Sunday, May 20, 2012
When I use the term ‘cook’ I don’t mean to open the box and heat up the contents. I mean to start with an organic food item and prepare it mindfully to produce the best quality, most healing nourishment possible. I even use the term to describe the preparation of raw foods, like salads and other dishes that don't technically get cooked.
We’ve been taught that cooking, in that sense, is drudgery. That lesson was begun by the food industry and it really took off following WW II. There was actually a time in the US when the military had to routinely turn down young men who were undernourished and underweight (unlike today when our young men and women are turned down for being overweight). During WW II great gains were made in the ability to make food portable in order to get it to soldiers in the battlefield. Some companies outfitted themselves with machinery to make dehydrated, freeze dried, or chemically preserved foods in convenient and portable packaging.
After the war, these companies saw no need to retool. To avoid the expense and stay in business, they simply needed a new market to be able to keep selling these portable foods. The general population became their market. The food industry spread the message that cooking was drudgery, that we should have better things to do, that frozen, dried, processed, chemically preserved foods were better than their fresh counterparts because they were just as nutritious but lots more convenient. A Twinkie commercial of the 50s said that Twinkies are "good snacks" that "help a child grow". Can you imagine that? If by “grow” they meant “become obese and diabetic” then I agree.
Well, we’ve all heard the jokes about the shelf life of Twinkies, cake that has the consistency of fresh baked after a year on the shelf. How can anything about that be thought of as a good snack? How can that be food?
Even frozen food leaves much to be desired. Take a fresh green bean right off the vine as an example. If you bend it, it snaps. It’s crisp and crunchy. Now freeze it and thaw it back out. The thawed bean will be limp. The reason is simple. When water freezes, it expands. The bean lost it’s texture because freezing caused the moisture in the bean to expand. The expansion, or swelling, ruptures the cell walls in the bean, allowing nutrients to be lost right then and more as the bean thaws, even more as the bean cooks. When you cannot get fresh, you might make do with frozen, but frozen is never the equivalent of fresh. Frozen food is much better than no food, but frozen food is badly damaged food.
Cooking fresh food can actually be faster than cooking frozen food. The ‘convenience’ in frozen food isn’t about cooking time, it’s about storage time. Storage time really benefits the food industry more than it benefits the home cook. Don’t be fooled by frozen ‘convenience’ foods, like precut stir fry type vegetables or frozen corn. Take the two or three minutes it’s going to require to cut these up for yourself. They are likely to cook faster than frozen so you’ll regain those minutes. Then again, if three minutes is going to really take a bite out of your day, you seriously need to restructure it anyway.
Savor those two or three minutes. Cooking is not drudgery. It is one of the simple pleasures in life. It engages the senses. Appreciate the color of the bell pepper, feel it’s actual texture. Hear it’s crunch. There is nothing like the aroma of a freshly cut bell pepper. The taste will be far superior. The health benefits of that pepper cannot be equaled - not even close! - by it’s frozen, preserved, or processed counterpart.
The mindful preparation of food is an exercise in ethics and can even be a spiritual or philosophical practice. Responsible food selection and shopping are means to practice stewardship of the Earth and it’s occupants. Cooking is an outlet for creativity. The whole process, if we allow it, will put us more in touch with the natural world while it gives us the time to practice gratitude for getting to do so. Cooking and eating good food is a means of nurturing ourselves and our loved ones. The time and effort involved is a gift to all those for whom you cook.
Cooking doesn’t just nurture people, it nurtures the planet. The use of processed foods leaves us with a pile of plastic and card board packaging. The use of fresh foods leaves us with a few scraps for the compost bin. However, it goes deeper than that! Processing and packaging food puts tons of waste into the landfills. Transporting it to our location creates even more pollution. In this way, processed foods have taken a toll on the world long before they take their toll on us. Growing organic food and selling it locally creates very little waste or pollution and it help our bodies to heal from the damage done by the daily exposure to all the pollution already in our environment.
We’ve been taught that cooking is hard, time consuming, messy drudgery and that we have better things to do. Is it really true? No, it isn’t. It’s a marketing ploy. I can assure you that we have nothing better to do than to take care of our planet, nurture our loved ones, and maintain or improve our health. Sure the odd emergency will come up and pull us away from our routine, the odd event will occur and mess up the best planned schedule, however, for the average day I can assure you that there are few callings any higher than the care of the planet, your friends and family, and yourself. If you truly do not ever have time for these things, it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities.
Cooking isn’t drudgery, it’s a right. It’s a right that, when mindfully practiced, can enrich our lives, even save our lives. Don’t let the food industry convince you that your right to wholesome, healing nourishment is just too inconvenient to maintain. If you are what you eat, the message of the food industry then is that YOU are too inconvenient to maintain. Don't believe it! Cook!