It's generally assumed that the entrance of women into the workforce is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking―but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same steep rate among women who don't work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40% since 1965. (Though for married women who don't have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs. In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.
Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming ― giving us synthetic fertilizers made from the chemicals used to develop weapons―also industrialized our eating.
Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the workforce but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a failure in their "moral obligation to cook," something they believed to be as important a parental responsibility as child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to overcome this attitude and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes remained on supermarket shelves until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the "baker" to do ― specifically, crack open an egg―she could take ownership of the cake. Over the years, the food scientists have gotten better and better at simulating real food, keeping it looking attractive and seemingly fresh, and the rapid acceptance of microwave ovens―which went from being in only 8% of American households in 1978 to 90% today―opened up vast new horizons of home-meal replacement.
Research by Harry Balzer, a food-market specialist, suggests that the corporate project of redefining what it means to cook and serve a meal has succeeded beyond the industry's wildest expectations. People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children's lunchboxes. (Now how much of a timesaver can that be?) "We've had a hundred years of packaged foods," Balzer says, "and now we're going to have a hundred years of packaged meals." Already today, 80% of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing. Balzer is unsentimental about this development: "Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don't think so." So what are we doing with the time we save by outsourcing our food preparation to corporations and 16-year-old burger flippers? Working, commuting to work, surfing the Internet, and (perhaps most curiously of all) watching other people cook on television.
But this may not be quite the paradox it seems. Maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we're not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely. Why not? Perhaps because cooking―unlike sewing or darning socks―is an activity that strikes a deep emotional chord in us, one that might even go to the heart of our identity as human beings.