it’s a survival skill. The good part of the food-mad era in which we now live is that the hunger to cook is getting a chance to emerge and become part of everyday life.

Kemp Minifie was wrapped up in all aspects of food at Gourmet magazine for 32 years, and is now part of the Gourmet Live team as well as the food editor of the Gourmet Special Editions. For tried and tested cooking tips and tricks, check out her frequent columns on the Gourmet Live blog.