Cooking Efficiently

By Dr. Rusty Pritchard

Efficiency is not an end. It is a means to an end, but a dangerous one.

Last Monday, I needed to get dinner made. My four-year-old daughter had a different agenda. She thought swinging and coloring were more important. But what she really wanted was attention. I think of swinging as a solo sport, once you’ve learned how to pump your legs (which she has). And coloring, in my mind, is more or less an individual activity. Not for Beatrice. She wants company. These desires conflicted with my idea of the most efficient way to prepare a meal: clear the kitchen of all extraneous personnel, put on the radio news, and concentrate on cooking. By myself.

My mind flitted with the obvious solution. The magical solution. The solution which never fails when I need a kid distraction.

I could turn on the TV.

I’ve got some pretty outdoorsy kids, but they are (like all of us, apparently) hard-wired for videophilia. We have an almost instinctive attraction to screens. And it works like a charm. Turn on the electronic babysitter, and have a little peace and quiet. It is efficient. The only thing more efficient would be a pause (or mute) feature on the child herself (I’ve tried using our universal remote, but it doesn’t work).

Instead I asked Bea to be my sous chef. With her at my side, we were able to prepare the evening meal in less than twice the time it would have taken me by myself. Not efficient. Not even fun at first, until my economist’s heart started to soften. Efficiency must not be an end in itself, or even the chief means to an end. Relationships are not efficient. Community is not efficient. Fun is not efficient.

Putting problematic individuals on pause is efficient. We do it in all sorts of ways in our society. We store kids in front of video games and computer screens—they like it and it keeps them quiet. Our society keeps an underclass of unemployable individuals on pause with pop music, televised sports, government and charitable handouts, failed schools, drugs, and eventually prison, for the men, at least. That seems more efficient than building an economy that provides jobs for everyone. That this robs an entire class of dignity, responsibility, and hope does not seem to matter much. Creating a culture of meaningful work would just be too expensive.

We store senior citizens by selling them and their families on the idea of assisted living, retirement homes, and nursing homes, because we don’t think it’s economically efficient to build liveable, walkable neighborhoods. Aging in place rarely happens anymore; instead the elderly, once they no longer drive, are forced to change houses, change doctors, change churches, and change friends. Retirement homes are a by-product of a car-centered society. It is not efficient to have a class of non-driving adults trying to fit into a driving world, so we build special warehouses for them. Creating space and opportunity for intergenerational living is costly.

And it was costly, in terms of my limited time, to let Beatrice help with the cooking. But she naturally expects to be involved in chores, with an instinct for togetherness that society works hard to squash in early childhood. I’m happy that at her sweet little pre-school classroom, they wash their own class linens (cloth napkins and tablecloths), hang them out to dry, and then iron them. Yes, they have an iron in the classroom. (Parent: “You have an iron in the classroom? Don’t the children burn themselves?” Teacher: “Only once.”) They also have knives, and the preschoolers cut up their own fruit. Knives, like irons, are less dangerous when you know how to use them. Young children are keen to use tools and to help with chores; the temptation to shirk takes a few years to reveal itself.

Cooking itself has come to be seen as inefficient, an expensive hobby done by non-professionals. That’s the common belief of those who lament the rise of junk food in the modern diet. The myth that hyper-processed fast food is less expensive than home-cooked food is exploded by Mark Bittman, in his recent  Sunday Review column in the New York Times. Bittman has been arguing for a return to cooking, since it is better for our bodies, for the land, and for our pocketbooks than eating out. This is a separate issue from environmental calls to eat organic, or to eat local, or to eat seasonally. This is simply a call to cook rather than to not cook.

At the tiniest scale, cooking is making something of the world, the phrase that Andy Crouch uses in his remarkable book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, to describe the fundamental purposes of humankind, as revealed in Genesis. Cooking pulls us into the practice of taking good resources from the natural world and combining and changing them into a cultural product that is beautiful and good. It’s good for us to cook, because it is emblematic of our task on earth—to steward and preserve the good that we’ve inherited (in this case, ingredients, recipes, skills, and know-how) and to cultivate new cultural goods (when we improve and customize those recipes). It is important to keep that connection alive and to pass it on to our children. In the process we build community and relationships. It’s more efficient to specialize—to designate someone in the house, or worse, a third party like a manufacturer or fast-food restaurant, to do the main task of cooking, while we do something else. Getting the family involved in cooking might be less efficient, but in some ways, it is more human.

Rusty Pritchard, Ph.D., is a natural resource economist, and the head of Flourish.

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

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