He said “You should spend less time on food and more time on your career."


He was right.

The Real Costs of Cooking

“You should spend less time on food and more time on your career”

A boss actually said this to me once. I was the bad employee who took a full hour for lunch. And didn’t just slurp a bowl of microwaved glop while reading tech listservs like some of my co-workers. I also left at the end of the working day to join friends at dinner or to go home and cook a meal rather than reading documentation until the sun went down. 

Looking back, maybe I should have listened to him. He was right after all.

That doesn’t mean I think I should have followed his advice. Just acknowledged that it was the lay of the land. 

Modern economies depend on an economic concept called comparative advantage. It means someone (often a specialist of one kind or another) can produce something at a lower marginal and opportunity cost than another. Opportunity cost is the other important economic concept here– the idea that you have to consider the other alternatives to understand the true costs of things. 

It’s why if you are a manager in a web development environment you don’t assign programming work to a designer if you can help it. The designer is going to take a lot longer to produce the same amount of code a professional programmer can. And the time a designer is spending on writing that code for one programming project, they could have finished several design projects. 

My boss was trying to tell me that my cooking and other food habits had a high opportunity cost. Instead of cooking, eating, and cleaning up a meal from scratch, I could have allocated the task of making my food to someone at a fast food restaurant, who could have done it in a fraction of the time I took, spent 15 minutes on eating dinner, and spent the rest of the time reading about some new API. 

Understanding that makes me totally unsurprised about the rise of “Soylent” in the tech community.  No, not the substance from the classic sci-fi, the over-hyped food substitute kind of Soylent. Of course meal-substitutes have existed for a long time. I have worked with web developers who drank their lunches of Slim-Fast. But Soylent is specifically targeted towards this kind of market, though its creator Rob Rhinehart has suggested it may solve a variety of food policy issues.

I recoil from Soylent. But I understand it is inevitable. There are only so many hours of the day. And while you are cooking cassoulet from scratch, the guy in the next cubicle is scarfing down Burger King while working, getting ahead of you. The world of work drives us further into specialization.

Rob found himself resenting the inordinate amount time it takes to fry an egg in the morning and decided something had to be done. Simplifying food as "nutrients required by the body to function" (which sounds totally bulimic, I know, but I promise it's not), Rob has come up with an odourless, beige cocktail that he calls Soylent.

In fact, the biggest surprise was just how much more time we had on our hands. I was struck by how much of the day I normally spend attending to my digestive needs: thinking about what I would have for lunch or dinner; shopping for groceries (which we do almost daily); cooking — in my case, elaborate Pakistani meals most evenings; then actually eating, washing dishes, cleaning up, even moving one’s bowels. Eliminating the simple act of eating frees up much more time than you’d think. In addition to the couple of hours of daily exercise we kept up throughout, we took long walks in the mountains (we live in the Alps), did crosswords (rather slowly), surfed the net and fooled around on Facebook, and we still always had more time to fill. I realised that meals provide needed punctuation to the day, and without them our days seemed strangely lacking in structure.

And yes, that takes its toll, but things like Soylent are an attempt to get around the eventually productivity-killing long-term effects of typical time-saving foods like Burger King or cheap ramen noodles. It’s the thriftier tech industry’s version of the juice bar, which is filled with people from advertising departments who substitute their lunch hour for a few minutes of slurping down a $10 glass bottle of kale-orange-ginger juice. 

I said I wasn’t going to be that person. That a career wasn’t that important to me, but it still ate up my time. There isn’t anything magical about Michael Pollan - approved home-cooked meals. If you have more money than time, someone else can do it better at a nice restaurant. 

And there is always the thing that people don’t seem to want to talk about, which is pleasure. There are always going to be the people at the tail end of the bell curve who don’t mind living off of some kind of organic gruel or fried eggs every single morning (I don’t get Rob here, those take really very little time). Or the guy I met merrily eating raw unseasoned ground beef out of its wrapper. But pleasure matters a bit more to most people. And when I’m cooking at home, I’m competing against people in the food industry who specialize in it. 

The evidence shows that “the poor choose their foods not mainly for their cheap prices and nutritional values,” noted Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Poor Economics, “but for how good they taste.” They quote George Orwell’s observation about poor British workers in The Road to Wigan Pier: “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not … When you are unemployed you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to eat something a little tasty. There is always some cheap pleasant thing to tempt you.”

At this point in my life, I’m competitive with them. My home-cooked food is pretty damn good. This skill took time to learn. My food takes time to cook. Then there is clean-up. I employ a variety of time-saving devices, but still that time adds up. It’s even more inefficient for a single person – the marginal work for an extra person isn’t that high and they might even help cook or clean up. A small version of “economies of scale.

It’s time I’m not “leaning in” to my career. That’s not particularly important to me. But it’s also time I’m not spending on other hobbies, time not spent socializing, time not spent reading – there are thousands of things I want to do. But the day is short. 

I do end up eating out. Or buying some of the better pre-prepared foods, like sliced meat and cheese. And I’ve spent some time feeling guilty about it, as if there is something so much more virtuous about cooking a solid meal. Some people have called the movement towards moralizing this the “new puritanism.” 

So my friends and I got to eat take-out from McDonald’s and dinner from Domino's, not every day, but maybe once a week. Why? Because our parents didn’t want to cook all the time. My mother and her friends did cook—and their husbands often didn’t—but they didn’t exalt cooking as some sort of progressive act. They didn’t pretend they could express a radical political sensibility by eating local. Their political stand was different: They cooked less, refusing to believe it was their job to stay home all day preparing a nutritious meal for their families. To order Domino’s and not worry about it was a feminist act. Many of the mothers didn’t work outside the home, but if ordering Domino’s freed them up to attend their monthly women’s group or grab a cup of tea at Friendly’s, that was fine. Making time for themselves was reason enough to serve their kids junk food for a night. Making time for themselves was also a political act.

To the “new puritans,” not wanting to cook seems immoral one way or another. Ostentatious if you choose a nice restaurant. Lazy if you choose Dominos. Each “new puritan” claims their own way of doing things shows just how easy it is, if only you would cast off the fetters of pleasure seeking and enjoy a can of boiled lentils as much as they do.

But I think that guilt is unfounded. I think working people have been eating food made by other people for a very long time. The idea that everyone, man and woman, should be cooking for themselves is a new one. And in the past you didn’t have to choose between expensive restaurants that have well-made food for a high price and cheap junk-food. A French painting from 1831 comes to mind, which depicts the first “proper restaurant.” Turns out many French people at the time were eating at "takeaways":

The Corner of the Rue Bailleul and the Rue Jean Tison, 1831 - Roger-Viollet

 Parisians then subsisted on a diet of takeaways. To compose a meal, you or a servant visited a series of traiteurs. One roasted meat, another (a saucier) made sauces, a third prepared soups, for example. In addition there were bakers, pastry cooks, wine merchants (the original “gourmets”) and brewers, all members of competing guilds. Normally, you reheated the food in front of the fire. As in the cookshops that flourished in London at the same time, it was occasionally possible to consume food on the premises. Otherwise, you could only eat out at an inn offering a no-choice table d’hôte, where food was placed in the middle of the table and the faster you ate, the better you fared. An 18th-century authority, Père de la Mésangère, described how Boulanger subverted Parisian food habits, saying he “supplemented his really excellent soups with equally excellent meals… he had fat poultry, new-laid eggs, etc”. There is the detail, too, that he served everything on small marble tables without cloths.

I was surprised when I read this.

Such specialization even possibly goes back to Ancient Egypt:

The [pyramid building workers] lived in construction camps, laid out like a city, which included barracks housing 20-40 men and a large administrative center. Food was prepared in central kitchens and distributed. The higher up the administrative chain a person was, the better the food.

Then I got into some conversations with some older relatives. My ancestors ran what was known as a boarding house in Arkansas. 

The woman in the top right was my great-great grandmother. I’ve met relatives who ate at these boarding houses long ago. They told me they served lunch to working men and women, usually friends, family, or acquaintances, who worked jobs in town. 

Women didn’t just run boarding houses; they also lived in them. When American textile mills set up company towns in the 1820s and 1830s, they needed responsible young women as their workforce. Since they also had to reassure families that their daughters would be safe, and their moral character protected, the Lowell Mills created chaperoned boarding houses, with a family atmosphere. Young women shared an early but filling breakfast — meat or fish, vegetables, porridge — that fueled the work ahead. At noon a bell called them to a family-style meal. Another summoned them back to work, and the evening bell signaled the end of the day. The young women went home to eat supper, sleep, and start all over again the next morning.

Boarding houses varied in food quality. The food my relatives was typical of that region. Some of the dishes containing sugar or flour might not be exactly considered “health food” by many, but it was at least made from scratch from quality ingredients. 

Boarding houses have died out, but other local restaurants served similar niches. Even I remember good diners growing up. The one I remember is gone. Last time I was down South we ate breakfast at a diner that didn’t even have any real butter in the kitchen. Part of this is the legacy of “food puritans” in the past:

 In a critique of Freedman’s piece, Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker points out that in 1990, three of the biggest fast-food chains acquiesced to pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (who pushed a Pollan-like agenda before Pollan did), and switched their fry baskets from beef tallow to vegetable oil. (By the way, that early push for better junk food—which included grilled-chicken sandwiches at Burger King and low-fat milk at McDonald’s—did not slow the nation’s weight gain.)

While many diners serve “healthy” margarine and foods cooked in soybean oil, these days it seems well-off people in urban areas increasingly patronize restaurants that cook food in pastured lard and serve real butter. If you have the money in Chicago, it’s not that hard to find a meal like my great-great grandmother might have served. But it’s not accessible to the same kind of people. 

And so we have fast food. And meal substitutes. Even those who revere the natural aren’t immune. There are more than a few meal replacement drinks, bars, and “meal supplements” currently being marketed to paleo dieters. Sentimentality about nature has nothing on the realities of the working world. 

Is there a solution to this? I’m not sure. I’d like to see more affordable restaurants that use good ingredients, but as agriculture becomes more segmented rather than less, with grass-fed meat for example occupying a premium high-price niche, I am not sure that will happen. At best we could try to get cafeterias that serve school children or working families serve non-processed food, but the economic obstacles for this area high too. 

In some ways “underground” supper clubs are reminiscent of boarding houses. I’ve attended a few Mealshares in Chicago, which involves a host cooking a reasonably affordable meal for a variety of guests. At Universities I’ve attended student-run restaurants and coops have done the same. But ultimately these will have to involve some people making some sacrifices of opportunity costs. I feel it’s worth it. But some players in the economy might not. 

Edit: added info about the pyramids