Sylvain Charlebois: Is cooking becoming a dying art?

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Humans are the only species on Earth who cook. It is a unique aspect of the human race. But many wonder if we are witnessing the slow death of cooking.


Home-economics courses have disappeared from our curriculum across the country, and most argue that we have lost at least one generation of cooks. Nevertheless, discussions about cooking can be confusing. Although some reports suggest that more people are eating at home, restaurant revenues were up more than three per cent in 2016, and the sector is only growing.


What we eat is changing, but how and where we eat also is changing at a rapid pace. Frankly, technology has a lot to do with it, and is altering the concepts of going out and eating in. Choices for consumers have never been so abundant: fast food, fine dining, food trucks, ready-to-eat products from traditional retailers, and so forth. Eating at home can be equally confusing. You can “dine out” at home and you can cook a meal that has been ordered in.


We live in a time when we are obsessed with cooking shows and celebrity chefs. Cooking shows have been on the airwaves for more than 60 years, and were initially associated with prescriptive women’s programming.


In those days, viewers had access to a handful of hours of cooking shows, such as Julia Child or Jacques Pépin, in a week. But today, Canadians have access to almost 200 hours of food-related shows per week. In other words, anyone can watch new cooking shows all week long.


Shows on food in general have gone mainstream and are attracting a different generation of viewers and sponsors. Almost anyone can have or be involved in a cooking show now, from reality competitions to saving restaurants from going out of business. Some shows are well produced and should easily entice anyone to go into the kitchen and cook the most exquisite meal ever. Yet evidence shows that this is not happening.


Some recent surveys suggest that adults spend on average more time watching cooking shows than cooking. Even more disturbing is how these shows inspire some people. One recent study in England suggested that 20 per cent of adults who cooked a full meal only did it to post a picture on social media.


It is not about learning cooking skills, but about showing off. Although it appears that many adults want to cook more because they are spending time watching cooking shows, the fact is people are not cooking.


One fundamental reason is obviously the integration of women in the workforce. As more women continue to have more full-time jobs and spend more time outside of the household, less time is spent cooking. More women actively engaged in our economy is critical to moving forward.


As our pursuit of socio-economic equality continues, we need to find ways to encourage everyone to invest more time in the kitchen. All of us have different values and cultures to share, and there is no better way to share than through food and cooking.


As the food-service industry prospers, food retailing is almost at a stalemate. Sales were up barely 0.7 per cent in food retailing in Canada in 2016. We might want to stop thinking that cooking is too challenging, that it requires too much time and costs too much, all of which often turns us to convenience food.


What is more troubling than the decreasing amount of time spent cooking is the amount of time we spent eating. That, too, is decreasing at an alarming rate. According to the OECD, Canadians spend an average of less than an hour and 15 minutes per day eating.


To put it more succinctly, we cook less and eat faster, while the obesity rate is at worrying levels. If Canadians can get back in the kitchen, at the very least, we should take more time to enjoy our food.


 


Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.


Sylvain.Charlebois@dal.ca

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