Why America Needs a Public Hearth

I was raised in the fast food test-marketing capitol of the United States.  Nearly every major fast food chain and prepared grocery product company tests its new ideas in Columbus, Ohio.  Twenty major fast food companies (they prefer the term “quick service”) are headquartered in the Columbus metropolitan area, including White Castle, Bob Evans, and Wendy’s.

When I was five years old my father took me to the very first Wendy’s on its very first day, after which we crossed Broad Street to visit the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), where I first learned of the importance of science in the production of food.  We wandered the artificial streets of “Yesteryear,” only to turn the corner and see what progress had wrought – from woodstoves and grain mills and hand-baked bread to microwaves, TV dinners and Wonder® Bread, all in the blink of an eye, both figuratively and literally.

At the Agriculture exhibitions both at COSI and the enormous Ohio State Fair (where I would get lost that same year), I began my indoctrination into the world of consumerism.  It was made clear to me that “Better Living Through Chemistry” was not only possible, it was preferable.  Chemical inputs made food grow faster, last longer and taste better.  Companies like DuPont, Dow, and Battelle would promise to solve every problem a farmer or a consumer could face.

One year later Wendy’s would revolutionize fast food.  It was Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, who took Henry Ford’s assembly line to the next level when he began using it to turn out burgers at a furious pace.  But it was Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas who took it full circle, not only using assembly-line precepts in the construction of his “Hot & Juicy” hamburgers, but reconfiguring the old “drive-in” of bobby-sox and poodle skirt days into the drive-thru, which took us the next step closer to feeding our children the same way we fueled our cars.

Fast food was not the only industry that was evolving.  In a curious sociological coincidence of the time, we no longer had to leave our beloved cars to feed ourselves, but the service station gave way to the self-serve pump.  We needn’t expend any more effort than to press on the accelerator to feed our families, but to fuel our cars we then had to leave their confines and do the work we once paid others to do.

Three decades later, we would fuel both our families and our cars with the same ingredient – corn – which grows plentifully in my boyhood home of Ohio, and even more so in my adult home of Iowa, the heart of the agribusiness beast.

Over my half-century of life in America I have witnessed what might one day be referred to as the most rapid and uncontrolled period of social evolution in human history, in which a mind-boggling array of influences conspired in a perfect storm of high technology and rampant, vapid consumerism.  Cause and effect were conflated to a point where it was impossible to tell, most of the time, which was which.  And somewhere in that rigmarole, America made the decision, as a culture, that it was preferable to leave not just food production, but also the actual act of feeding our families up to large, distant corporations.  Our lives were moving so fast that anything that appeared to be a time-saver was immediately adapted as a saving grace.  This so that we could have more time for work, to make more money, so we could buy more of these timesaving products.  Or it was so that we could have more time to spend with our families, which we very rarely actually did, except when in our cars or in front of the television, made feasible with all our perceived extra time

It is at about this point, when I discuss such things with people, that someone will begin to formulate the accusation that I am a Luddite.  The first time it was alleged, I admit, I had to look it up.  It turns out that the original Luddites were early-19th century English garment workers, incensed that their jobs were being taken by machinery and low-skilled labor.  They responded my smashing the new automated looms and often resorted to full-scale battle with the Royal Army.  Today the term is used to label anyone who, according to Wikipedia, is “opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization or new technologies in general.”

I would like to think that the fact that I just referred to Wikipedia, or the fact that I wrote this blogpost on an iMac, might allay any such fears.  But then I find myself going on about the absurd fact that very soon after H. Cecil Booth invented the modern, motorized vacuum cleaner, wall-to-wall carpeting became the home flooring of choice, thus creating the need for more vacuuming.

The same sort of thing has happened to one degree or another, with almost every technological advancement of the last 50 years.  We have luxuriant cars and now must commute further than ever.  Our computers and mobile phones and hi-def televisions have made office work, communications and entertainment nominally faster, cheaper and easier, but we now spend hours upon hours glued to one or the other of them, often even all three, in lieu of real time spent with real people.  We have, in the words of the old original Slow Food Manifesto, fallen victim to “the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

In the meantime America was sold a bill of goods.  We were tricked. Hoodwinked. Hornswoggled. We were deceived, cheated and misled into believing that that most sacred of acts – that of preparing food to sustain our families – was a chore on par with washing windows: something to be avoided if possible, or better yet simply left to others, and then done only very grudgingly and quickly and only if there is no other option at hand.  The simple result is that if we are what we eat (and we are), then most of us are fast, cheap, and easy.  What’s more, if you are what you eat, then who owns your food owns you.

The worst of many bad results of this cultural regression which we were assured was progress was this: we reared an entire generation who never learned how to cook, and today that generation is rearing yet another.

“But no!” I am often reassured. “Look at the size of our grocery stores!  Witness the popularity of the cooking shows on television!”  These are intended as examples of America’s love of cooking.  In reality, they are examples of America’s love of consumption (which you may recall was once a name of a disease).  Those grocery stores of 50 years ago gave way to the supermarkets of 40 years ago, which gave way to the hypermarkets and “big box” stores of today.  The stores get bigger and bigger, but the amount of actual, fresh, wholesome food shrinks in nearly exact inverse proportion.  Variety and quality are sacrificed to the gods of expedient mediocrity.

Meanwhile on our televisions most (though admittedly not all) of the food programming is insipid, gossipy, self-flagellating melodrama of supposed cooking competitors stabbing each other in the backstage with name-brand cutlery.  The rest of it is pure pornography: people who are prettier than the rest of us doing things we’ll likely never do, in places we’ll never visit, and doing it better than any of us could hope to.  But this is America!  We love to consume that too.

Where once the great Julia Child ruled with a soft hand, admonishing us that “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients,” we now have Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, which are far more about judgmental insults and manufactured suspense than cooking.

Real cooking is about none of those things.  It is a very simple craft, yet it can inspire deep passions.  Like architecture it is built on a few basic fundamentals – a foundation if you will – and like architecture, if you have a strong foundation the possibilities are nearly limitless.  After all, the source of the word “foundation” is the Latin fundatio, which is also the root of the French word for soup stock: Fond, which in turn is the very basis of modern Western cuisine.

Cooking is a simple act of love.  It is, in fact, the single most tangible demonstration of our love for our families and our friends.  It deserves appropriate reverence.

How, then, can we recover from our industrialized computerized malaise?  We must rejuvenate the kitchen and table as vital centers of our everyday lives, and we must reconnect food and pleasure with awareness and responsibility.  Here I do not mean merely the upper-middle class McMansion types with their kitchens that cost more than most people’s homes (although in my experience those kitchens usually do not receive anywhere near the actual cooking activity necessary to justify their costs).  No, I mean everyone, and most especially the overworked single moms, the two-parent gotta-get-to-soccer-practice mini-van families, the recent immigrants who feel bewildered in a Walmart Super Center, the college kid with a dorm room hotpot, and the young couples with new babies, who never learned how to cook at their parents’ or grandparents’ apron strings

To do this, we must create legions of cooks, and then inspire them to create still more legions, and so on.  In order to be effective, it must be based on the precepts of what Slow Food calls “Good, Clean, & Fair” food.  “Good” means that it is good tasting, good for you, and good for the environment where it’s grown.  “Clean” means there is nothing in the food that isn’t food (and if it wasn’t food 100 years ago, it still isn’t food now).  And “Fair” means that the people who produce the food should be justly compensated for their efforts – from farm to table.

The Public Hearth is an effort to create legions of cooks, starting in farmers markets and church basements, youth clubs and social halls.  It starts with a neighbor sharing grandma’s tamale recipe, sure, but more important than the recipe is the technique, the skills involved.  We must marshal the resources necessary to make everyone know the difference between roast and braise, to be able to choose the best potato for a salad as opposed to a French fry, to make a stock from scratch and feed two people three meals from one chicken.

Also more important is that simple act of sharing, of being with family and friends and passing along knowledge and skills.  That is what builds community.  In Colonial America, and many parts of the world before then, villages would often have a central community oven, where townspeople would bring their dough to be baked, thus saving time and money by sharing the labor and fuel.  They would trade ideas and community news and baking techniques even as they traded loaves of bread.  The Public Hearth was a gathering place where communities grew closer together though the simple act of breaking bread.  And at the risk of too much Latin etymology, it is useful to know that the word “Companion” come from con panis, literally “with bread.”

Let’s get cooking.

~kmf, February, 2013

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