“Time is the big impediment to most people,” Pollan told me last month in New York. “There are several impediments. One is the loss of skills and confidence. People have less time and even people who have the same amount of time feel like they have less time. We work long hours, some of us work two jobs, and we have longer commute times.”
In renewing his plea for a return to the kitchen, Pollan works against even less favorable conditions than he did just a few years ago. According to Pew, nearly half of American households have two full-time working parents now, up 15 points from 1970. The number of single-parent households—also a demographic not known for being particularly rich in leisure time—is at its highest point as well, at nearly a third of American households.
It’s not just about having time to cook—there’s also the time required to plan out meals, shop for ingredients, and wash dishes. As my colleague Derek Thompson noted in 2014, even if the phenomenon of many Americans working more than ever is a myth, the sense that we have less time is very real.
“If you look at it … we have found time for some new activities,” Pollan argues. “Being online outside of work about two hours in the last 15 years, we’ve found that time somewhere. We’ve taken it from other things, we took it from television. We probably took some of it from cooking, maybe we’re sleeping a little less.”
What separates Americans from their culinarily prolific European counterparts, in Pollan’s view, is a combination of cultural and political considerations.
“Europeans fought for shorter workdays, more vacation time, family leave, and all these kinds of things,” he said. “Those haven’t been priorities in America, it’s been about money. You see in the countries that fought for time, they cook more often, they have less obesity. There are real benefits to having time. There’s often a trade-off between time and money.”
Of course, the lavender is always purpler in Provence. And while Pollan isn’t advocating a wholesale adoption of the European work model, our conversation came as Europe projects a feeble economic outlook and eurozone countries battle double-digit unemployment.
Even France, the origin point of culinary elitism, is reconsidering its famously misunderstood 35-hour workweek. Spain is exploring the end of its two-hour daily siesta regimen. To some, these corrections might represent Old World manifestations of a nanny state; governments essentially telling their citizens to be more industrious (or perhaps even more American).
Given that Pollan and I were having a luxurious breakfast in Manhattan, the financial capital of the United States and the center of a city that had thrown an interborough temper-tantrum when its previous mayor had sought to ban the availability of sugary drinks, I wondered if the accusatory specter of paternalism had influenced the way he approached his efforts to get Americans to cook more and eat better.