There once was a time in America when the frozen food section didn’t supply the average shopper with all three meals—and everything in between. There was a time before fast food “restaurants” and corporate chains bombarded us at every turn with catchy, sensory, and sentimental advertisements convincing us that their food is a taste of home. I can’t help but think that the rise in convenience foods, fast food, and restaurant chains must be linked to greater social and cultural phenomena. It is nothing short of eerie to see the latest ad campaigns with slogans like “see you tomorrow” (Applebee’s) and “come on home” (Hardee’s), displaying pictures of happy people—often groups of family and friends with huge plates of food and alcohol in front of them, laughing it up!
Most ads seem to try to appeal to what is hidden within us all: a yearning for good food and family or friends to share it with. They harken back to the time when this was the norm. If we look back just 60 years, we can find a time when families gathered around a table of home-cooked food, every day. Granted, this was a time before gender roles started to change, and most women stayed at home, making it easier to spend hours in the kitchen—the time necessary to make quality meals from scratch.
As women started to work outside of the house full-time, enjoying homemade meals became less of the norm. Cooking for a family of four every night of the week—or even most nights is not easy. It’s time-consuming and, after a long day of work in the office, physically demanding. It also requires a great deal of planning ahead in order to avoid daily grocery-runs. Perhaps that explains why only about 40% of Americans eat home cooked meals at least 6 nights a week.
There is no question that pre-packaged and pre-made food saves hours of time spent in the kitchen, but for some, it still isn’t worth it. The trade-off for saving time is meals that are often high in fat and sodium, a trademark of frozen and fast food, and contain a whole host of preservatives and additives, while lacking fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The health benefits of cooking at home are just one reason to do so. The effects of a fast-food nation, in every sense of the word, are far-reaching and complex. Farmers, families, the land, our relationship with and understanding of the food we eat, and our heritage and traditions are all affected.
Dinner used to be more than a meal. The preparation of it was not drudgery but an art that involved mother and children (and sometimes father too) and heirloom recipes. Kids learned to cook meals that were traditional to the family heritage by watching and oftentimes helping mom do it. They learned the repertoire and the staple ingredients and eventually could cook the meals themselves and pass on the family heritage. Children learned what different foods were—in their whole form—and how to prepare them. They developed palates that could appreciate home-cooked meals over mass-produced, flash frozen and reheated dishes at chain restaurants. Preparation and meal-time was an opportunity for parents and children to gather and recount their day, especially all the mundane aspects. Studies have actually shown that families who eat dinner together have stronger bonds, eat more nutritiously, are less likely to be overweight, and children are better adjusted and less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. Now less than 50% of American families eat together just 4 nights a week. Less than 30% eat dinner together 7 nights a week.
There used to be a time too when restaurants served home-cooked meals. The Olive Garden and other such corporate restaurants would like you to believe that an Italian grandmother is back in the kitchen cooking up the vittles, but their meals are mass-produced and shipped frozen. The only thing familial about Olive Garden is their advertising slogan: “When you’re here, you’re family.” I doubt that the wait staff at Olive Garden feels like a part of my family as they grab my table’s plates from irritable, overworked and probably underpaid line-cooks. At one time, restaurants represented regional and local cuisine and/or the owner’s particular culture and heritage. One of the best ways to get to know a new city was by eating at the restaurants and experiencing the cuisine. Now, one has to actively research and seek out the local places where family recipes are still used and still represent a distinct culture.
We must ask ourselves what is to become of a nation losing its cultural cuisine and identity? Socially atomistic individuals eating a frozen dinner alone is not just a dreary thought, it is representative of much larger cultural decay. When dinner (and many other once communal activities) becomes “every man for himself,” we must wonder if our political and legal institutions too will reflect that mantra. Can these institutions, which arose during a time when family and community bonds were strong, survive the withering social ties?
Fortunately, people around the world are sensing the profound consequences of the loss of local cuisine. Slowfood is an international undertaking to revive the culture of food that once existed and is now suffering around the globe. “Locavore” recently became a popular word used to describe those who sought to grow and eat food locally, and the bumper sticker slogan “go local” also illustrates people trying to buck the corporate fast food trend. People attracted to the Slowfood movement and localism seem to understand the vast implications of what we are losing as a culture by turning over the art of cooking to corporate America.
Why does hardly anyone in America cook anymore? We have made, it seems, the unconscious decision that the easy way is the better way, without realizing all we are losing by not cooking. It is certainly possible to carve out the time to cook most meals at home and have the family gather around the table for just an hour or two a night. How do I know? Because despite her full-time job and busy schedule, my mother made it happen every night, and it is something for which I am forever grateful.