Virtual exchange with a friend recently: about public relief clients and food. My friend pointed out that buying whole foods — that is, food that has not been processed beyond harvest and maybe some packaging — and cooking them is actually far cheaper and healthier than buying what most people — and especially most people in economically precarious straits — buy, which is processed convenience foods. And I agreed.
I’ve cooked since I was a kid. It’s one of the things my old-school parents just let happen without any of the present-day control-freakery and paranoia. If I got burned or cut, they’d get me an ice cube or a bandaid, then let me drive on with whatever I was making, mess and all.
In adulthood, however, I was on The Treadmill (you know the one), balancing and managing and improvising, with the clock and calendar as ruthless overseers, and we did far less cooking, in either my first or second marriage. There were three factors at play here: too little time, too many distractions, too little energy left after everything else.
Before I could begin cooking again — like really staying with it and learning all the time — I had to retire. One thing I’d promised Sherry back around 2009 was that I’d do all the cooking from now on (longer story). And, with few exceptions and a couple of work hiatuses (even during “retirement”), that’s exactly what I did. But again . . . we have a modest military retirement and social security, not the life of luxury except in one important sense: time. A modest retirement income (money) makes time available.
Most people on public relief, most people in households where two parents have jobs, most people in the burgeoning precariat . . . do not have enough time available. Nor do they have the attention, the energy, or the focus to do the hours of work necessary to prepare whole foods, day in and day out, because being poor and being precarious and being too-damn-busy suck the time and energy and give-a-shit out of you like a vampire. It was only when we went on a fixed retirement income that my psyche was no longer subject to a nasty little accountant who measured my time spent in the kitchen as money: “If I buy $12 of ingredients and invest three hours in preparation, and if my time is worth, say, $15 an hour, then this dish costs $57.”
The reason I could hit the nasty little accountant with a tranquilizer dart was that, upon leaving paid-work, time was no longer a scarce commodity, and I actually enjoy cooking. I like the planning. I like looking over the goods. I like the washing, cutting, pressing, kneading, squeezing, folding, smelling, frying, baking . . . all the transformations. It’s like magic to me. I actually stand over my bread yeast, wasting valuable time as it were, waiting to see it bloom (try it, it’s very cool). I sit on the floor and watch things in the oven heaving and bubbling and shape-shifting. It is work — in the energetic sense — but it’s also play, like fishing (another work/play activity I associate with food). I love each little step as a success (sometimes, I have minor fits when I make mistakes, a holdover from the compassion-free self-criticism I learned in the Army). I love the feeling of practical competency, the more or less secure knowledge that I know where I’m going. I love all the little cooking hacks I’ve learned. I love seeing the complete dish, and I really love watching people enjoy it when I get it right. I like eating it myself, too.
If I were working at a job, the nasty little accountant in my head would wake up again, and cooking would again transmogrify from a joy into a burden. Back in the bad old days of The Job, time wasn’t only scarce with regard to cooking itself. Time was too scarce to learn how to cook different things. Nowadays, I spend two or three hours a day in the kitchen; but when I’m laying up sorry in my chair in the PM, I flick on the TV and dial in the cooking vids. This is an exercise in extreme self-discipline, because one is constantly triggered like a Pavlovian dog by images of well-prepared food, and I could easily up my caloric intake to 5,000 a day with compulsive TV eating. Nonetheless, the internet has rapidly facilitated my skilling/re-skilling.
There’s the other rub, on poor or time-scarce people cooking whole foods. We have forgotten how; and those of us who are “remembering” are already in positions of advantage — retirement in my case, plain economic privilege in others. “Time is money, money time, ah that’s a trick, the only one you know.”
We’ve been systematically de-skilled.
De-skilling is a concept I picked up in 1995 just before I left the Army, after I’d swiped my wife’s copy of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, which they’d been reading in a sociology class. In political economics, de-skilling is the process whereby capital simplifies, mechanizes, and generally cheapens work to make money faster and sideline the power of craftspersons. When only time and donkey work is required, based on the loss of skills, every worker becomes more an interchangeable (and cheaply replaceable) part.
De-skilling has gone a lot further than Braverman described. It’s seeped into the very fissures of our lives not only as producers, but as consumers. That’s why a lot of us can’t really cook. Even when I was “cooking” as a kid, many of my first “dishes” were things like boxed mac-n-cheese (just add butter and milk).
When Ivan Illich wrote about “shadow work,” he used cooking as an example.
I designate as shadow work the time, toil, and effort that must be expended in order to add to any purchased commodity the value without which it is unfit for use. Therefore, shadow work names an activity in which people must engage to whatever degree they attempt to satisfy their needs by means of commodities. . . . When a modern housewife goes to the market, picks up eggs, then drives home in her car, takes the elevator to the seventh floor, turns on the stove, takes butter from the refrigerator, and fries the eggs, she adds value to the commodity with each one of these steps. This is not what her grandmother did. [Illich is writing in 1982.] The latter looked for eggs in the chicken coop, cut a piece from the lard she had rendered, lit some wood her kids had gathered on the commons, and added the salt she had bought. . . . The grandmother carries out woman’s gender specific tasks in creating subsistence; the new housewife must put up with the household burden of shadow work.
One reason Granny had to be suppressed was her and her family’s relative independence. Few things make capital more furious than subsistence, because it separates time from money. Capital can’t park a toll gate in front of your work/play. Where Illich was pointing out how shadow work situates wage work atop unacknowledged and unpaid labor — something Marxist-feminists have pointed out as well — our point here today is that the same housewife’s offspring may not be in the kitchen at all now. She might be stopping at McDonalds to fill her kids up with sausage biscuits on the way to dropping kids off to school and heading to her first of two jobs (to pay the debt on the car that is necessary for find and keep A Job). Unpaid work (re Illich’s “shadow work”) is combined with de-skilling (of the harried mom and the McDonalds workers), creating an unspeakable dependence on the treadmill that feels like its killing you.
When I hear would-be social engineers speak about this policy or that law that will limit the power of capital, I never hear about re-skilling. In my opinion, no policy or law will have any lasting effect if it doesn’t address the combined issue of dependency/re-skilling. As long as there is a generally accepted general-purpose currency, capital cannot be contained until the majority of people are far less dependent on that money. If our Social Security were stopped, we’d be in very deep shit.
Time is money. Money is power. Power concedes nothing with a demand — that can be backed up. Money dependency trumps everything else, every single time. Re-skilling is not the last consideration, but the first.
Figure out what the obstacles are to that, and there might be a pathway to many, many, many more of us . . . to cook.