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Food, consumption, and why cooking matters

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Kima Cargill
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Cargill, K. (2011). Food, consumption, and the psychology of cooking. I n S. Stewart & S. Korol
(Eds.), Food for Thought. Cape Breton: University of Cape Breton Press

Food, Consumption, and the Psychology of Cooking

Kima Cargill, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Psychology
University of Washington, Tacoma
Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences
Box 358436
1900 Commerce Street
Tacoma, WA 98402
(253) 692-4544

Introduction regulation. A person is overweight or obese

The obesity problem that began around either because they haven't made good choices
1980 in the United States has grown into a and/ or because of biochemical regulation.
worldwide epidemic which some researchers This paradigm views the individual as the unit
are calling "Globesity" (Delpeuch, 2009). In of study and the responsible party in
2000, the World Health Organization overeating. The second paradigm is the
estimated that there were over 300 million sociological/economic which examines the
obese individuals worldw ide and over a broader forces responsible for global obesity.
billion people overweight. (Delpeuch, 2009, p. This approach examines advertising, fast food,
6). The most recent research shows that and globalization as forces of dietary change.
obesity is no longer a problem of the United So, essentially there are macro and
States or even the developed world. There are micro level approaches that are quite present
now high rates of obesity across the planet, in mainstream news media and the academic
with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. literature. Somewhere between these two
Sadly, hunger co-exists in many of the same poles of the individual-personal and the
places in which obesity thrives. While this social-economic is an interface of the human
chapter does not focus on the problem of condition and community. Situating obesity
hunger, it is nevertheless noteworthy to point and consumption at this nexus, as a means for
out that the same forces of global wealth and understanding the forces at work in these
public policy that allow for excessive problems, involves an interdisciplinary gaze
consumption by some, are the same forces at that must also include philosophy and
work in hunger for others. evolution in the analysis.
There have been two dominant What I aim to do is to speak from this
paradigms used to understand the obesity nexus and synthesize many of the ideas out
phenomenon: The first, which is the there about food and obesity, but with a
prevailing paradigm of psychology, examines specific focus on cooking, its decline, and that
individual behavior, personal dietary choices, decline's insidious effect on both our psyches
and biochemistry in eating and weight and the social fabric.
experiences a significant absence of
I. The Empty Self community, tradition, and shared meaning. It
How we experience ourselves in this experiences social absences and their
day and time is essential to understanding consequences "interiorly" as a lack of personal
what makes us vulnerable to obesity and conviction and worth, and it embodies the
overeating. As Westerners we have what is a absences as a chronic, undifferentiated
historically unprecedented notion of emotional hunger. The post-World War II self
ourselves. "During the beginnings of the thus yearns to acquire and consume as an
modern era in the 16'" Century, the Western unconscious way of compensating for what
world began to shift from a religious to a has been lost: It is empty." (Cushman, 1990, p.
scientific frame of production, from a rural to 600). Note that this cultural ill a loss of
an urban setting, and from a communal to an community or shared meaning is something
individual subject" (Cushman, 1990, p. 600). that we experience as an individual deficiency.
In other words, we' ve come to view ourselves Food, of course is only one of many
as self-contained and highly individualized commodities that can be used to fill the empty
beings, characterized by free will and mastery self. While Cushman presumably refers to
over the environment, rather than a small "hunger" in it's metaphorical sense, here I
part of a collective entity with perhaps a examine hunger in its most literal sense. For
predetermined destiny. It's difficult for us to surely examining hunger quite literally will
see that our notion of ourselves of what it bring us back around to the symbolic meaning
means to be human is very culturally and of hunger and its attendant psychological
historically specific. It feelsas though people emptiness. In fact, I would argue that the
must have always thought of themselves as notion of hunger is by nature a circular one, in
having free will, as being highly that cultural hunger shapes and influences
individualized and unique, but this is a individual or bodily hunger, and in turn,
relatively new development in the course of individuals' attempts to sate bodily hunger are
human history. representative of the attempts to sate deeper,
Even more recently, "During the existential hungers.
course of the 20"" Century....Americans have Much like the pharmaceutical industry
slowly changed from a Victorian people who locates psychological illness within the
had a deeply felt need to save money and individual, the diet and food industries locate
restrict their sexual and aggressive obesity within the individual. Both a people who have a deeply felt approaches serve to increaseaggregate
need to spend money and indulge their consumption (of pills, diet books and products,
impulses. (Cushman, 1990, p. 600). Spending and of food). Locating psychological illness,
money and indulging impulses are two such as depression and anxiety within the
essential ingredients in the recipe for obesity. culture, as an expression of collective distress;
In other words, prosperity and the culture of as well as locating obesity within the culture,
consumption arenecessary correlates for would serve to decreaseaggregate consumption
widespread obesity. as a solution. The empty self is thus embedded
Another ingredient in the recipe is a in a capitalist, consumer-driven society in
sense of lack. Consumption of any sort must which industriousness and its bedfellow,
fill a deficit, or a perceived deficit. In Why The consumption, are both highly valued.
Self Is Empty, psychologist Philip Cushman Industriousness and consumption specifically
argues that the in the post-World War II era of make us vulnerable to two important
t he United States the self is empty. H e phenomena which are salient determinants of
believes, "Our terrain has shaped a self that obesity: 1) the desire to stretch our spending
capital in order to buy luxury goods and 2) mirrored consumption increases by the
the notion that we have little time. wealthy, the difference is that median earners'
We should also note that the post- incomes have decreased, in real dollars, since
World War II Empty Self coincides with an 1979, thus luxury spending is largely
important benchmark in food technology. It maintained in working and middle class
was just after World War II that the food families through decreased savings, increased
industry began developing and heavily credit card debt, and most importantly,
marketing convenience foods. In 1954, increased hours at work.
Swanson TV Dinners fulfilled two post-war In spite of this increased spending by
trends: the lure of time-saving modern working and middle class families, spending
appliances and the fascination with a growing on quality food is not commensurate with the
innovation, the television. More than 10 spending rises in other areas. In fact, the
million TV dinners were sold during the first proportion of disposable income spent on food
year of Swanson's national distribution. has steadily been decreasing from
Looking at TV dinners and then later fast approximately 25% of total income in the
food, it is clear that food habits reflected a 1930's to less than 9% currently (Meade &
changing sense of self that prioritized Rosen, 1996). USDA data show that of 51
mobility, efficiency, and increased countries worldwide, the US spends the
individualism. As these culinary changes smallest share on food prepared and eaten in
reflected cultural and economic changes, they the home. It is generally true that the richer a
also became antecedents for further distance country, the smaller the proportion of personal
from food sources, depersonalization of food income its citizens spend on food; however,
preparation, and ultimately increased citizens of other high income countries, such as
consumption and obesity. That, combined Switzerland, Japan, Norway, and Spain, spend
with the aforementioned drive toward nearly twice the percentage of personal income
increased productivity and industriousness than Americans on food.
brings us to the present. Not only are we spending less on food
and more on luxury goods, but the
II. Industriousness and Consumption composition of food purchased has changed
The current economic recession not dramatically over the past two decades. Data
withstanding, we are in the grip of what from the same USDA study show that per
economist Robert Frank refers to as "luxury capita availability of caloric sweeteners and
fever", that is, an uninterrupted rise in the fats increased in the U.S. by 20% between 1977
past three decades in luxury consumption, and 1997 (Meade & Rosen, 1996). Thus, it's fair
independent of inflation and economic to say that, with the exception of poorer
recession (Frank, 1999). In previous economic families who spend a higher proportion of
booms, such excesses were associated with total income on food, working, middle, and
only the superrich. Today, however; luxury, upper class Americans spend less of their
by global standards, is more accessible than overall money on food than before, and nearly
ever to a large proportion of those in all Americans have a diet that is characterized
developed nations. M o r e and more, even by more unhealthy foods, such as potato chips,
working and lower-middle class families are sodas, and sweets.
able to afford the ownership of a private car, Rises in income capital have been
cable television, and designer clothing items associated with more frequent dining out -
that are now thought of as basic by many. America's favorite pastime. In fact, the
While consumption patterns in middle and proportion of total food expenditures spent on
lower income earners have, to a certain extent, food-away-from-home increased from 34% in
1972 to 49% in 2006(Linn, 1999; Stewart, restaurants, and of course fast food
Blisard, & Jolliffe, 2006). Eating at restaurants restaurants, all respond to and sustain the
has become one of the most frequent luxury myth that there is no time.
behaviors and for many takes places in Researchers in 2008 surveyed people
restaurants with food that is served in large who ate at fast food restaurants and found that
portion sizes, has been trucked long distances, 92% said it's because the restaurants are quick,
and is therefore loaded with preservatives, 53% said they were too busy to cook, and 44%
fat, and salt to retain flavor and preserve food. said that they did not like to prepare foods for
Many studies to date have conclusively themselves. By contrast, 67% of respondents
shown that healthier foods, such as fruits, strongly disagreed that eating at fast food
vegetables, fish, and whole grains cost more restaurants was a way to socialize with friends
(Drewnowski & Specter, 2004). Yet most and family and 79% disagreed that the
people, irrespective of income, aren't buying restaurants had nutritious foods to offer.
these foods. While it's true that middle and (Rydell, Harnack, Oakes, et al, 2008). Such
upper class Americans do buy more "healthy" responses reveal the common thinking that
foods than do lower income groups, the fact there is no time, and moreover, that the lack of
remains that even those with more spending time is consciously "paid for" by less
capital use a great deal of their money for less socializing with friends and family and eating
expensive junk foods and convenience foods. less nutritious food.
Yet there is time. If people were too
III. Time busy to go to the movies we would not have
The effects of modernization and multi-million dollar blockbusters. If people
industrialization have resulted in powerful were too busy to watch television, advertisers
social, economic, and political forces which wouldn't invest in expensive commercials. If
push people toward repeated harmful food people were too busy to go to sports events,
choices. Prevalent American attitudes players wouldn't make millions of dollars per
surrounding both time and money are season. Somehow in all the busyness,
powerful components of the equation that Americans find the time to watch four hours of
results in unhealthful, inauthentic television per day and spend millions of
convenience foods. In his essay on American dollars on luxury goods per year. But
cuisine, anthropologist Sidney Mintz argues somehow, somewhere along the way, we came
that Americans do not, and likely will not, to believe that we were too busy to invest time
have a cuisine of our own, in the traditional in what we eat.
sense of the term, largely because of our So, increased consumption as well
notion of time (Mintz, 1996). Mintz argues notions about our lack of time have conspired
that Americans are repeatedly told (and to keep us out of the kitchen. Today the
strongly believe) that they are so busy that average American spends only 27 minutes a
they have little or no time to spare. In turn, day on food preparation (Pollan, 2009, p.3),
this serves to increase aggregate consumption which is one of the major culprits in the obesity
with the astonishing variety of time-saving epidemic. Harvard economist and Obama
products and foods. "Most convenience food Health Adviser David Cutler and his
is successful because of prior conceptions colleagues found "that when we don't have to
about time. But most such food would not cook meals, we eat more of them: as the
succeed if Americans cared more about how amount of time Americans spend cooking has
and what they ate." Many people believe that dropped by about half, the number of meals
they are "too busy" to grocery shop or Americans eat in a day has climbed; since 1977,
prepare meals at home. Buffets, "express" we' ve added approximately half a meal to our

daily intake. food is cooked. The energy of the heat used for
cooking effectively pre-digests food, allowing
Cutler and his colleagues also surveyed the body to preserve more of its energy,
cooking patterns across several cultures and allowing for a net gain in calories a crucial
found that obesity rates are inversely biological advantage when food was scarce.
correlated with the amount of time spent on
food preparation. The more time a nation He continues: "The extra energy gave
devotes to food preparation at home, the the first cooks biological advantages. They
lower its rate of obesity." (Pollan, 2009, p. 7) survived and reproduced better than before.
This is somewhat counterintuitive, as it would Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by
seem that more time in the kitchen might biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped
equal a higher caloric intake. Certainly, by natural selection to take maximum
spending more time in the kitchen is no advantage of the new diet" (p.14) In other
talisman against overweight or obesity; words, Wrangham argues that cooking food
however, home-cooked food seems to made digestion easier and so the human gut
somehow mediate caloric intake, not just on could grow smaller compared to other non-
the part of the cook, but on those eating as human primates. The enormous energy
well. Overweight and obesity, then, are not previously spent on digestion then allowed the
simply a pure function of food intake, but of human brain to grow larger.
who makes the food, and where.
Incidentally, Wrangham does not
IV. The Cooking Hypothesis advocate a raw food diet as a means of weight
Indeed, there is mounting evidence loss, although the reduced net caloric intake of
that what separates humans from other raw food might suggest this as viable diet
animals is not language, not culture, but strategy. Research has shown, however; that
cooking. In his recent book Catching Fire: Hour not only do raw foodists experience chronic
Cooking Made Us Human (2009) primatologist hunger, but suffer from as much as 50% lower
Richard Wrangham argues that cooking food, fertility rates (Wrangham, 2009, p. 20), which is
which began probably about 500,000 years further support for the idea that the switch to
ago is what originally separated humans from cooked food was an evolutionary turning point
apes and from our non-human ancestors. Our that led to reproductive fitness.
ancestors discovered that the control of fire
could be used to cook food which offered The advantages to cooking food were
crucial biological advantages, such as not just biological. The social changes to
maximizing energy, impeding food spoilage, human life were revolutionary. Gathering
and improving overall food safety. "Cooked around a fire required socializing, calmed the
food does many familiar things," he observes. human temperament, and fostered cooperative
"It makes our food safer, creates rich and living. As Fernandez-Armesto (2001) puts it in
delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating Food: A History, " Culture began when the raw
can allow us to open, cut or mash tough got cooked" (p.5). The campfire becomes a
foods. But none of these advantages is as place of communion when people eat around
important as a little-appreciated aspect: it. Cooking is not just a way of preparing food
cooking increases the amount of energy our but of organizing society around communal
bodies obtain from food" (p.13). Quite meals and predictable mealtimes. Levi-Strauss,
simply, the energy the body must expend to in his influential book The Ram and the Cooked,
consume and digest raw food is significantly wrote, "Not only does cooking mark the
more than what it expends when the same transition from nature to culture, but through
This seems to require that the provenance of understood as an essential component of
our things be brought closer to home. Many development and good social relations. In
people are trying to recover a field of vision childhood and adolescence, family time
that is basically human in scale, and extricate historically occurred over the dinner table.
themselves from the obscure forces of a global Relationships with more distant family
economy." (Crawford, p. 8) When we members usually took place over holidays,
relegate the assembly and production of reunions, and family gatherings, all of which
consumer goods and foods to unseen others, center around the table. Weddings, funerals,
we no longer know where things comes from, initiations, cleansings, and many other rituals
whose hands they' ve passed through, what are how children learn what it means to be part
exploitation has been done to others, or what of their group virtually all of such rituals
damage might be done to ourselves. involve food.
The use of fire to cook food and the use
of tools for a variety of activities were both Many food rituals attempt to invoke the
turning points in human evolution. Wh at past, a group's history, or even the deceased.
does it mean for the species that we are In the Mexican celebration Dia de losMuertos,
becoming increasingly disconnected from for example, altars are made for the dead and
both activities because of the intellectual women spend all day preparing the favorite
economy and the ability to entrust others with food of the deceased to place at the altar.
preparing and cooking our food? Now, there Other food rituals invoke a temporal
are clearly many advantages to having others regression as a means of connecting with one' s
prepare our food. By not having to go out ancestors. In the highly ritualized Passover
and hunt for tonight's dinner and spend Seder, for example, the Seder plate contains
hours cooking and preparing it, we can important symbols of the holiday. Maror, the
develop our minds or exchange goods and bitter herbs, are used as a symbol of the
services (translation: shopping), but it seems bitterness of slavery. Zeroa, a roasted shank
that this disconnect is partly responsible for bone, is a symbol of the Passover sacrifice. Salt
the growing obesity epidemic, as well as other water is also used to symbolize the tears of
less measurable phenomena, such as a sense slavery. The Seder is a ritual meant to bridge
of alienation or lack of community felt by the cultural space and emotional experience
many in the West. between generations, faraway places, and the
rituals of one's ancestors. It is not only the
VII. Food, Ritual, and Civility telling of a story, but a reenactment. It is an
important component of both religious identity
In our evolutionary history, cooking and history in that it also tells the story of a
and the use of tools for cooking became people so that it is never forgotten. The Seder
deeply intertwined with rituals and rites of then is a mechanism by which psychological
passage early on. Every known cultural has "genes" are handed down through generations
rituals for which food is often a central focus. and transmit political information through oral
For the developing child in particular, cultural history (Volkan, 1996). The poignant role of
identity and community are shaped by the food and food ritual in the intergenerational
familial narrative and by the cultural and transmission of sociopolitical history can be
familial rituals established for that group. seen in the humorous Jewish saying regarding
Food and food rituals are one of the more religious holidays: "They tried to kill us, we
important facets of an individual's subjective won, let's eat."
terrain and mediator of experience. Healthy, Ross and Ross have a similar
joyous, and celebratory food rituals can be understanding of the Christian mass:
The bottom line is that the more time
we spend in the kitchen the less likely we are
to be overweight or obese and the more likely
we are to engage in cooperation, sharing, and
civility. W hat we know is that food prepared
in the home, partly because it does not need
the fat, salt, and sugar, that convenience food
needs to be palatable, is no where near the
caloric value of packaged food, fast food, or
much restaurant food. We also know that
there are social and psychological benefits to
cooking and eating at home. Collaboration,
cooperation, nourishing others, and being
nourished by others have a synergistic effect
with the nutritional benefits of cooking, which
together mediate personal health probably
more than almost anything else.

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