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03 April 2008

The Irish Times Health Plus: In Defence of Food

Food Pornography

My colleague Sylvia Thompson has written on these pages about Michael Pollan’s important new book, “In Defence Of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating”. Today, however, I would like to look closely at the point with which Pollan concludes his eloquent defence of common sense when it comes to our diets and our health.

Closing his book with a series of prescriptive mantras designed to help us avoid bad food and bad food apologists – Eat like an omnivore; Eat well-grown food from healthy soils; Get out of the supermarket whenever possible; You are what you eat eats too – Pollan finishes by stating that:

“As cook in your kitchen you enjoy an omniscience about your food that no amount of supermarket study or label reading could hope to match…To reclaim this much control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing: indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts”.

So, now we know. The anarchists, the subversives, the revolutionaries, the Bakunins and Che Guevaras of our age, are the woman with the packet of Lazy Housewife French bean seeds from The Brown Envelope Seed Company, and the bloke with the shopping basket and the Global knife.

It’s always hard to spot the really dangerous ones amongst us, isn’t it?

The strange thing about these new-found subversives, however, is that they don’t pose a threat to the state. In fact, their subversion is aimed at countering what is, in fact, the biggest threat that the State faces: the obesity-diabetes-cancer epidemic that is stalking our health.

John Reynolds, professor of surgery at Trinity College and St. James’s Hospital, recently pointed out in this newspaper that “obesity may account for up to 14 per cent of cancer deaths in men and 20 per cent of cancer deaths in women”. Professor Reynolds was writing in particular about oesophageal cancer. “Obesity is a major risk factor for cancer of the oesophagous as well as many other cancers”, he pointed out.

Bad news, of course. But, unfortunately, there is much more bad news: “The emerging problem of obesity in children and adolescents in Ireland is well recognized, and unfortunately cancer risk has now to be added to the acknowledged risks of diabetes, and liver and cardiac problems”.

That’s a whole lot of life-threatening problems to deal with, and it would be a foolish man who would say that there is a simple solution. Unfortunately, I am that man, and the solution is simple, as simple as Pollan points out. We need to become subversives. We need to cook our own food.

Cooking has never been as popular as a spectator sport, and as unpopular as a daily activity, as it is today. Sit down in front of the telly, and you can wallow in Guerrilla Gourmets (more subversives! They’re everywhere!) and Chef at Home and Masterchef and Ready Steady Cook and Jamie at Home and so on and so on ad nauseam.

You can, then, devote all the time that good sense and good health tell you should be spent cooking in your own kitchen watching other people cooking in kitchens that are merely studio sets. Isn’t that just food pornography?

The death of domestic cooking isn’t simply a tragedy for our health. To borrow Darina Allen’s catchphrase, we need to recall that “Cooking is fun!”. It’s not just fun, however, for it’s also intensely stimulating for the brain, because the planning and multi-tasking that cooking involves demand prefrontal cortex activation in our brains. Never mind eating fish for brain food: the act and art of cooking itself is food for our brains. Cooking is an act that is tactile, sensual, scientific and, ultimately, intensely satisfying, simply because you get to eat the fruits of your endeavour.

But whilst we can read almost every day about Cancer Strategies, we never seem to hear anything about Cookery Strategies. Yet the person who can cook, as Michael Pollan points out, enjoys “an omniscience about your food …To reclaim this much control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing”.

No small thing indeed, as any cookery educator will tell you.
“The problem is that people haven’t been given the skills they need in order to cook”, says Carmel Somers, who runs the Good Things Café and Cookery School in West Cork. “Cooking wasn’t a priority, and then people get so busy working that they never develop the skills. I had two retired people on my latest cookery class who had simply never cooked, and who lived on take-away foods. But when they have a few skills, they realise that everyone can cook, and that it is simple. One of the men said to me: “Now I know I don’t need all of that crap equipment that I have in my kitchen!”.

Ms Somers points out that there are many people who don’t cook “because they don’t know where to start, so it’s terrifying for them. But after only a day or two you can show people exactly where to begin, and I think that is why cookery schools have become so popular in Ireland in recent times: so many people just want to know where to begin when they are in the kitchen”.

Cookery teacher Phelim Byrne echoes Ms Somers point that many of the people who are going to schools and looking to learn to cook are frequently not the youthful ingénues the teachers expect, but are often middle-aged people who have never spent any time in the kitchen.

“More than 50% of the people on a recent course were either retiring, or were recently bereaved”, Mr Byrne explains. “And what I find is that they particularly want hands-on cookery, they don’t just want to watch demonstrations, they want the skills and the know-how themselves, and they want to learn how to cook from scratch, using basic, raw ingredients”.

The hunger for knowledge about cookery skills has led to an explosion of growth in bespoke cookery schools in Ireland, operating everywhere from Fermanagh to Dublin to Carlow – Carlow actually has two cookery schools – to Mr Byrne’s school in Wexford and Ms Somer’s sold-out cookery classes in West Cork.

Lynda Booth of the Dublin Cookery School has recently multiplied the capacity of her school, but the demand for courses means that her website has a host of SOLD OUT notices on many of the courses – Fish Course; Man in the Kitchen; Chocolate Masterclass; Cooking for Friends; BBQ.

Ms Booth says simply, “I have yet to meet the person who can’t learn to cook, yet so many people are daunted by the prospect of creating something in the kitchen. I recently had a cookery class for men, and on day 1 it was chaos, but by day 6 I was astonished by what they had achieved and what they could create, and they were astonished as well”.

Vitally, Ms Booth points out the mastering a simple set of cookery skills “introduces people to the joy of cooking, the pleasure of tasting and it makes such a difference to people’s palates, and to their food choices. When you have a student who thinks they can’t cook, and you get them to think outside the box and to be imaginative in cooking, it completely blows their minds”.

Lynda Booth thinks that we suffer because people have a perception that “they should innately know how to cook, that it had to have been something they learnt from their mother. But many mothers don’t know much cookery, and so people need to acquire the skills themselves”

So, if the kitchen frightens you, and if your food choices are dominated by big-business food processors and retailers, then it’s not just the pleasure of a good dinner at the end of the day that depends on being able to handle a knife and a frying pan. Your very life may depend on becoming the person who can reclaim control over your diet and, thereby, your health.
“In Defence of Food” is published by Allen Lane