As you might imagine, I live in somewhat of a media dead zone. The only time I get caught up on the news is when I am sick enough to merit a hotel stay. Then I can watch CNN and the BBC to my heart’s content. But thanks to my wonderful friends, I am receiving a fairly consistent supply of good magazines, so at least I’m getting high quality media, even if it is old news by the time I get it. Recently I received a New York Times Magazine (August 2, 2009) from one of my aforementioned wonderful friends. The magazine contained an article by Michael Pollan bemoaning the state of American cookery. In it, Pollan plots the trajectory of American cooking from 1963 to the present. Basically, he says, over that period Americans have been cooking less and less, eating more and more processed food, and spending more time watching cooking shows on TV than we spend in our own kitchens.
Pollan links these patterns to the rise in obesity in America. At one point he sites research that shows, “the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income.” The average American, he says, now spends only 27 minutes per day cooking. Another study finds that “the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America.”
Now I’m not one to hate on Michael Pollan. But I look around me, and I wonder, What gives? I don't know any statistics on obesity in Nicaragua, but from my informal observation there is definitely a problem here. Many of my community members have diabetes, and by visual inspection, a majority of women over 15 are very overweight. A lot of men and children are too. Yet, none of what Pollan talks about in his article applies to rural Nicaragua. People here eat very little processed food; they are too poor to afford potato chips. And women here spend all day cooking. Every day they make tortillas, which involves manually taking the corn grains off of the cob, boiling them and stirring vigorously to remove the hull, walking to the mill to grind the corn, and then patting out each tortilla by hand. The whole process probably occupies about three hours out of every day, more than six times as much time as Americans are spending cooking. And that's just for one food item.
At one point in his article, Pollan quotes a food marketing research who says, “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy!” Maybe in the US, but here that’s still the way people prepare chicken. Nobody in my community knows what a Happy Meal is; they’ve never eaten a TV dinner or a microwave pizza. Not only is the bulk of the food people eat not processed, they actually grow it themselves. And there are definitely no cooking shows.
The weight problem here is something that Peace Corps Volunteers talk about a lot, in large part because we (especially female volunteers) want to figure out how to avoid getting really fat ourselves. In what I believe is a holdover from the Atkins days, many volunteers blame the high-carb diet. Indeed, it is not uncommon for meals to be composed solely of carbohydrates. On a single plate you might find potatoes, rice, beans, tortillas, and plantains. But people here have been eating starch this way for hundreds of years, and I doubt obesity and diabetes were as big a problem 100years ago as they are now. Other hypotheses include a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, an abundance of fried food, the effect of childbearing on women’s bodies, and lack of exercise (this does not apply to most men, who work in the fields).
I’ve been wondering about it since I got here five months ago, and the other day I was given a food product that I felt perfectly encapsulated what must have happened to the Nicaraguan diet. The food item in question is called a nuegano, and it is a large, thin, piece of deep-fried white flour, topped with a simple syrup made from white sugar and water. As I ate this piece of greasy deliciousness, I realized that none of its ingredients are indigenous to this diet, and all of them are processed outside of the home, unlike the rest of what people here eat. In fact, I realized, the only things people here eat in large quantities that they don’t themselves process all the way from farm to table, are sugar, flour, and oil. And those things are cheap and delicious. So even though the women are still spending the time cooking, these new ingredients are wreaking havoc on their health and the health of their families.
I think Michael Pollan makes a great point when it comes to American food culture, but based on what I’ve observed here, a decline in time spent cooking is incomplete as an explanation for America’s obesity epidemic. The pithy end to Pollan’s article is a quote from the same food marketing researcher who talked about the chicken. “Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.” But if my experience in Nicaragua is any indication, it will take more than returning to the kitchen to solve America’s food problems.