Two years ago, my wife Adrienne bought me an unusual birthday present: a beehive filled with 30,000 bees plus a subscription to Bee Culture magazine. Since then, I have added six additional hives, harvested two crops of honey, endured a few minor stings, and become an avid reader of this odd low-budget publication. Of most interest to me was a recent article containing a survey of American eating habits. It contained the following facts:
-The ideal food preparation time is 15 minutes. It is estimated that it will be five minutes by 2030.
-Only one-third of women over the age of 20 bake for fun, even once per year.
-Seventy-five percent of Americans do not know at 4 p.m. what they'll eat for dinner.
-Three-quarters of American children do not know how to cook.
-In 1995, restaurant sales were greater than supermarket sales.
-The sources of meals consumed at home are: fast food 41 percent; restaurant takeout 21 percent; and supermarket takeout 22 percent. This means that only 16 percent of the meals we consume at home are (presumably) home-cooked.
Another survey, this one reported by The New York Times, found that 75 percent of those polled did not know how to cook broccoli, 50 percent couldn't prepare gravy, and 45 percent didn't know the number of teaspoons in a tablespoon. The article went on to say that "in the last decade (the '80s), cooking has evolved into an optional activity, like skiing or playing chess." But this trend is not just a recent phenomenon. Back at the turn of the century, convenience foods were already being cleverly inserted into published recipes, often by magazine food writers who were heavily subsidized by the food industry, a practice that continues to this day.
The influence of advertising on food consumption became so enormous that one Iowa novelist quipped almost 100 years ago that "people in the United States do not eat for pleasure...eating is something done just in response to advertising." Another indication of things to come was that in the 1930s the average distance between growing fields and markets was already 1,500 miles.
Given where we find ourselves today (with fewer than 20 percent of the meals we eat at home being home-cooked) and despite relatively minor indications to the contrary (such as this magazine), we might begin to wonder at the meaning of the term "inconvenient." The dictionary states that it is the opposite of convenient, which itself is defined as "suited or favorable to a person's needs, comfort, or purpose." One then might reasonably ask, what is our purpose? I suspect that recent trends would indicate that our aim is to be comfortable, to have our physical needs fulfilled as easily and quickly as possible. Yet human history has always been driven by greater purposes than mere comfort, among them religion, spiritual awakening, freedom, and a lust for adventure. If convenience were truly the measure of life's activities, then Lewis and Clark would never have found a route to the West Coast, Jamestown would never have been settled, men would never have landed on the moon, and Martin Luther King would never have left his congregation. We would also be at great pains to explain the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and why anyone has ever voluntarily joined the armed forces. Boot camp is the epitome of inconvenience.
So why are Americans so lacking in spunk when it comes to the kitchen? After all, the rest of our life is consumed with "inconveniences"-- like raising children and commuting to work. Perhaps we are lazy about our food because, for the first time in history, we don't have to cook to eat. Or perhaps we no longer find anything enlightening about the process of preparing food. Going to the moon is worth the effort; making chicken Parmesan is less noble.
Recently, as I was checking the hives, I took a moment to watch the bees build the honeycomb, the workers swarming over the beeswax foundation, engaged in an endless series of repetitive tasks. I began to wonder how bees see their short, hard lives. Maybe they dream about flying through a warm summer evening, laden with nectar, floating weightlessly down to the hive entrance, or perhaps they fall asleep thinking of fields of bright purple clover, orange and yellow Indian paintbrushes, and apple trees bursting with fragile white blossoms. The buzz and rich, moist air of the hive must act as a thick blanket, enveloping them as they sleep. And at the end of their life cycle, a mere six weeks at the height of the season, they must dream of the work itself, of building a honeycomb and filling it with thick goldenrod honey.
These are good thoughts-- of hard work, of building a home, of working side by side with others. These are also the dreams of cooks, of those of us who have traded comfort for hard work and instant gratification for knowledge. In the kitchen, much like bees, we build foundations and fill them with sweet dreams that will be remembered by the next generation of cooks who will stand in our kitchens, preparing our recipes, long after our work is done.