The inefficiency of cooking food


End of pregnancy and early baby nursing days has meant Netflix for me. And for some reason, the shows I am obsessed with all revolve around cooking. COOKED. The Great Family cook off.  Salt, Fat, Heat, Acid.

This obsession with cooking has arisen at the same time I’ve been involved in our local REKO group – a local farmer’s exchange system, where small-scale farmers (really, anyone with a small garden) can post what produce they have available, and local buyers can pre-order it, then come collect it in person at a meet-up point once a week.

On the one hand, it does not seem very efficient for my neighbor to spend hours in her garden to sell me six potatoes, where a large farm with a tractor can produce many more, and more cheaply.

But lately I’ve been thinking about this whole efficiency thing, and if perhaps it’s a bit of an idol. There are still costs to efficiency. Environmental costs are real, even if they are not immediate, or are harder to quantify. Soil degradation, chemicals in the water-table, fuel for refrigeration and transportation, packaging… it does add up.

And while it seems to be a waste of time for my neighbor to spend afternoons weeding her garden for a few potatoes, if she enjoys it — is that actually time wasted?

There are other costs to buying mass-produced food, for example, lowered nutritional content (fact: free range eggs that are ACTUALLY free range are healthier for you) — a higher dependency on processed foods leads to more obesity. Not to mention mass-produced food often involves unhealthy working conditions for producers, or animal cruelty…

I do wonder about the justice of it sometimes. It seems very privileged to pay more for food than what you can get on the shelf at the store (of course, it’s less than the organic “off the shelf” price tag — but still, that mass-produced tomato means more people can eat tomatoes). Perhaps in solidarity with the poor, I should just buy the cheapest food available? But perhaps part of stewarding my privilege means buying the food that’s better for the environment?

Then there is the participation in the group— spending your afternoon gardening seems privileged when many people have to take 5am buses to work and only return after dark … but on the other hand, I guess with our extreme unemployment rates, anyone could garden and show up with their produce. So maybe that part is not a problem.

And then there are costs I think about that are even harder to put a price-tag on: like the disconnection that comes from not knowing where your food comes from. The disconnection of seeing a tomato as something that comes off a shelf, rather than being able to look at the person who grew it for you and say, “thank you!”. There might not be an economic cost to that. But maybe there’s a human cost.

A meal almost 100% from REKO group, fresh produce, and pasture-raised pork!

That’s one of the interesting things about REKO. You’re supposed to collect your food in person from the farmers, not send someone else to collect a bunch and give it to you. You’re supposed to build a relationship with the person who grows your food.

It’s so inefficient— but so humanizing. I think it’s wonderful that when my son eats yoghurt he says thank you to God but also, “and thank you to farmer Karen for making it”.

Michel Pollan, in “Cooked” makes the case that cooking is part of what makes us human. He means this literally— biologically speaking, our bodies evolved based on our ability to cook food — but also more abstractly as well. He ends his show by saying it is always more efficient to buy pre-made food, but that perhaps an unbridled love of efficiency (and profit) is killing our society, and that cooking food for people you love is one of the most human things you can do.

I wonder if I’m not the only person who feels this. Maybe the rise of so many cooking shows, and “meal in a box” like Blue Apron, is a sign in our efficient, information-driven world that our society is longing for ways to be embodied again.

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