Americans are getting bigger, and one of the first places to look when hunting for the reason is how we eat. As biological creatures, we need to eat. But across all cultures, all languages, eating is more than just a basic need we fulfill everyday – like breathing. Meals are celebrations and events. When I come home each year to visit my parents, my mother fixes salmon because she knows it is one of my favorite foods. It is just one of her ways of showing affection, and gratitude that I made the long trip.
We do more than just eat to stay alive.
And how Americans eat has changed drastically over the past fifty years. When my mother got married, my grandmother bought her two books: The Betty Crooker Cookbook, and a current edition of the classic cookbook, The Joy of Cooking. The Joy of Cooking was first published in the 1931, and perusing the recipes is a history lesson in how American households shopped and ate. The very first chapter is dedicated to the food we eat: Calories, fats, and carbohydrates. Then we get to entertaining and planning meals, from the types of glasses you should use for serving orange juice each morning to the cocktail glass you should have chilled and filled at 5 PM each day when your husband comes home. There are pictures of cows and pigs showing the names and location of the cuts of meat, so you knew the difference between a shank and a brisket. There are entire chapters dedicated to the ‘basics’ of cooking, such as the art of double-frying, making a roux, and the difference between blanching and paraboiling. But more importantly, the recipes read as if you are going to go out back and slaughter the cow yourself if you want steak tonight. Cooking at home required not only understanding how to create a balanced menu of meals, but was a time consuming process.
After World War II, Americans enjoyed what is called the Golden Age of Food Processing. Advances in technology took much of the work out of making food. In the Joy of Cooking, making Never Fail French Fries is no easy task. First you need to slowly heat a stockpot of oil to 330 degrees. After slicing your large potatoes, you first blanch them in 90-degree water for 15 minutes and dry them on cloth. Once the oil is hot enough, you fry them a small handful of slices at a time. After about 3 minutes fish them out and let them cool – while you crank the oil up to 375-degree. Fry a second time, then take the out and season. Serve immediately (or after letting them cool for just a minute or two). From start-to-finish takes 40 minutes, including preparation and cooking time. Today you can buy a bag of pre-cut, pre-seasoned French Fries at the grocery store. From freezer to table is 14 minutes – If you bake them in the oven. Microwaving them is even faster.
So we get food faster? Why does that make us fat? It is not the speed that contributes to our growing girth: It is the convenience. For my mother, getting French Fries for dinner was a special treat – and a fatty one. Potatoes have long been a staple of the American diet (in the 1960s American ate about 20 pounds of potatoes a year). But the easiest cooking method (and the healthiest) was baked. You threw it in the oven for an hour, and then finished cutting, dicing, and mixing the rest of the meal. And a large (12 oz), plain baked potato is fairly healthy: 220 calories, almost no cholesterol or fat, and 10% of your daily protein needs. A serving of Ore Ida Classic French Fries (about 1 oz after cooking) contains 110 calories, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat. So if you ate 12 servings (the equivalent of that one large potato) you would have 1,320 calories. And with French fries available everywhere now, they have become the standard American side dish (60 pounds of potatoes per person, in 2009).
Americans do not cook like we use too, and this French Fry Effect, so to speak, is everywhere. When I was in graduate school, I lost a bet to a friend of mine, and my payment was making her a homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie. I pulled out my Joy of Cooking, and started reading it, and realized I was going to need flour, water, eggs, butter, sugar, strawberries, and rhubarb to get the job done. Simple enough – but as a single-male, the only items I actually had in my kitchen were the water, butter, and the eggs. Had I not promised to make the pie from scratch, I would have bought a pre-made pie crust, and a can of pie filling (assuming Libby’s made strawberry-rhubarb filling). Instead I bought all the ingredients, and spent about 90 minutes from start to finish, fulfilling my obligation. Don’t get me wrong – the pie was delicious (if I do not say so myself). But not something I wanted to do every night, in addition to making myself dinner. That strawberry-rhubarb pie was a treat. Pies took time, and were served on special occasions. But today, you can buy one frozen at the grocery store, pop it into the even (next to the tray of French Fries, no doubt) and have it every night.