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Food is Screwed: Kids Today

October 3, 2012

Banks are awful. That is, unless you have a giant piles of money and the bank falls all over itself to make you a happy customer. It gave me great pleasure to close our accounts with a local bank and move our money over to a credit union.

The reason I love the credit union isn’t because they have a free Flavia machine. But this is a food blog, so for today that is where our story begins.

For those who don’t know, Flavia is a precursor to the scourge of those ubiquitous K-Cups, but instead of pods it uses pouches. Not that I’ll turn up my nose at free coffee in any form. As my children will tell you, “Coffee makes adults go.” The Flavia machine at the credit union also has pouches for hot cocoa, and those are very popular with the kids.

Recently I was at my local branch, and a couple of children were delighting the tellers with their passionate zeal for the free hot chocolate. It was a slow day, and the always friendly tellers were really feeling the hot chocolate love too.

This light and joyous little scene hardly feels like a harbinger of doom about the future of food in America. But it was about to take a surprising turn for the worse.

One of the tellers was a well dressed young man. He was clean cut, bright eyed, and seemed to have his head screwed on straight. My best guess is that he was in his early twenties. And moments before I stepped up to his window, he had been engaging with the kids about their shared love for hot chocolate.

Never one to miss out on a food conversation I decided to interject. Especially considering everyone at the credit union was declaring their love for a much inferior instant hot cocoa from a Flavia pouch. So I ask the teller, “Have you ever made hot cocoa yourself?”

His eyes lit up, and I was immediately encouraged. “Oh, it’s so much better!” he said. I nodded in recognition and agreement.

Then he went on, “And I love how it has all those mini marshmallows in the package.”

Right. For him, making his own hot cocoa meant actually boiling the water himself and mixing it with an instant packet. But given the young man’s love for the drink, I saw this not as a setback but as an opportunity. No problem. I’d just tell him all about how simple and delicious real hot chocolate can be, and I’ll bring him over to the side of good and light.

It’s just sugar, cocoa powder and milk.

This is where it gets weird. He asked, “Cocoa powder? Where do you get that?” He was genuinely perplexed. The teller looked like he was a properly nourished and healthful human being. So I can only assume at some point in his life he had actually been to a grocery store. But this was an entirely foreign concept to the fellow.

And when I explained that all he had to do was go to Price Chopper and pick up a small amount, mix it with sugar and milk in a small pot over heat, the young man reconsidered and thought it would be significantly too much effort.

Broken hearted I left, and asked one of the older female tellers who had been following along with the conversation to work on the lad. She replied, “I’ve been trying.”

Sure, this is only an n=1 but I’ve chosen to see it as a canary in a coal mine. It’s a red flag that our convenience culture is stripping youth (or at the very least a segment of our youth) of any ability or even desire to make food from scratch. This was a guy who just moments ago was declaring his love for hot chocolate. If making a better version of a beloved treat is too much hassle, I can’t imagine there is any cooking at all going on in his life.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is some burgers or boneless skinless chicken breast heated through on a George Foreman Grill, with a side of frozen microwaved vegetables.

Now, I’m just guessing at this point. But the whole affair makes me want to start reaching out to young people and teaching them how to do the very very basics. You know, things like cooking eggs, making a pasta sauce from canned tomatoes, and cooking a real grilled cheese sandwich in a pan.

It’s great to teach people how to preserve summer’s bounty. However, there are a lot of people out there who need some hand holding at a much more basic level.

In the off chance that’s you, let me know. We’ll find a way to get you cooking.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2012 8:54 am

    For me the gateway drug to culinary incompetence is buying prepared rice from a Chinese takeout (or one of those boil-in-bag packages) instead of making it yourself.

    The good news for you, Fussy, is that canary has been flatlining for quite a while. I know many people in their 30s, 40s and 50s whose idea of cooking is picking up a salad bar selection or a deli tray at a market in NYC or SF or here at the Putnam Market in Saratoga.

  2. Tonia permalink
    October 3, 2012 10:06 am

    Yes! I agree! Speaking to convenience, I don’t get it. There are many things “homemade” that are just as easy to prepare as the pre-made or processed versions. For example, the other night I ran out of yeast for my pizza crust, now I don’t expect all to make the dough, although quite honestly that process is fairly easy as well, but anyhow, I was reminded of this Betty Crocker recipe ‘quickie’ version my mom made when I was a kid. It took me 3 minutes to make. Seriously. Put 4-5 ingredients in a bowl, stir, roll, top, done. I don’t think it took me longer than 10 minutes TOPS to make. Granted, it doesn’t have the same flavor as yeast, but delicious in its own right. I think you are on to something here, but how to change this mentality? (My boyfriend has a few times bought the Chinese takeout version of rice. I mean really, it takes longer to do that and you have to leave your house!)

  3. October 3, 2012 10:32 am

    Dude.. I have this discussion *every day*.. I get so frustrated with the “Convenience Generation” **shakes cane**

    But seriously, I remember teaching a friend’s kids that mashed potatoes don’t come from a box.. a potato was a foreign object.

    I think that part of it is that there needs to be time for the shift to happen back to home made foods. There is a whole generation of people who think canned vegetables taste better than frozen because that is what they grew up with. I grew up with hippie parents and a garden in the back yard so fresh or frozen for me. But It takes time for tastes and traditions to change.

    We’ll get there.. hopefully..

  4. Stevo permalink
    October 3, 2012 10:32 am

    I think the hard part is getting people to really appreciate -and care about- good, scratch made food. I have a 30 something friend who’s wife cooks from boxes and frozen bags. He absolutely loves my cooking, yet he is more than happy to eat the processed crap his wife serves for dinner night after night. Though he can tell the difference between our ‘cooking’, he doesn’t care. If I could get him to care about what he’s eating the next steps would be easy.

  5. October 3, 2012 10:33 am

    This is why I’ve always said we’ve got to talk the Wal-Mart approach to real food, despite how many dirty looks I get. We’ve got to reach people where they already are, instead of asking them to make such monumnetal shifts in nourishment.

  6. October 3, 2012 10:58 am

    This was shown a few years back so maybe you’ve already seen/heard/discussed this, but incase you haven’t, Jamie Oliver’s attempt to show kids what’s in chicken nuggets, totally blew my mind:

  7. October 3, 2012 11:22 am

    It all starts with the kids. Teach your kids to cook and it will be a normal thing. (Not you specifically, in general)

    As for the young hot chocolate lover, next time advise him to simply melt a bar of good chocolate into full fat milk. Only two ingredients and he’s bound to know what a chocolate bar is even if it’s not “good.”

    • kerosena permalink
      October 3, 2012 1:05 pm

      I’m looking forward to teaching my son to cook. The fact that he’s not quite three weeks old has not been a hurdle. We’ve already prepped fresh green beans, grated some cheese and peeled potatoes while he hangs out in his snugli carrier. We also had a discussion about baked vs. mashed. I’m holding off on fried or roasted for now as I don’t want to confuse the boy.

      If we keep teaching, there will always be new food lovers and appreciators out there!

  8. October 3, 2012 11:57 am

    I suppose that in his defense, if he doesn’t bake, then he’s probably never had to look for cocoa powder at the store before. (Also, I have yet to find a homemade cocoa recipe that was worth the trouble — for being such a simple thing, it’s surprisingly easy to mess up, at least for me. But for the amount I drink cocoa, I’ll just get it at Mrs. London’s or Starbucks.)

    • October 3, 2012 12:04 pm

      you could, you know make up your own mix with powdered milk, cocoa and sugar. Just add water.

  9. October 3, 2012 4:00 pm

    Our society haas become LAZY and COMPLACENT…..this is the problem. Too many people believe a gourmet meal comes from a frozen container or a fast food joint.
    I also have similar experiences with the people at my bank and other locations I frequent where I have more personal interaction with the employees. You should have seen the look on the faces of the tellers at my bank branch when I was explaining the “pork belly banh-mi” I had on special recently. They were totally aghast, confused and dumbfounded. I could not convince them how AMAZING this slow-braised pork was.
    Now try explaining “frozen dairy dessert’ to these folks….Oh the Humanity!
    Thanks for doing what you do Mr. Fussy!!!! ya mon, Respect

  10. October 3, 2012 5:36 pm

    I re-posted the photo you took of our egg & cheese sand on FB today (with credit!) and someone asked “Is that a real egg?” Also had someone a while back ask if we used mixes for our muffins. (Ummm….yes to the first Q and no to the second.) I realize now we may be in the minority, but Nick and I just don’t see the point of opening a food establishment and using anything but fresh ingredients. Packaged foods have been engineered to make you want more more more. Part of our “job” (nee, calling) is to help people remember what real food tastes like. So many have forgotten. I WAS one! I loved those damned powdered hot chocolates & tiny marshmallows when I was a kid (along w/ my grandma’s stockpile of packaged sweets). But as an adult, I’ve learned that real food just tastes better and makes me feel better. It took months of me feeling ill to force me to change. Now, I get so excited at the farmers market that I over-buy for the shop and my ambitions to make jams, new desserts, etc. way exceed my available stamina and manpower. Food is so fun! And visceral, and subjective, and it affects us all in a myriad of ways. There is joy to be had (at least 3 times daily!) that way too may people are missing out on. As you say, Daniel, we all have to keep banging the drum.

    We have space and available time at the shop for someone to host cooking classes, just sayin’.

  11. October 4, 2012 10:01 am

    I think that to some degree, people are starting to come back to home-prepared food. The Food Network, Cooking Channel, numerous magazines, etc., have made it sort of sexy to do it yourself rather than heading out to KFC. I understand that these outlets don’t reach everyone – but they reach enough people that they’re tastemakers to an extent.

    As Britin above indicated, we really just need to “keep banging the drum.” It’s a matter of reinforcement – and once you’ve had the satisfaction of really cooking something for yourself from scratch, you realize that you’ll never get the same frisson from heating up a frozen pizza.

    • October 4, 2012 3:37 pm

      yes but at the same time, I know plenty of people overwhelmed by the Food Network. They say “it’s too hard” ala Mr. Hot Chocolate.

      • October 5, 2012 12:13 pm

        Well, one thing I’ve noticed over the past several years about the Food Network is that it seems to be getting away from the actual cooking and is more about food “tourism” if you will – more glamour and glitz than the down-to-earth details of meal preparation. There are exceptions – “Good Eats,” for example – but it just seems to me that in the early days of the network you had more actual cooks, like Sara Moulton, in the kitchen, and fewer people wielding huge knives in Japanese competition spaces. I suppose the good thing, as I mentioned, is that these latter shows are at least inspirational – maybe they’ll want to make some 11-year-old somewhere want to cook for a living.

        That may be the biggest effect the Food Network has had in this country: it’s made being a chef not only an acceptable way to earn a living, but a respected one. In Europe it’s long been that way, but in the US until lately chefs were typically seen as servile characters of a sort – think Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos.” This change has been sort of bubbling up to the surface here since the early 70s, but the Food Network has really made it visible. Now a good chef is respected for the quality craftsperson that she is, not merely a person who toils in the background and is seldom seen. It’s a refreshing and long-overdue shift in attitudes, and with it comes greater attention being paid to fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, a development we all seem to be pretty happy about!

  12. October 4, 2012 10:20 am

    One thing about canned and frozen vegetables: when my parents were teenagers, in the 1950s, those were the very vanguard of food. In a way, that was a huge advance: before you had frozen food, you were limited to what was available in your area. If you were in West Virginia, it was ramps; if you were lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, as my parents did, you got significantly better produce. We’re in an era of farmers’ markets and better understanding of why local food matters, thanks to Alice Waters and the Moosewood Cookbook and everyone who followed those examples.

    Canned vegetables are not a bad thing, especially during the doldrums of winter. (I have to admit that I’m practically addicted to those Le Sueur peas in the silver can.) But we’re becoming better and better at sourcing produce (thanks, in many ways, to CSAs) at virtually all times of the year. And thanks to this blog that you have, Daniel, and other sources of information, we’re improving steadily.

  13. Rachael permalink
    October 4, 2012 11:17 am

    I think (hope? really, really, really hope) that we experiencing something of a return to homemade era, and as one of the commenters mentioned above, one of the reasons is that the cooking channels and blogs have emphasized cooking with whole food natural ingredients for a little while now.

    On the other hand, you have websites such as Pinterest (which I use, and love), with so, so many recipes that sound like: “take a box of cake mix and a can of sprite and packet a Hidden Valley Ranch and a packet of pot roast seasoning and a two boneless skinless chicken breasts and stick them in the crockpot for 18 hours on low.” (Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but not much) — some of the most most disgusting, unoriginal, non-nutritous recipes I’ve ever seen that people LOVE because they’re “easy” and “delicious.”

    Some people think that they “don’t have time” to cook from scratch, or that it’s “too expensive.” But they’re simply too lazy or inexperienced or they don’t WANT to. My younger sister is this way. So there are competing forces of good and evil. Keep up the good fight, and maybe the homemade forces will prevail someday.

  14. October 4, 2012 2:06 pm

    A lot of it has to do with marketing. It’s pretty easy to convince someone who works full time that a product is good to try, and, if they try it and appreciate the convenience, they’re hooked. These convenience foods have helped contribute to the obesity issue in America, and the movement to homemade (and even semi-homemade) and farm-to-table mentality is starting to make a dent into the mainstream.

    What comes to mind for me are the egg sandwiches on English muffins in the freezer isle (or any of the breakfast stuff in the freezer isle — frozen pancakes?!). It takes 4-5 minutes to microwave one of those suckers. In the same 4 minutes, one can easily assemble the same type of sandwich from fresh ingredients and for less money. Ok, maybe you’ll have to clean a pan at the end, but the final result will be much more interesting, delicious, and wholesome.

    One thing I’ve been working on is a homemade molten chocolate cake (chocolate fondant). You can go to a restaurant and pay $8 (or more) for a fancy presentation, and you can even go to the supermarket and buy a mix that guarantees perfect results every time for $6. Or, you can learn the relatively simple technique and make your own for under $3 with 6 pantry staples in 12 minutes including cleanup time, and that includes the price of 50g of good chocolate. The gratification of flipping over that ramekin and seeing the thing I made is exciting. 3 months ago, I would have never imagined that I could do that.

    Some commenters mentioned Food Network and similar media, and I think these types of things are helping demystify what goes into making good food, and the emergence and growing popularity of farmers markets further supports that people are seeking out better ingredients to make things.

    There’s a way to go, but it’s good to see the movement is actually happening.

  15. October 4, 2012 7:51 pm

    One of my happiest parenting moments was when my youngest daughter decided to enroll in a culinary program because she liked how homemade stuff tasted. I think there are pockets of hope out there – but sadly, the war on bad food still has a long way to go…

  16. October 8, 2012 11:42 am

    I am late to the party on this – getting caught up on my blog reader.

    The post hits a bit home for me, because I am of the third generation of women who do not like to cook. My grandmother was the daughter of a doctor during the depression, so they were wealthy (considering) and had a maid who did most of the cooking for them. (They would be upper middle class today – her mother was a teacher and not a stay-at-home parent, unheard of in the 30’s – so, actually, having part time help at home made perfect sense.) My mother and I lived with my grandparents until I was 15, and while Grandma’s food was far from delicious (overcooked everything, soggy vegetables, underseasoned, etc.), it was never, EVER from a box. EVER. (The vegetables were often frozen, but I don’t find that necessarily offensive – the microwaveable “steamer” vegetables are still vegetables.)

    When my mom and I moved out, my mom, too, hated cooking. We did a little more of the box nonsense – shake and bake, hamburger helper, etc. – but it was not every night. More often than not, it was a piece of meat on the George Foreman with a side of the microwaved/steamer vegetables.

    In other words, not perfect, but not terrible. I didn’t learn that I didn’t hate macaroni and cheese, for example, until I was nearly an adult, because the only examples I ever saw of it were the stuff that came out of the box (this was not a dish my grandmother made).I loved meatloaf, I loved lima beans, etc. I was a fussy eater, but it was because I really couldn’t stand processed food, even as a child.

    As an adult, I still don’t really like to cook, though fortunately Chris does. I’ve gotten better about it – I am more likely to cook a large pot of chili or stew or something that will last a few days. With our CSA, Chris cuts the vegetables ahead of time and I cut the meat into small portions to stretch wiht stir frys.

    What saves someone like me is 1. I like to eat, even though I don’t like to cook (and I like to eat more than I don’t like to cook); and 2. I am married to someone who actually DOES enjoy cooking (and eating). For someone (read: usually women – the men who read this blog are generally the exception to the rule, though that is starting to change, thank goodness) who doesn’t necessarily care as much about food and who doesn’t like to cook, I can see how easy it is to fall down the convenience rabbit hole. No, it doesn’t take *that much longer* to make something from scratch. But to spend even an additional half hour on something you really loathe, with no help, encouragement, or support from the other members of your household? I can see where people would say it is a half hour better spent elsewhere.

    I am not saying this is a good mindset, but I am not sure how we fix it. Education is key. Maybe baby steps? The guy at SEFCU isn’t going to immediately graduate from making Swiss Miss from a packet to stovetop hot cocoa, but maybe he will graduate to buying cocoa powder at Trader Joe’s and mixing it with some warm milk? No, not the same as what you’re suggesting, but it’s an important step in the right direction. My graduation was with McCormick spice packets. I now use my own spices, but that was huge for me and got me making real meals instead of ordering bad Chinese food for the umpteenth time.

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