Junk food may have captured the American palate, but a few simple ingredients and techniques can win it back.
Breaking bread with others is part of what it means to be human, and the act is wrapped up in emotional well-being, especially love. Some of my most cherished moments include my mom greeting me on Christmas morning with oven-warm chocolate-chip cookies, or learning at her elbow how to make a proper chicken curry, or watching contentment spread across my partner Michelle Fawcett’s face when I whip up her nostalgia food in the form of salmon teriyaki and rice.
But it’s increasingly uncommon for Americans to eat meals home-cooked from scratch. Instead, 19 percent of us eat fast food several times a week and fully 80 percent eat it once a month or more. The food we eat at home is mostly a matter of heating up food from a factory. And that’s true even though 76 percent of us say that fast food is unhealthy—testimony to the effect of writers like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Frances Moore Lappé, who have shown how industrial food is laced with toxins, designed to be as addictive as crack, and chock-full of worker exploitation, animal cruelty, and climate change.
So why do we keep eating junk? The conventional wisdom is that we’re all pressed for time and money, and industrial food is quick and cheap. At least when it comes to cost, that’s not necessarily true. Feeding a family of four at McDonald’s can set you back $25. If you went shopping and cooked at home you could feed four people a hearty, healthy meal at half the price. And time is not really a problem. Americans on average watch television five hours a day, plus surf the web, play with smart phones, and update Facebook. And if you eat out, not only is it much more expensive than cooking at home, it’s just as time-consuming.
The real issue is pleasure. The food industry spends billions a year on gleaming research centers staffed with white-coated scientists who concoct foods that electrify our brains like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Their tricks range from the simple—add bacon and cheese to everything—to the sophisticated: U.S. Army scientists discovered years ago that we prefer flavor medleys, which is why colas, which are symphonies for the mouth, far outsell one-note orange sodas. Food science tells corporations precisely how to manipulate our inborn fondness for fat, salt and sugar, smoky flavors, and umami, the savoriness found in foods like mushrooms, aged cheese, meat, and shellfish. If food companies can convince us they’re the only practical source of the pleasures and sensuality of the table, then we’ll be hooked on their products…
The good news is we can beat the junk-food engineers at their own game. With a bit of time, fresh ingredients, and a simple tool kit, we can make food that’s tastier and cheaper than commercial food. Homecooked food is also associated with better health, if for no other reason than that you eat 50 percent more calories and fat when you eat out. The foods we cook at home are more likely to include dishes largely absent from restaurant menus, such as fresh vegetables, salads not buried in meat and cheese, grains, beans, and fruit, which have more nutrients and fewer calories than engineered food. Plus, through the acts of creating and sharing, the pleasure we derive is far greater than bellying up for another round of “unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks” at Olive Garden.
If we saw cooking as rewarding, as a craft, as a way to bring people together, then it would be less of a chore. The first step is to devote care and attention to it. That doesn’t mean spending all night in the kitchen. In fact, the simplest food is often the best.
To transform quality ingredients into delicious home-cooked food, all you need is sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper; extra-virgin olive oil and butter; fresh herbs; onions and their relatives; liquid like white wine, chicken stock, and citrus; a little smoked meat; and mushrooms, fresh and dried. Those basics cost about $20, and you can add to the pantry as you go—beans, grains, spices, chile peppers, oils, vinegars, nuts, cheeses, eggs, pickles—but learning the basics opens up a world of possibilities.