Understanding The Blueberry Muffin

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Matt has some doubts about the "benefits" of getting people to cook at home:

The good news is that there's no real reason to think that food you prepare yourself is for some reason intrinsically healthier than food someone else prepares for you. Indeed, a normal "home cooked" meal is mostly eaten by people who didn't cook it. One or two people cook, and the kids or the guests eat. And at the same time, it's not as if the good people at Taco Bell are serving unhealthy food out of some perverse desire to clog America's arteries. They're just trying to make money the best way they know how. If someone--Jamie Oliver, for example--devised an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier, well that would be an excellent thing for the world.

And maybe someone could do it. The world's purveyors of processed foods have noted a real market demand for healthier products. Consequently, they're poured a lot of time and energy into creating things that at least seem healthier. And so we really have a lot of healthy-seeming options. But they've never, as best I can tell, poured all that much effort into trying to create things that are actually healthier. But someone could. Jamie Oliver could do it. Mark Bittman could do it. Michael Pollan could do it. And it would be more likely to succeed than an endless procession of NYT Magazine articles hectoring people about how they should cook more.

There are very good reasons why fast-food exists. It's not just that cooking--as a general process--takes time. Regular cooking is a lifestyle that actually requires a shift in how you think about the world. This is especially hard when you're starting out. You have to stock your kitchen, and then you have to get in the habit of making sure those stocks are kept up. You have to figure out a regular rotation of meals that meet your families needs, and then you have to carve out a schedule that allows you to meet those needs. It seems rather perverse to say, "I won't be able to watch my kid's soccer practice because I have to finish brining the turkey." 

I also agree with Matt's general annoyance with writers who can't seem to understand why a sane person would eat McDonald's. I don't eat fast-food, but I'm not much for inveighing against it. That said, without any stats to back me up, I think Matt is actually wrong about the relative health of food you cook yourself vs. Taco Bell. It's not because a meal from Taco Bell will necessarily have more calories "home-cooking." In fact, it's not about the calories at all.

I can only speak from my own experience. As I've said before, I've lost over 50 pounds the last five years. (Yeah, a glacial rate of ten pounds a year.) The greatest tool in the arsenal of weight loss was not running, it was not my gym membership. It wasn't buying low-fat foods, swearing off fried chicken or going low-carb. It was trying to understand, in as much detail as possible, exactly what I was putting in my body. It was closing the distance between preparation and consumption.

My family, like most families, generally lives on the go, and we rarely get to have a decent breakfast in the morning. So most weekends I make twelve muffins (a different flavor each week) as breakfast for the week. I'm sure that someone, somewhere is scolding me for feeding my kid a muffin for breakfast. But here's what I know. When you make Mocha Chip Muffins, as I did this weekend, and see the ingredients going in--the copious amounts of butter, dairy and sugar--it makes you think long and hard about what you're eating, and what you should eat the rest of the day. It's one thing to know that a muffin is fatty. It's another thing to actually add the fat in yourself. Moreover, it's another thing to see the size of your muffins, and then see the gargantuan muffins that are sold in the stores.

Cooking--and really cooking from scratch--creates a consciousness about food. It creates a respect, an understanding of what, exactly, you're putting in your body. It's not that cooking is magically healthier. I'm not convinced that, say, my fried chicken has less calories than KFCs. But that isn't the point. The point is doing the actual work of frying a great chicken. It's actually having to see all the oil and eggs (depending on your recipe) used in the process. For me at least, doing that, has made it unlikely that I'll fry chicken every day, or even every week.

I don't suggest this as a kind of society-wide solution. I begin with how I started--there are very good reasons why people eat fast-food. I am privileged. I work a job that gives me control over my hours and thus permits me to cook whenever it's best for me. My spouse is a student, and has some control over her schedule enabling her to make the muffins if I'm tied up. I don't think writers should be dismissive about how we work and live.

But that said, writers should challenge us on how we work and live. I don't think it's frivolous to ask if we're undervaluing food consciousness. I think about it all the time, mostly in light of my own imperfections. I keep saying there's something wrong with me being a carnivore and still being squeamish about seeing an actual animal butchered. That's the next battle. We're all works in progress.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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