10 September 2009


The most useful thing we can do – if we care about food and where it comes from and how it’s grown and prepared and what’s good for us and what tastes good, and if we want to sift through all the contradictory and overlapping claims about health benefits or environmental degradation or sustainability – is unplug the television set.

For the most part, the food traditions that were gaining a foothold in various regions of the United States have been in steady decline since the growth of TV as the national communications medium at the end of WWII and continue to the present day.

While there are a handful of traditional dishes that define a region of this country– clam chowder or gumbo, for instance – one of the foods that many Americans claim as a national dish is apple pie. My guess is that most of our grandmothers and many of our mothers made apple pie. We’ve elevated apple pie to the point where apple pie means America, so we should expect most Americans to cook it with familiarity. Yet, how many people still make it themselves? And yes, I mean the crust, too. And where do we get our apples – an orchard or the supermarket? And where are the supermarket apples from? And how many apple varieties grew in the US when your grandparents were kids, and how many are grown where you live today? How many Americans make their apple pie without a recipe, and how many make their own crust? We have innumerable cooking magazines that devote whole issues to apple pie and crust-making and the cooking shows on television celebrate its wholesomeness, yet this simple and humble and delicious dish is too complicated and time consuming for most Americans to make themselves.

We have a generation that’s seen so many commercials for Pillsbury and Baker’s Square that they’re convinced that it’s too time consuming and tricky to make a crust and that the one purchased in the store is home-style and better than the one they were thinking about making. And a cooking show might highlight a small town in Vermont where everyone picks their apples wearing fall LL Bean clothes, and you flip the channel feeling too discouraged to replicate the New England Autumn Feast. Then some food guru comes on and proceeds to make something extraordinary or simply sublime – either way you look at it and say to yourself, “I could never do that,” and instead of cooking you watch cooking. But more insidious than the cooking shows is the television itself, the enormous time sink that causes pie-crust making to be too time consuming, that burdens the hours of a day so significantly that a microwavable lasagna begins to make sense, and most of all, the steady drone of entertainment that turns the television viewer into a spectator. And food is alive and dynamic and cooking engages the mind and body and nourishes the spirit.

So turn off your television and cook. When you cook you focus on food. Let that be the beginning of how and what you cook. Ignore the latest trend that insists you begin cooking Lebanese, or French, or with whole grains or without butter. Don’t worry if your family doesn’t smile the same way as they do on Hungry Man commercials, and don’t worry if none of Martha Stewart’s simple wisdom has rubbed off on you. Television is noise, loud noise that distracts us from paying attention to real issues. And food is a real issue. Food is important and thinking about it and talking about it helps us learn more about how complicated and intertwined with our politics and economics it really is. Whether we grow it or buy it, prepare it or order it off a menu, food and the cultural practices surrounding it define us a lot. Even if we don’t know where the fried chicken we order in a restaurant comes from, it comes from somewhere and is part of an agricultural practice that may or may not reflect our politics and preferences.

I recently saw an example of vanishing food traditions on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands where my wife and I spent a few days. The question I asked everyone I met was, “Where can I find some good Crucian cooking, local food, not tourist stuff?” Most of the time people would shake their heads and tell me how little was available, how few restaurants served local food. I found a few though, and the conch with garlic and butter, the stew beef, the salt fish and head-clearing ginger beer were testament to traditions rooted in the Caribbean. And talking with residents not much older than me I heard stories of growing up without electricity and doing homework by small lanterns around the kitchen table. And as the benefits of closer ties to the US mainland accrued – like electricity and better health care – the same erosion of local culture that’s affected every region of the US took hold on St. Croix. Pizza and hamburgers, Coke and cable TV came into more and more homes and my guess is that you had moms and kids cooking and the conveniences that have added so much detritus to our culture gained a foothold there and haven’t let go since. And over time the same deterioration occurred and without anyone noticing the loss, only the old people were still eating salt fish and boiled eggs for breakfast, and only the poor neighbors were eating fried sweet potatoes, because one way to show you had a little money was to buy potato chips or whatever else it was that demonstrated that you were no longer so poor that you had to eat that “stuff” that your grandparents still ate. Nothing unusual about that at all, is there?

But one of the things we’re learning now is that as we reject a food tradition we’re impacting a lot more than what’s on our plate at the dinner table. Because if you stop eating sweet potatoes the farmers eventually stop growing them, and before long the variety that was adapted to the specific climate, soil, and sun of your part of the island is gone. Gone. And when someone remembers the sweet taste of that dish from their childhood and they go to find seed potato they discover that the variety grown by their grandpa is gone – extinct – and their only option is to plant a variety of sweet potato that’s from somewhere else. Or when a grown adult remembers a childhood recipe that tasted so good, there won’t be anyone who remembers how to prepare it, and so they’ll eat something from the mainland instead and that Crucian dish will be lost.

And then, the need to provide habitat to an animal that used to eat the bugs that damaged the sweet potatoes will be lost, and when that habitat is neglected it becomes more difficult to remedy the deficiency. Or when few people are eating conch people won’t notice – or care – when its habitat is degraded, and when that happens a whole series of ripples spread across the environment and culture and the man or woman who left decades ago to make their fortune in Boston may return and find an unrecognizable island.

How do we bring back that learning, that knowledge that’s so specific and personal and local? I think we start by turning off our television and taking stock of what’s around us. And as we pull a beet from the ground, or dig out hard, crisp potatoes, we start again with the elementary needs of feeding our body, family, soul, and culture.

I don’t think the efforts people are making to better understand food are gimmicks; there’s clearly an interest and recognition by people that the way Americans have been producing food and eating for the past half century has created reverberations that go far beyond the dinner table. Let’s try to understand what we’re eating and how we prepare it in addition to unraveling the complexities of food production and distribution. And the way to understand is to go back to the basics and learn to cook again. Don’t worry if you can’t live in Provence for a year; turn off your television and live in your own community for those twelve months. Grow garlic and visit a farm and eat with friends and find an orchard and cook with abandon.


  1. I've blogged about this marvelous post on Penelopedia.

  2. Followed Eat Local: Just Food to your *own* blog. Nice to meet a fellow Minnesotan!

    I'll definitely be checking back. :) Love this post!!

  3. Agreed, TV has contributed to the unhealthy and boring homogenization of American tastes. Agreed, cooking can be fun and educational and nutritious and simple. Agreed, local is better for a whole host of reasons.


    Cooking for my poor Sicilian grandmother was drudgery; plain hard work. In the rural slums of Caliscibetta, growing and cooking were daily toils, not fun and interesting and mind-expanding. And my other grandmother, wife a farm animal vet, had a cramped kitchen and no indoor plumbing and grew her own potatoes and corns and many other things. I recall watching her and my aunts put up pears or beets -- spending a beautiful Sunday afternoon indoors, sweating like stevedores.

    They baked apple pies from scratch (as do I once or twice a year during the local apple harvest) and those pies were wonderful. But please do not romaticize the pre-TV past quite so much. A lot of it was unpleasant, including many hours in the kitchen.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Jim, I agree with your comments about pre-TV cooking but I don't think I've romanticized it at all. I'm pointing out that there are consequences to abandoning traditional cooking that go past the table. Your points about the conditions your grandmother cooked in have little to do with TV -- rural slums and poverty are as oppressive today as they were 75 years ago.
    As to spending beautiful Sunday afternoons indoors - well, that's part of cooking. I'm drying tomatoes today, baking a cake, and doing a few other kitchen things -- all on a beautiful day.

  5. Great post, Patrick, and very thoughtful comments. I agree with you about the TV -- especially about cooking, home improvement, and gardening shows. They make it look so easy and quick and (this is what really gets me) neat. You know there are five or six people behind Rachel Ray chopping and cleaning so she can make those 30 minute meals. It sets inexperienced cooks up for disappointment. Better to learn from a recipe book -- or even better -- another cook.

  6. Bravo, Patrick! Very wise words. I'm still using my mother's recipes and the old Mennonite cookbook I got for a wedding gift. And we've been eating bountifully from our garden.