I can’t stop thinking about cupcakes. No, not chic ones from the bakery, swathed in caramel buttercream, $3.95 each—I mean real cupcakes, baked at home by Mom and the kids in a classic ritual of American domesticity. This evening, Ashley—she’s one of nine women whose relationships with food are at the center of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It—is making cupcakes with her two little girls. The family, which includes Ashley’s husband and his brother, as well as a cousin who’s just gotten out of jail and is temporarily sleeping on a couch, lives in a trailer near Raleigh, North Carolina. The household is busy, often frantic, because all the adults work at Wendy’s, in different locations, following unpredictable schedules and accepting every offer of an extra shift. The car is broken, the washing machine is broken, there’s no money to fix either of them, and a horror movie is blaring on the TV, but right now Ashley is focused on baking. The cupcakes are a welcome-home gesture for Chris, the cousin released from jail.
She opens a box of Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip cake mix and pours it into the old plastic ice-cream tub that serves as a mixing bowl. The girls use child-size forks to stir the batter, tasting avidly as they go until it’s all over their hands, faces, and much of the kitchen. As soon as the cupcakes come out of the oven, the girls dig into a container of Betty Crocker frosting—which quickly melts since the cupcakes are still hot—and then shower their creations with pink sprinkles. The scene becomes a melee of excited children, smashed cupcakes, and raucous video games. As for Chris, he refuses the offer of a cupcake and steps outside the trailer to have a beer with a heavy-drinking friend from his old crowd. Ashley’s gesture hasn’t been received as she had planned, but she hopes a sense of the family’s goodwill and support will get through to him.
I confess that my instinctive reaction to Ashley’s story had to do with the Betty Crocker cake mix. Like many others who write about the history of home cooking, I want the food industry to have a much smaller footprint in the American kitchen. What could be easier than mixing butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour, and putting a pan in the oven? As far as I’m concerned, cake mixes should be treated like controlled substances and made available only by prescription. But the image of this determined mother pulling out a plastic ice-cream tub to use as a mixing bowl will be emblazoned in my memory for all time. I’m still at war with the food industry, but I think Ashley deserves a medal.
We’re now 50 years or so into an unprecedented run of culinary activism known as “the food revolution”—a loose term, but in general think farmers’ markets, school-lunch reforms, chefs rampant on TV, and middle-class kitchens stocked with olive oil and preserved lemons. That revolution is driving the politics of food, too: Federal policies targeting agriculture, hunger, nutrition, and food safety have jumped to the headlines and spurred a tremendous amount of local and national organizing. And, of course, we have celebrities—including chefs, nutritionists, movie stars, and Michelle Obama—telling us how to eat for optimal health and reminding us of the sacred importance of family dinner.
As you’ve noticed—especially if you’re one of the countless home cooks who won’t be serving wild-caught king salmon at $30 a pound tonight, despite its impressive omega-3 status—the ideals of the food revolution may be everywhere, but the reality hasn’t reached everyone and isn’t likely to. The revolution’s evil twin, by contrast, has been stunningly efficient in its spread. As Bee Wilson points out in The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World, junk food has overwhelmed traditional diets pretty much everywhere in the world, and at an astonishing speed. This revolution is making massive numbers of people fat and sick.
Both revolutions sprang from the 1960s, and both were aimed at bringing about a radical transformation of our relationship with food—emphasis on radical, which may account for the wildly divergent outcomes. During that decade, the counterculture was putting a political and environmental spin on the whole question of food. People who had been raised on Wonder Bread sandwiches and frozen blocks of vegetables had started growing their own bean sprouts, kneading their own whole-wheat dough, making their own yogurt, even trying their damnedest to master organic farming.
It was this sensibility, combined with cheap and head-spinning travel to Europe, that inspired young gastronomes such as Alice Waters to make “fresh and local” the basis for an entire culinary philosophy. Although she soon became famous as a restaurateur, Waters’s writing and politicking have always focused on rethinking home cooking. As she once wrote, “My favorite recipe is: ‘Go cut some mint from the garden, boil water, and pour it over the mint. Wait. And then drink.’ ” She opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and the good-food revolution was on its way.
The manufacturers of packaged foods saw the ’60s very differently. From their viewpoint, it was a victory decade, the time when homemakers were finally getting comfortable with the idea that boxes and jars belonged at the center of their cooking. Ketchup, pancake mix, salad dressing, Jell-O—items like these had been in widespread use before the war, but more ambitious products introduced in the ’50s had been slow to catch on. Cake mixes and most frozen foods were greeted with indifference at first; more dramatic innovations like canned whole chicken never did reach the mainstream. By the ’60s, however, resistance had abated. Speed, convenience, and the addictive nature of salt and sugar had done the trick, aided of course by voluminous advertising.
This winning formula proved to be just as successful in Canada, Britain, and other wealthy countries as it was in the U.S. Within a couple of decades, a huge swath of the population on both sides of the Atlantic was eating in a way people had never eaten before. They had dropped away from old-fashioned meals, even from tap water, in favor of soft drinks and all-day snacking. “Many people are scarcely acquainted with the feeling of hunger anymore,” Wilson writes. “The new pattern is a series of solitary snacks that we often hardly notice or enjoy as they pass through our gullet.” Today a third of all the calories consumed by an American adult comes from chips, protein bars, and the like. Soft drinks have had an especially pernicious impact: In America, consumption of them took a big leap in the ’70s, and with that came unprecedented rates of obesity. After conquering the West, the same denatured, heavily processed foods marched on through the rest of the world like an army of high-calorie invaders. “Over just eleven years, from 1988 to 1999,” Wilson reports, “the number of overweight and obese people in Mexico nearly doubled.”
Wilson makes a point of acknowledging both versions of the food revolution, the beneficent as well as the disastrous, and it’s true that for those who can afford organically raised beef and like trying new varieties of chard at the farmers’ market, culinary life has never been more bountiful. But if Wilson has the big picture, the authors of Pressure Cooker have the close-up. Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott—sociologists from, respectively, North Carolina State, Ithaca College, and the University of British Columbia—did everything short of moving in with the nine Raleigh-area women they write about. They’ve produced an extraordinary report on how the values of the good-food revolution play out amid real-world struggles.
The women in the book, some of whose stories are drawn from a larger research project involving 120 households over five years, are mostly low-income. They know perfectly well what they’re supposed to do: shop for bargain groceries, buy fresh produce, cook healthful meals, get everyone to the table at the same time. They try. But buying in bulk at the supermarket is impossible if you have no car. Serving healthful meals is impossible if the food pantry sends you home with frozen pizza, chocolate peanut-butter crackers, and spinach-artichoke dip. Staging a picture-perfect family dinner is impossible if you have no table or too few chairs, or if you’re due at work at 5 p.m.
Turning the pages of these two books, I wondered whether it was time to jettison my long-held belief that the best way to counter the food industry is to actually cook meals from scratch. Certainly the authors of Pressure Cooker have discarded any such notion. After all, they emphasize, it’s not just Cokes and Doritos that are making American households sick, stressed, and chaotic. The stumbling blocks these women encounter hour by hour make it clear that our food crisis is deeply intertwined with related crises, including income inequality, a fragile safety net, inadequate public transportation, and the scarcity of affordable housing. We’re not going to fix all of this with a nice pot of homemade chili.
“Trying to solve the environmental and social ills of our food system by demanding that we return to our kitchens en masse is unrealistic,” they write, adding, “We need to uncouple the ‘package deal’ that links good mothering with preparing wholesome family dinners from scratch.” Among other initiatives, they’d like to see schools, churches, and similar institutions with commercial kitchens pool their resources, maybe teaming up with local farms and providing “hearty, affordable” meals for families to pick up and take home.
Wilson, for her part, isn’t fussy about whether the food is cooked at home or somewhere else; she just wants it to be nutritious and delicious. Her own extensive reporting indicates persuasively that the most effective way to counter a toxic food system is with government regulation. In Amsterdam, fast-food advertising is strictly controlled and no sweets or sodas are allowed in schools—and obesity rates among children have dropped by 12 percent since the rule was imposed in 2012. Three years ago, Chile passed what Wilson calls “the most aggressive range of laws against unhealthy foods that the world has yet seen,” including an 18 percent soda tax and a ban on using cartoon characters to market breakfast cereals. Packaged foods high in sugar, salt, or fat now carry prominent black labels identifying the products as unhealthful, and surveys show that some 40 percent of Chileans shop with the labels in mind.
It’s hard to imagine American politicians pushing back with such vigor against the food industry. All the focus on nutrition and food safety, and all the celebrity activism, is no match for the ferocious lobbying of big agriculture and industrial food producers. Some pretty effective brainwashing has been done, too. Many consumers, including the affluent, are now convinced that they can make what the industry loves to call “healthy choices” simply by turning to reformulated versions of familiar products: low-fat chips, reduced-fat cookies, sugar-free soda, “all natural” frozen burritos. Meanwhile, one of the industry’s most resounding successes is to have retrained our culinary sensibilities, not merely our palates. Whenever we feel hungry or even just sense that mealtime is hovering, an ever-ready yen for something—anything—with a familiar brand name kicks in. If we can afford the more expensive version, we might even believe that we’re eating well.
We aren’t. Whether it’s potato chips or air-popped organic corn puffs, “smart” frozen entrées or conventional frozen versions, these products are doing way more good for the companies producing them than they’re doing for us. I’m not trying to force the exhausted women in Pressure Cooker to start massaging fresh kale for salad, I promise. We’ll always need shortcuts, takeout, and convenience products to fall back on. But junk food, plain or fancy, stopped being a convenience a long time ago. Today it lives right in the house with us, greets us on the street, finds us at work, and raises our children for us. Our relationship with food, wholly transformed since the ’60s in ways both heartening and horrifying, has lost touch with a truth none of us can afford to leave behind: Cooking isn’t a luxury; it’s a survival skill.
This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “Eat Food. All the Time. Mostly Junk.”