The lazy days of summer brought something unexpected; my children into the kitchen. I’m not referring to children whining about being hungry, once the scent of dinner lures them from their playing digs, but as, actual cooks. My kids, ages 7, 8 and 11, are in the kitchen every night—chopping, grating, mixing, stirring, and all the other verbs required in cooking a meal.
On a recent night, Isabella, the oldest, shredded some leftover roasted chicken. Joaquin, my 8-year-old, heated corn tortillas on the iron coma. Most impressive, my 7-year-old, Estrella, placed the shredded chicken onto the tortillas and rolled it into taut taquitos, whereby after being shown twice was able to stitch the tortilla closed with a toothpick.
In Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, he writes that the amount of time spent cooking each day for the average American fell by 50% to 27 minutes. A home cooked meal is losing ground in every country, but especially in the United States, since the 1960’s. Instead we, the collective world population of eaters, are fed at restaurants, drive-thrus and with pre-packaged meals found in the frozen section of supermarkets. In the U.S., there are five drive-thrus for every 1 grocery store. We have outsourced the cooking of our food relegating the choice of ingredients to someone else.
A steep price is paid for our departure from our stoves and ovens by our air, soil and water. Examining water alone: the EPA reports 40% of America’s rivers and 46% of lakes are too polluted with nitrates to support aquatic life. Agriculture is the leading source of contaminants. The truth of the matter is to cook in large quantities to feed large quantities requires large agricultural operations which lean heavily on pesticides, petroleum fertilizers, feedlots, and growth hormones—the same contaminants polluting a river near you.
By contrast the home cook, unconcerned with profit margins, can spend more money on ingredients. When I make homemade pizza, I spend $5 per 1/2 pound of organic mozzarella sourced from grazed animals on rain-fed pastures and $8 per pound of organic pork sausage. The pizza chain franchise couldn't possibly buy sustainable, quality ingredients and sell a large pizza for $6.48, the current market price at one popular outlet. Thus, a small rancher, grazing his/her cows on natural pastures is grazed over for the cheaper feedlot raised animal.
Small to medium sized farmers who are stewards of the land and water, like the ones I’ve met all around the country, rely on us, home cooks and a growing, but still small number of farm to table restaurants, to keep them in business.
This brings me back to my kids in the kitchen. Cooks are not born; they are cultivated. For several years, my kids joined me at the farmer’s market and supermarket. They’ve watched me carefully choose our ingredients.They’ve listened to me ask questions of farmers and vendors regarding the water-sustainability of their goods; that is, food grown by minimally diverting water from its natural water cycle. In the process, their pallets developed to discern the difference between fresher, quality ingredients.
My kids know brussel sprouts or broccoli purchased in season from the local farm are almost sweet. They notice the rich golden hue of butter purchased from grazed cows. Although a critical part of their food education, but only the beginning. If we are to support food producers, who are dedicating themselves to raising ingredients without compromising our environment in the process, then we must train the next crop of cooks. My family is proof that kids can cook, and they can start early.