Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It

The campaign against ultra-processed food is mostly about home cooking (healthy) and products containing food additives (unhealthy). It is a nice concept, but it is grossly over-simplistic. Designation of ultra-processed is more about avoiding negative components (sugar, fat and salt as well as additives) rather than consuming essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals and protein). Highly restrictive diets are pushed to limits rather than ones that seek balance. Out of a cacophony of conflicting nutritional advice comes a look at what is really happening across the country among people unable to purchase and prepare the diets recommended by anti-ultra-processed food advocates. Pressure Cooker by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott follows nine such families as they try to do the best for their children in less than enviable circumstances. My comments are listed blow to direct quotes from the book in bold:

“picky kids, unappreciative partners, conflicting schedules, and unmet expectations. The dinner table is also a place where people attempt to reckon with their own food pasts. And the more the family meal becomes a symbol of good parenting and proper family life, the more the dinner feels like a pressure cooker.” (75) The picture drawn by the authors is not exactly “straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.” We are introduced to families trying to provide healthy meals despite low incomes with unreliable vehicles and inadequate kitchens for preparing the home cooking so prized by today’s media. What is a stressed-out parent supposed to do? Hence the title of book—Pressure Cooker.

“Food reformers tell us that it’s time to return to the kitchen en masse, to restore the health of the nation and the planet. The time is there to cook, they believe, if only people would get their priorities straight. But modern-day families juggle many, often competing, demands on their time.” (45) We are introduced to parents working multiple jobs including part-time or temporary ones with unpredictable or inconsistent work schedules. Many of these jobs are within the current food system. One family observed in this study is living in a motel with only a small refrigerator, microwave oven, hot plate and bathroom sink to store food, prepare it, serve up a meal and clean up after it. What seems simple to many of us is not nearly as accessible to others.

home-made tuna salad on a dinner plate
Home-made tuna salad. Would your child eat this healthy meal?

“Parents are expected to do whatever it takes to help their kids develop healthy eating habits, but they must walk a fine line. Modern feeding advice is full of mind-boggling, and often contradictory, dos and don’ts. Feeding kids can often become a power struggle, but it doesn’t have to be, the experts tell us.” (118) Family food fights may be more common than generally recognized. My wife and I don’t have children, so we have not faced that problem. Our entire parenting experience consisted of hosting individual nieces and nephews one week at a time. It was not a problem as we spoiled them rotten before returning them to their parents. Low-income families are not the only ones with such problems as illustrated in It’s Not About the Broccoli. Rather than show brute force, Dina Rose, the author, advocates getting to know the child’s ideas about food and developing a strategy that combines that child’s perspective with healthy eating habits. Hard enough to do by an affluent parent not working long hours with a fully equipped kitchen. Not as easy for the families followed in this book.

“The kids want Rosario to cook ‘American’ food. They were born in the United States. They are surrounded by children who eat pizza and hot dogs, speak English, and play baseball. And they want to fit in. For them, Mexico exists only in their parents’ stories.” (53) More struggles between parents and children as the tension between cultural heritage and assimilation strikes home. One of the tenets of Food Justice is that low-income communities frequently only have access to “less healthy, highly processed, less affordable and culturally inappropriate standardized food products.” So what is culturally appropriate food for an immigrant parent to prepare for children born in the US? What is appropriate in the lunchbox of that child at school? Does it have to be one way or the other? Is there room for some room for cultural fusion that could lead to cultural sharing in the school cafeteria? Look here next week for a different perspective from Jonathan Katz.

hamburger on a dinner plate
Is a gourmet hamburger from Hello Fresh healthier than one from a restaurant?

“the debates that have played out throughout the twentieth century—whether soul food is a celebration of the resilience or a symbol of the oppression, an important link to the past or a way that African Americans are killing themselves in the present—keep resurfacing.” (29) Like other “truths” spouted about food specifically and life in general, cultural appropriateness is just not that simple. Is soul food both culturally appropriate and an unhealthy cuisine? Do white people have any right to tell people of color what they should or should not eat? Modern soul-food cuisine includes such delicacies as collard greens tossed with kimchi and ginger-glazed fried chicken as highlighted in The Potlikker Papers. In my life I am trying to listen more and talk less. I am trying to be less critical of others and more open to differing points of view. Having said that, I think it is important to provide useful scientific information while letting others determine what they should or should not eat.

“Marta assesses Lunchables using the same criteria she applies to most food decisions. Fresh food, prepared in your own kitchen, is good. Food made in a factory, packaged in plastic containers, is bad.” (119) And yet, much of this factory-made, plastic-wrapped food ends up in many meals consumed by Americans each day either by choice or by circumstance. Three weeks ago, at the beginning of the school year, I was handing out Lunchables at the food pantry where I volunteer as the deli man. Very few parents would turn down the Lunchables whether accompanied by their chilren or not. I could see the eyes of the children who did come light up when they saw the highly processed, over-packaged, ready-made school lunches. During the course of the evening I was told that Luncharitos is Spanish for Lunchables.

pre-packaged lunches on a grocery store shelf
Lunchables–suitable or unsuitable for school lunches?

The authors also described some chips Rosario was serving to her children as “chemically crafted to taste good and designed to ignite pleasure in the mouth and the brain” (100) as they were high in sodium and MSG. A major theme of Pressure Cooker is that reliance on pre-packaged food is necessary due to many factors including affordability, work schedules, and lack of adequate kitchens. The authors tended to agree with  Marta’s assessment of pre-packaged foods. I understand, but are all home-cooked, fresh foods healthy and all pre-packaged foods unhealthy? I don’t think so.

Bottom line. In the furor over ultra-processed foods over the summer it became clear that many medical doctors and public health officials were encouraging us to avoid foods containing food additives and eat mainly home-cooked meals. The authors of Pressure Cooker eloquently explain Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems for many Americans living at the economic margins of society. Unfortunately, their discussion of What We Can Do About It was not as convincing. Income inequality is at the heart of many of the problems highlighted in the book, but the solutions proposed do not seem to be politically viable at present. Their recommendation to “Make Food a Human Right” echoes the themes of Food Justice, but such a noble goal is much easier stated than achieved.

Perhaps we could start by improving access to fresh foods in food deserts. Also, it might help if immigrant families be allowed to assimilate their food heritage into American culture without being shamed for cultural inappropriateness. American cuisine has been enriched by many cultures, but how many of us stick rigidly to authentic ingredients and recipes when we prepare dishes from another culture? As a naturalized US citizen, I still tap into my Canadian heritage when I cook, but I have also been heavily influenced by my wife’s southern cooking and the numerous culinary experiences I have had the privilege to enjoy both here and abroad. Finally, must we condemn all pre-packaged, ready-made food to the dustbin of history? Is there not room for eating away from home and having convenient meals when necessary? I can’t envision sitting down to eat a Lunchable no matter how rushed I am to get a quick meal. Neither am I one to condemn someone who needs a quick meal or a mother who sends one with her child to school if that is the best she can do.

In two weeks I will come back to Pressure Cooker to discuss more on why some families have such difficulty cooking fresh foods at home and how food is distributed to food-insecure households. I highly recommend this book to anyone who believes that America has a problem with the food we eat and thinks we can solve most of our food problems by simply getting people to cook more meals at home. It is well researched, well written, and thought-provoking.

Next week: Processed foods from home, and the immigrants who look for them by Jonathan Katz


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