I feel weird about articulating this, but in the last month, I used a tool from software design to manage my grocery lists. I don’t mean that I used some new app to shop for groceries or manage my pantry (my app stack for that is already quite well-developed, thanks). I mean I literally took a page from object-oriented software to rapidly prototype meal plans for the food I buy, cook, and eat in a given week. As with many decisions involving food in the first world, I am racked by guilt as a result.
I was having increasing difficulty planning meals and putting together grocery lists. In response to this, in a classic move from systems engineering, I reduced my basic meals to a series of formulae. In general, each meal is one of the following:
- <protein> <legume> <vegetable>[1 or 2]
- <braised meat> <vegetable>[1 or 2]
- <vegetarian stew> <brown rice> <vegetable>
Into these formulae, I can now plug a collection of dishes that fit into these categories to generate meals. Additionally, I’ve sorted the vegetables and meat dishes by season (oven braises and roasts in winter, pressure cooker braises and poached chicken in the summer, etc.) and have even come up with some variations on these formulae. I literally have a
groceries.txt file on DropBox with all of these lists and formulae. Planning for the grocery store is now just a matter of plugging in a few variables into an algorithm to get dinner (I drew the line at writing a computer program to generate meal plans for me).
Part of this decision resulted from a decrease in time while dealing with the revisions to my book and the general grind of writing something like 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even with these time constraints, I’ve always prided myself on an advanced knowledge of cooking and consider myself to be proficient in the kitchen. This proficiency results from having assisted my mother, who is an excellent and inventive cook, since I was old enough to see over the counter. She valued a well-prepared, healthy, inventive meal each evening and passed these values along to me. All through graduate school and into starting my job at ASU, I prepared dinners and tried to also prepare healthy and low-cost lunches.
All of this was working fine until last Spring, when the grind of commuting to campus and writing on the days I wasn’t on campus finally ran into the need to, say, remember to defrost a chicken or soak some peanuts for a stew. Suddenly, I found myself relying on delivery pizza as a back-up when things went wrong, which they did with increase frequency. It was not super-healthy and I was starting to not feel well, as a result.
The ways in which I had been taught to value food and value myself as a provider of food was running up against what Maria Konnikova recently labelled “time poverty” in a NYT piece. Konnikova’s piece, I think, is part of the project of atomizing, analyzing, and dimensionalizing the ontology of debt that began with David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011). I’m noticing an increasing awareness of how debt-driven transactions structure our day-to-day lives and shape our outlook and our philosophies in popular venues. For Konnikova,
even though I met the new deadline (barely), I’m still struggling to dig myself out from the rest of the work that accumulated in the meantime. New deadlines that are about to whoosh by, a growing list of ignored errands, a rent check and insurance payment that I just realized I haven’t mailed. And no sign of that promised light at the end of the tunnel.
My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only future deadlines but the mundane tasks of daily life that would normally take up next to no time or mental energy.
And she codes this brief experience with time poverty as occasion for empathy, as this kind of juggling decision is “the same type of problem poor people encounter every day, multiple times: The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach.”
Besides my personal health consequences (which are on a more macro level tied to the growing levels of obesity in America), the growing sense of failure was specifically tied to a shame relating to my food choices: it felt wrong but I kept doing it. This feeling of wrongness links to the weirdness I articulated in the opening paragraph, the increasing guilt and shame associated with all food choices (“oh, you eat organic? you should be eating local, too”).1
In that light, I was thinking about my friend Devin’s recent experience eating a product called, in all seriousness, Soylent, recently. Billing itself as “an open sourced nutritional shake,” Soylent, which was funded initially be Kickstarter, promises a complete, healthy, and easy alternative to the often dizzying array of food choice and judgment-laden nutritional advice available to Americans. Lee Hutchinson of Ars Technica has devoted several articles to the product and, following my friend’s mention of eating (drinking?) the stuff for a week, I found myself reading Hutchinson’s “The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices”. At the time, I, like the people Hutchinson was castigating for a lack of empathy, thought Soylent was disgusting. As he writes,
Even if you’re not a vindictive foodie worried about Soylent’s destruction of culture, the stuff has a tendency to evoke an almost visceral disgust reaction from a large number of people. It’s beige. It doesn’t look particularly appetizing. It’s got the consistency of diluted pancake batter. In spite of the creators’ best efforts, it’s still kind of gritty. It tastes nondescript—sort of bread-y, sort of earth-y, vaguely artificially sweet. Its inoffensiveness is itself somewhat offensive; the physicality of it, coupled with the apparent intent (“EAT THIS FOREVER! NO MORE REAL FOOD!”) seems to put a lot of people firmly into the “I hate this” camp.
However, after re-reading Hutchinson’s piece from the perspective of Konnikova’s concept of “time poverty” (not to mention my own experience of it as relates to food), I’m finding myself reevaluating Hutchinson, especially in light of how I solved my meal problem. The fact of the matter is that food preparation, especially in an age of general time debt, is valorized as a specifically creative and willfully slow process meant to be shared with friends and family. As Hutchinson points out, much of the moral panic over Soylent revolves around fear “that the beige concoction will dissolve the interpersonal glue that the preparation and consumption of food provides.”
At the same time as the rosy image of dinner parties and open-floor-plan kitchens,2 food is something we have to have and cooking is often the way to get at it. We valorize the process of crafting the perfect roast leg of lamb to impress our guests but often ignore the “I also have to do this every single day” aspect of cooking.3 And, despite all the difficulty and time associated with, say, cooking short ribs for 72 hours in a sous vide circulator, the day-to-day process of buy ingredients, sequencing meals so that these ingredients don’t go bad, and actually finding the time to cook them, is the true (and deeply un-sexy) drag of what Hutchinson calls “the long tail of cooking”. He writes,
Even for those who don’t fear the cookbook, cooking is an activity that must be surrounded with a complex support scaffolding. You must maintain a supply of both staple and feature ingredients—you need stuff to make stuff, and unfortunately a lot of ingredients have a set shelf life. It might be easy to make a quick grilled chicken sandwich for lunch if you have everything necessary for it, but that means buying bread and condiments and a package of organic chicken breasts and lettuce and tomatoes and some nice provolone cheese and then struggling to eat all of it before it all goes bad. If you’re making sandwiches with regularity, this isn’t an issue—but not everyone can commit to a regular cycle of grocery purchasing and consumption. For folks who can’t or don’t want to, Soylent is one possible alternative.
This long tail is why I was having trouble with cooking: we forget how much infrastructure goes into being able to jus “whip something up.” Increasingly, my time debt was causing cracks to appear in this infrastructure. Some nights, I would get home to find the chicken had rotted or didn’t defrost or whatever. We still have to eat.
Moreover, within the rhetoric (that I’ve deployed on numerous, snobby occasions) of “cooking is so easy,” we forget about the entire infrastructure of time and, importantly, knowledge that goes into cooking being so easy.4 Hutchinson’s breakdown of cooking hamburger5 reminds me that cooking is a literacy practice just like anything else,
People are born with neither the ability to cook nor compile; both are taught, and chastising even an adult for not knowing how to cook a healthy meal makes about as much sense as chastising an adult for not knowing how to code or how to compile an application from source. Each of those two different ridicules demonstrates an identical lack of empathy and an accompanying equally stunning sense of privilege that you should probably check immediately.
This leads Hutchinson to, I think, his most interesting claim in the article (and the reason it stuck in my mind in the first place). Having discussed how people with overeating disorders are turning to Soylent to manage their problems with food, he declares that “Soylent is food methadone.” It’s core promise is to give you a healthy, filling meal without judging you for not buying organic kale or knowing how to cook rice or not getting enough Vitamin B12 or whatever. For people who are busy, for people who are fed up with conflicting advise about how carbs or gluten or whatever is secretly killing you, or whatever, food can be a serious problem. A problem that Soylent solves.
Having said all of that, I still won’t be drinking a beige slurry for lunch and dinner anytime soon, but my recent experience with time poverty and cooking has led me to think in more nuanced ways about the rhetoric associated with food. Given how I still feel vaguely guilty about my new system of meal planning, there is a really interesting and, I think, under-analyzed moral panic associated with food in America. There is a corrosive rhetoric of difficulty and a valorization of time that runs contra to the needs of a busy cook and the time saving strategies that may develop from this need.6 We have reached a point where we can eat a diverse range of things, but at the same time, I think, we experience that diversity as a panic: there’s a right choice and you’re probably making the wrong one. Additionally, with the rise of the foodie7, cooking is now art and anything that doesn’t involve tons of time and tons of technic doesn’t count. For those of us who are busy or lack certain literacies, compromises, from an object-oriented grocery list to a meal substitute like Soylent become necessary. Rhetorics of ease in food preparation are often motivated by the idea that humans having been doing this for thousands of years (I’ve pushed through difficult dinner preps with this justification before). At the same time, though, as these experiences point out: that this is an ancient human practice doesn’t make it any easier. As we potentially stand on the cusp of a coming posthumanity, isn’t it curious that we still haven’t gotten the basics of being human down pat?
This kind of competitive food shaming mirrors, I think, the kind of serial denunciation that occurs in liberal politic circles in America, you can never be liberal enough. ↩
Don’t get me started on open kitchens and the public spectacle of food production. As far as architecturally engrained ideologies, this one is the feature of contemporary American houses that most drives me insane. ↩
There’s a potentially gendered aspect to this distinction, I think, as spectacle cooking (like grilling) is often historically gendered as male while getting dinner on the table is often historically gendered as female. ↩
I once told a friend that making risotto was easy. When he was shocked, I explained that, from my perspective, all I was doing was stirring rice for 2 hours. What could be easier? ↩
For instance, I still feel guilty about cooking Pollo Alla Cacciatora in the pressure cooker, but who can argue with shaving an hour off the total prep time? ↩
Hate, hate, HATE this term. It’s almost as over-used as “hipster.” ↩