I’m grateful for some interesting twists in my life: VISTA volunteer, commercial attorney, software developer, professional mom, school volunteer and, for the last 18 years, a journey deep into the world of food
It began as a simple, desperate bid to make wheat- and dairy-free meals to make my children well. But then I discovered that the world of food was hardly a boring monochrome. It was an intriguing Technicolor world. Deeper and deeper I delved, uncovering fascinating layer upon layer: the nourishing and nurturing power of meals, the vibrancy of vegetables, the unparalleled pleasure of tree-ripened fruits, the joy and creative fun of food, the dinner table’s connective strength, how everyday cooking could be easy, being green in the kitchen, and the inspired side everyday eating.
My food journey began on an unlikely path-as a developer of meal management software-and then progressed to author of a kitchen organizing book, then kitchen coach, then healthy eating trainer. But it has grown beyond these boundaries. Hence the title of “kitchen dahla,” in an attempt to find a more expansive and comprehensive moniker.
What’s a “Kitchen Dahla?”
Quite frankly, the concept of a kitchen dahla is an evolving one, and a good one for discussion.
Briefly, a dahla would be someone who minds the kitchen culture-and even creates a whole new kitchen culture.
This presupposes that there is such a thing as a “kitchen culture,” and that we are in need of a new or at least revised, one. This is where the discussion comes in. Are we on target, thinking there is a need for a minder of kitchen culture?
Here is my view of things. I hope you’ll weigh in.
Big picture, we do need to create and support a new culture in the kitchen. One that works better for the place where we find ourselves today. One that better supports real, wholesome meals, connected families and communities, and a healthy planet. One that en-values food, respects those who produce and prepare it and celebrates the joy and pleasure of eating.
Day to day, we could also use some help on a practical level, with those kitchen and cooking skills that got lost over the last 20-30 years. Those are the skills that make us feel confident, comfortable and capable preparing meals-not just any meals, but ones that cultivate lifelong wellness, deliver good energy from the inside out, and tickle the taste buds with joy and pleasure.
These big picture and everyday goals are what I’m interested in as a kitchen dahla.
Kitchen Culture and Dahlas: The Genesis
The “kitchen culture idea came from a most unlikely source: The Yoruba culture of the Guinea Coast in west-central Africa (from the Ivory Coast down to Nigeria and Camaroon.) Now that’s a long way from Kansas!
The connection isn’t really so unlikely, though. Claudia, the creative half of this business, is just finishing a degree in _____________. As we were talking about creating this blog and how to focus it, Claudia remembered something from one of her art classes, It had included a segment on the highly developed art of the Yoruba-which is closely tied to a religious tradition that revolves around several types of supernatural beings.
Claudia remembered that one of these revered beings is the god Obatala, guardian and protector of the culture. On the flip side, there is Oba, one of the most important and powerful of goddesses who oversees the creation of the culture. The actual earthly work of creating the culture is the charge of Yoruba women, guided by Oba. As one Yoruba saying puts it:.
Women create the culture and men protect it.
If the mother is annoyed they can turn the world upside down. – Erun Priestess 1975.
Something clicked. Maybe that’s what we were really all about: the culture of the kitchen-raising awareness of it, creating and/or freshening it up, nurturing it, celebrating it. .
Of course that’s a pretty big job, one that really needs the services of a god and goddess. Since we don’t exactly have those credentials, we’ve set our sights a little lower. We’d be happy to at least contribute to the revitalization of our kitchen culture.
One final thing remained: What do you call someone who minds the culture of the kitchen? As our language doesn’t have any job titles to fit this kind of position, we decided to create one: “dahla,” a derivation of Obatala, in gratitude for a reminder about the importance of culture, but modified to take on a more specific role in the area of cooking and the kitchen.
So now, on to some more thoughts about this new idea:
Why Do We Need a New Kitchen Culture?
To begin with, what the heck is a “kitchen culture?” I define it as the combination of skills, perspectives, knowledge, wisdom and attitudes we bring to meal making and the kitchen.
Now, why do we need a new one? In a nutshell, because the old one isn’t working too well here at the outset of the 21st century.
That’s a pretty bold statement. Following is what I remember that led me to it, and gave me a hunch that an outmoded kitchen culture is the way to frame the challenges facing us around food today.
I hope this blog starts a conversation on the subject of food, cooking, kitchens, meal times and the cultural milieu surrounding them all. Feel free to share what you remember and think.
Piecing Together the Past
What did our old “kitchen culture” look like?
The culture that stands out in my mind is the one embodied by June Cleaver on Leave It To Beaver. Those raised in the 50s and 60s remember June as the embodiment of what women were supposed to be like and how mealtimes were supposed to unfold. Promptly at 5:00, husband Ward would walk in the door to a delicious (even if boring) home-cooked dinner, prepared lovingly by June, who would be smartly outfitted and ready to serve her husband. June’s two lovely children, Beaver and Wally would be scrubbed and eager to sit down for a family meal.
Around that icon of motherhood and mealtimes, certain kitchen norms coalesced: Meal making was a woman’s job; dinner needed to be on the table by 5:00, no later than 5:30 p.m.; the table had to be set and everyone seated at the appointed hour; culinary experimentation was not encouraged; dinners had a meat, starch and vegetable; dinnertime was calm family time, punctuated only by polite conversation; smiles all around were expected; kitchens were kept spotless and dirty dishes weren’t left to fester on the kitchen counters and above all, dinner needed to be something that dad liked.
If I had only a few words to describe that kitchen culture they would be “comforting in its consistency,” but “unbearably rigid.” In fact, that rigidity is what destined it for failure. With all the social and technological upheaval that followed the 50s, flexibility was needed for the survival of the valuable institution of wholesome, sit-down meals. But our kitchen culture didn’t flex.
So we threw that out in the 60s and 70s, as well we should have. Besides being too rigid, it was plastic, unrealistic, and not very fun. Not to mention, it didn’t work so well when June started working outside the home. In fact, for we feminists of the 70s and 80s, our distance from the kitchen became a badge of honor. Nobody was going to chain us to the stove!
The problem is that after throwing out the Cleaver culture, we never installed a good replacement. Probably because we were all too busy with work outside the home piled on top of work at home!
To be sure, there were a couple attempts to update the model, both unsuccessful. In the 70s, television ads cheered women on, assuring them that they could “Bring Home the Bacon and Cook It Too.” While it was a clever campaign, the underlying premise was flawed, since no one was willing to create a 26-hour day so women could accomplish the work required of them both inside and outside the home.
The 80s and 90s brought relief in the form of takeout, expanded deli sections, bargain restaurants and fast foods, but given the current 66% obesity rate and the breakdown of the family dinner, that wasn’t a viable model either.
Sadly, we’ve suffered a lot as a result of the loss of a viable kitchen culture. Lost were all the riches the kitchen has to offer: refreshment after a frazzled day, the comfort of really good, soul-satisfying food; the family connections formed over a home-cooked (or even a semi-home-cooked) meal and the vitally nourishing food that can’t be replaced by factory-made food.
Now, with the dawn of the 21st century, we’re in a pickle. Long gone are the idyllic days of June Cleaver baking after-school brownies for Beaver. It’s a harsher world now: technology-driven, hyper-paced, economically unnerving, environmentally fragile.
The health care crisis is emblematic. Gone is the family doc, replaced by a fabulous infrastructure of huge hospitals, medical technology, mammoth drug research and manufacturing facilities, complicated insurance requirements and highly specialized doctors, nurses and technologists. Chronic diseases are the plagues of the 21st century and we’re going bankrupt trying to support a vast medical infrastructure that promises to “cure” us.
Families are far different, too. Gone is the “father-bread winner, mother homemaker, kids playing in the backyard” model. Instead, family time is a rare commodity, kids are hooked on junk food, video games, television and the Internet, sports wreak havoc on everyone’s schedules, and intense workloads are required of both parents just to keep up. The family dinner was a necessary casualty.
And then there is the marketing we’re subjected to-those thousand exposures per day, many of them telling us to hurry to this restaurant, quick eat this frozen food, and nibble this packaged snack while staring at whatever screen we happen to be in front of. In particular, kids are a marketing magnet, being preyed upon to an unconscionable extent by companies eager to cement brand loyalties early on.
Surveying American life from an outside perspective, it looks like an insane treadmill-like the kind in a rat’s cage. Racing forward, we cover little distance. Every “solution” we glob onto creates new problems, demanding more new solutions requiring more money, more time, more work and ultimately more stress-the very culprit at the root of our problems.
Piecing Together Solutions
Despite the accelerating insanity of American culture, I remain hopeful. The root of my hope is Food. Sound crazy? Well, consider the power of wholesome, vegetable-centered meals made with real foods, sustainably and locally grown, and produced in a way that fairly compensates each person in the chain of production. Consider if those meals are self-prepared with an eye towards their healing and nutritional values and with environmental consideration. And what if those meals were made to taste really good and were eaten with relish, pleasure, relaxation and good conversation. Lots of good would come tumbling forth:
- stress relief (one of the biggest and most powerful)
- lifelong wellness
- good energy, from the inside out
- time to talk and build relationships between family members (especially teens)
- good friend time
- technology relief
- economic relief via money savings (fewer packaged and restaurant meals, less wasted food, lower energy usage)
- less pesticide and fertilizer pollution
- fewer carbon emissions (from shorter transports, reduced meat consumption, etc.)
- healthier air and water
- a reduced need for expensive drugs and procedures
- more mealtime satisfaction, leading to less overeating
- friendlier relationships with food, leading to less disordered eating and “dieting”
- fewer chronic diseases
- more equitable wealth distribution and less social discord
- more jobs with real, tangible and meaningful outcomes
- less eating in response to profit-oriented marketing
- greater self-reliance
I even wonder what would happen if all the money sunk into war machinery were instead devoted to preparing sumptuous meals for the armies to sit down and share together? A vision for world peace?
Whoa, that sounds like a lot for the humble kitchen to accomplish. But I believe in it.
What Does a New Kitchen Culture Look Like?
Gaining all these benefits requires a new approach to food, eating, cooking and the kitchen. We can’t advance as long as we’re lugging along the old, rigid approach of the 50s and 60s. Hence the need for a new culture around the kitchen. Here’s my vision:
The hallmark of this new culture would be flexibility, because our mealtimes happen in widely varying circumstances: Single parents, single people, night shifts, multiple schedules, busy schedules, big families, couples, ethnic tastes, traditional tastes, working moms, stay-at-home dads, work-at-home moms, road warriors, gourmet chefs to neophytes-you name it, we all need to nourish our bodies.
So meals could vary widely, depending on needs and circumstances. At the same time, however, there would be some core values that tie us all together.
Remember that old Aretha Franklin song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We need a lot of more of that all up and down the food chain, for farmers who forego air conditioned offices to grow food, immigrants who break their backs harvesting it, grocers willing to stock non-mainstream products, everyday cooks who shop for and prepare tasty meals, and finally, for the earth which miraculously turns little, dead-looking seeds into luscious and nutritious fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts that make it possible for us to live at all.
This could be a sizeable leap in a culture that routinely mutates real foods into cheap processed facsimiles thereof. We mindlessly graze on these test-tube products in front of screens, long past the point when we even taste them. We assume grocery stores will always stock these adulterations. We have no idea where they come from, what’s in them, who grew them or how.
And how about meal making? Shopping for food and making meals are about as low on the totem pole as a chore can go. Food itself is one of the least valued of our purchases. We get indignant about spending a mere 11% of our disposable income to keep ourselves from starving when people in other countries spend a lot more. And where do we buy food? In department stores like Target and Wal-Mart, where it is sold like TV trays, Nike knockoffs and every other mass merchandise product.
In other words, our culture is a long way from respecting the fruits of the earth as the absolute foundation and giver of life. But we can start, and that’s where a new kitchen culture begins.
Kitchen Know-How Is as Valuable as Clothes Shopping, Sports Watching and Vacations
A good place to start is by acquiring some basic kitchen know-how. Sadly, food knowledge has been largely relegated to the antiquities shelf of the library-something of historical value but little practical use. Why should we bother with all the details of food-making when there are restaurants, delis, packaged foods companies, and takeout services to meet our everyday food needs?
The answer to that question is becomes more obvious by the day: because our love affair with convenience is killing us. By and large, convenience foods not only fail to promote good health; they actually have a negative impact. Convenience foods very often involve environmentally suicidal growing, manufacturing and transport practices. Convenience foods create enormous amounts of plastic and paper waste. Finally, convenience foods divert valuable farm output into nutritionally inferior food products.
It’s understandable that we ignore these realities just because convenience foods are so-convenient! How in the world would we feed ourselves on our busy schedules without cheap subs, pizzas, deli chicken and Chinese takeout?
Precisely the point. We’re trapped. Without knowing how to take care of our own food needs, we can save neither ourselves nor the planet. The fundamental kitchen skills and knowledge that could be our saving grace got thrown out along with our outdated kitchen culture. Which leads to the next point about becoming self-reliant.
The Return of Self-Reliance
If we want to re-take control of our health, free ourselves from an ever-escalating need for more drugs and procedures, save the planet from food-related pollution and carbon emissions, and eliminate the landfill waste created by the convenience food industry, then we must become more self-reliant. It’s hard to thumb our noses at McDonalds, Wendy’s and Dominos if we can’t boil an egg to save our lives.
So it’s time to regain the ability to feed ourselves well. Admittedly, we are a long way from there and, at least for the time being, can’t take care of our needs from the ground up. But is it too much to ask that we learn to cook the raw fruits of the earth into palatable food without a factory in between?
Note that this doesn’t mean gourmet cooking or even much cooking at all. It is well enough to simply turn real foods into meals that satisfy taste buds and nutritional needs; to do so without demanding that food be artificially cheapened; and to do so with the least environmental damage possible.
The funny thing is, acquainting ourselves with the food world isn’t as old-fashioned or dowdy as it might seem. There is a vast and valuable repository of culinary wisdom and knowledge of all the different foods and preparation methods that women have accumulated over the centuries. Delving into it actually yields a sense of mastery that is surprisingly satisfying, on subjects both small and large, from how to cook tough meats, preserve food and use every part of a vegetable to selecting a good winter pear, knowing what herbs and spices go with what foods and understanding how to cook grains and beans.
Money Doesn’t Talk
Which leads directly to the food marketing issue. We’ve been led to believe that the most we need to know about food is which flavor of Trix we like best, what kind of soup is the thickest and chunkiest, and how to choose the cheapest brand of ketchup. Going back to the point about respect, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking it unnecessary to take time to learn about foods. Instead we place our trust in manufacturers and grocers and rely on whatever they see fit to put on the grocery store shelves.
Bad move. Corporations up and down the food chain are driven by one motive: shareholder value, i.e., profits. They are not the guardians of your health. You cannot trust them nor expect them to protect your health interests. That’s not their job; it is ours.
So we need to divorce ourselves from Corporate Food Marketing as a source of knowledge about what to eat. We need to get in the habit of questioning every food choice and nutrition claim and asking who (especially what company, industry trade group or other moneyed interest) lies behind it.
Going back to the self-reliance thing, we need to educate ourselves on enough of the basics, from objective sources, so we can self-evaluate our food choices.
We Are What We Eat-Really
In another part of this blog, I talk about how ill my children were at a very young age and how we were able to cure them primarily through nutritional therapy. [LINK]
Seeing my kids get happily healthy as the result of a change in diet was mind-boggling 18 years ago. I thought pills were for healing and food was for stopping hunger pangs. Now, “we are what we eat” is a refrain so common it’s almost trite. Yet how many of us (me included) still eat as if the food gods won’t see the Coke we guzzle at 2:00 in the afternoon, or the fried mozzarella sticks we scarf down on Friday after work, or the vegetables rotting in the frig cause we’re too tired to cook them?
That’s why a new kitchen culture would embrace this notion not only in word but deed. We would eat like it really mattered, because it does!
Real is Ideal-Plus Sustainably Grown, Organic and Local
So what kinds of foods are good for us? Confusion reigns in this area, but after many years in the business, I’ve noticed that the expert advice boils down to four simple guidelines. What’s interesting about this “Simple Prescription for Good Eating,” as I call it, is that these basic dietary guidelines are prescribed for the prevention of __ of the main scourges of modern living. Find our more here. [[LINK-include good independent sources of information]]
Even simpler than the Simple Prescription is the “Get Real” rule: If you ever wonder whether something is fit to be taken into your body, ask if it is a real food, i.e., something directly from the ground, or is it made entirely of foods that come directly from the ground with minimal processing. [[LINK]] You can think of this as “eating low on the food chain.”
What’s great about these two approaches is their flexibility. Every culture’s and region’s foods are honored, as are our individual taste differences.
Other ideals we begin gravitating towards are foods organically and sustainably grown. After all, what good does it do to eat real foods if they are grown in a way that destroys the air, water and soil? This gets back to the Lion King, circle of life idea. If we nurture the earth, the earth can do a better job of nurturing us.
As we’re likely heading into a seriously carbon-constrained world, it makes sense to begin reeling our food choices in closer and closer to home. Begin now to support a local infrastructure of farms, food producers and distribution systems. Not only is this wise in terms of preparedness-you stand to be rewarded with some spectacularly tasty food! [[LINKs to Local Movement]]
Convenience Can be OK
Although it’s gotten a bad rap so far, convenience isn’t all bad. Take canned beans that contain only beans, salt and water. Those are all real foods. Someone just did the cooking for you. That’s the kind of convenience we can all use. It saves valuable time without jeopardizing our health.
So do take advantage of convenience foods, like frozen vegetables, salad bar veggies, pre-made sauces, pre-cut chicken strips and so on. BUT: 1) read the ingredient label to make sure only real ingredients are used, 2) go for minimal processing and 3) scan the nutrition label to avoid products with excessive sugar, fat and salt additions.
Time in the Kitchen is A-OK.
Here’s another thing that’s officially OK: Time in the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be much, it doesn’t have to be spent on gourmet concoctions, and it certainly doesn’t have to be serious. But since we can’t rely on the food industry to fully address our need for nourishment., that leaves just one person for the job-unless you can afford a personal chef!
Of course our culture makes it tough to feel OK spending time in the kitchen. Aren’t we just supposed to let the Colonel, Ronald McDonald and Applebee’s take care of our food needs? Isn’t there something wrong with me if I just say no to all that and prepare my own meals with plain, unprocessed, unpackaged, real foods?
There’s a cultural tsunami of marketing dogma aimed at keeping us out of the kitchen-and in the arms of the processed foods industry. Because our system gravitates toward profit centers and meals made at home from unprocessed, real foods are not profit centers. So you won’t see any support for that activity on TV, in magazine ads or in any other commercial media avenue.
Although we’re on our own here, happily, the fun and rewards of nurturing ourselves provide all the support we need.
Food is a Good Thing
Are we about done with eating as the enemy? I’m ready for an end to my mother’s veiled comments about how much I eat. I’m ready for women to look at a plate of food with joy and delight instead of apprehension and visions of lard landing on their middle parts. Hasn’t feminism advanced enough to encompass eating honestly and openly, without buckling under the glare of the weight-loss gods? .
Be thankful, guys, that you are not burdened by this relic of the 50s (carefully cultivated by the media so it is just as virulent today.) May we women be blessed with eyesight that sees food just for what it is: vital nourishment for our bodies. And yes, it does contain calories. That’s the point!
The Kitchen as Oasis of Comfort and Community
In a new kitchen culture, the kitchen isn’t a room that has outlived its usefulness (some people brag that they don’t even need a kitchen anymore.) Nor a place of drudgery, toil and aggravation. Nor just a designer showcase in our homes.
Rather, it’s a friendly, inviting, nurturing, comforting, working, breathing, very much alive part of our homes and lives. The place where we go to make the meals that are the foundation for all the other, really important parts of our lives-the careers, the jobs, the deals, the shopping trips, the vacations, the social events, the degrees, the marketing campaigns.
Mealtimes Are Fun
Much as I treasure the family meals of my youth, I must admit they were fairly tense affairs-largely because things were so structured and rigid.
In a new kitchen culture, mealtimes are fun times, something we look forward to at the end of the day, times to reconnect with family members, maybe also friends or housemates. It doesn’t matter that somebody forgot to get the ketchup, or that somebody is a little late, or somebody has to leave early. The main thing lies in enjoying our food and each other’s company as much as possible, and feeling like you’ve just had a refreshing break from the day.
Cooking Is Not a Competitive Sport.
With all due respect for the competitions that have become popular these days, cooking is not a competitive spectator sport. Food wasn’t meant to be better and best, just good, nourishing, appetizing and pleasurable. There is no such thing as loser dishes.
Eating Is Neither a Game nor Playground Entertainment
In a similar vein, while food and eating are definitely for our enjoyment, they are not in the same entertainment category as playgrounds, games and toys. Our children should be spared that association, brought to us courtesy of Ronald McDonald and cereal manufacturers.
Where Does a Kitchen Dahla Come in?
What I hope to bring with this blog is
- Knowledge and Skills
- New perspectives
- Fun and Creativity
All in the service of creating the new kitchen culture described above. Enjoy!