Friday, March 11, 2011

Re-thinking Convenience and Ease

It's always both worthwhile and pleasurable to read Dominique Browning's blog, Slow Love Life, but her recent post about the dangers of BPA-free plastics has prompted me to a post of my own. Here goes.

The quantity of plastic that surrounds us has the quality of an unquestioned assumption: it is so ubiquitous, so unavoidable, that it is almost invisible. Yet this particular assumption has promoted such malignant consequences that we must question it.

My reflections began with what seems to be the predominant source of plastic entering our homes: food. For the past half century or so, one of the most fundamental connections we experience between Nature in the asbtract and our own embodied nature has been mediated largely by plastic bags, trays, boxes, and wrappers.[1] The driving force behind this obsession with packaging seems to be a particular notion of convenience, perhaps seconded by social atomization and the ability to derive greater profit per unit from individual packages.[2]
Living on my own in Manhattan, I have had to resist mightily the temptation to buy prepared foods. In fact, it was my abhorrence of all the plastic containers that made me determined to cook at home more. Not my health, not my widening girth—it was the myriad forms of plastic decorating our Manhattan sidewalks that I seem to be forever picking up and depositing in the corner garbage cans. Perhaps I was fortunate to have been brought up detesting waste of any kind; my father instilled in me a deep respect for our possessions and the time, skill, and material that went into creating them. This almost instinctive sense that waste carries a moral force entails living more thoughtfully: in the realm of food, it means more cooking of fresh ingredients at home, far less ordering from restaurants (and I avoid those that use nonrecyclable containers), and resisting those single-serving desserts that tempt me in the Whole Foods check-out line. In fact, I recently vowed to eat only those desserts I make myself, which, given the delayed gratification involved, has, regrettably, improved my diet.
So why have we bought into the idea that prepared food is so wonderful? I had written a post some time ago questioning whether fast, cheap food is really all that cheap. I'd now like to question whether convenience food is really all that convenient.

Thanks to aggressive advertising, the meaning of convenient in everyday language has been forcibly narrowed to "being near at hand" or "suited to personal comfort or easy performance." We have forgotten—some may never have known it—that convenience comes from the Latin convenientia meaning, according to my Oxford English Dictionary, “meeting together, agreement, accord, harmony, suitableness.” Thus, for several centuries convenient has meant “the quality of being suitable or well adapted to the performance of some action or to the satisfying of requirements.” Not until the early 1960’s did the advertising industry solidify a narrower, and more questionable, meaning:
The Economist (1961): “even the Thanskgiving turkey has now become a ‘convenience food’...”
The Daily Express (1961): “The convenience store is always open in America.”
Boston Sunday Herald (1967): “Send us your favorite recipe using convenience foods (frozen or refrigerated prepared foods, canned soups, sauce mixes, cake mixes, etc.) and you may win a $10 prize.”
(Apparently Americans were not buying enough convenience foods and had to be lured by the prospect of monetary reward.)
The Guardian (1968): “No one would deny the drudgery, the time wasting, the monotony, that has been removed by convenience foods.”
Well, I’d like to deny it right now. Most of the famous chefs of the past century have been men, who have not complained about the DTWM quotient (drudgery, time-wasting, and monotony) in their professional kitchens, which are surely more monotonous than any home kitchen could ever be. We now look back at cookbooks aimed at 1960s housewives and scoff, brandishing our $650 Magimix by Robot Coupe food processor from Williams-Sonoma, our $500 professional stand mixer, our $200 All-Clad Classic Round Waffle Maker.[3] Yet we haven’t given up the prepared foods that drove this domestic revolt in the first place.
It might help to consider the run-up to this new emphasis on convenience. Women had been taken out of the work force and relegated to the kitchen after men returned from the wars. Despite the currently dominant narrative, this period, in which the majority of women were primarily consumers rather than producers, was a historic aberration. Perhaps men felt guilty about taking away female purpose and gainful employment outside the home and, as compensation, decided to ease women's burdens in the kitchen. It didn’t occur to anyone (or it didn’t matter) that perhaps the DTWM quotient would be increased by Hamburger Helper and Duncan Hines Cake Mixes, which seemed to obviate skill and creativity, or that the DTWM might pertain more to the relegation of women to the kitchen in the first place than to any discontent inherent in that realm [4]. But as long as this expiated guilt was promoted as convenience, which dovetails so perfectly with larger cultural values like efficiency, speed, (apparent) low cost, and above all, a certain middle-class vision of the nuclear family, no one was the wiser. So, although convenient can still be used in popular parlance to mean “affording advantage”, it seems the only advantages we deem "convenient" have to do with comfort, nearness, and easiness.
I propose that something might afford advantage but not be near at hand; something might provide comfort without being easy. That's another word worth interrogating: easy. So closely related to ease, and yet in practice, far removed from it. Think of any pleasurable pastime: drawing, making music, playing squash, writing, reading, visiting a museum, watching a film, cooking, wine-tasting. These are actually complex endeavors, and our pleasure in them increases dramatically with our level of skill. Our early attempts at drawing or playing an instrument, for example, are awkward, effortful, and vexing; we learn quickly that these diversions are anything but “easy.” We must tolerate some degree of uncertainty and failure in order to make progress. Yet when we achieve some mastery, immersion in these activities produces a profound sense of engaged, alert relaxation. They become comfortable not despite but because of their complexity. They are not easy, but they bring ease.
Of course, these endeavors also have their mass-produced/mass-market counterparts that require virtually no skill at all to enjoy. Some blockbuster movies and most pop songs fall into this category. Fast food for the eyes and ears, they actually demand an unsophisticated palate for enjoyment: education of sense and sensibility ruins one's ability to appreciate the cheap imitation, the vulgar, the unskilled, the soul-less. That is why we're often disappointed when we return to a film or a piece of music that was a favorite of ours in adolescence: we realize, usually with embarrassment, that it simply wasn't very good, and only our limited juvenile palate allowed us to think otherwise.
By holding out an ideal of fast and easy, haven't we robbed a generation of understanding how to achieve real pleasure from life? We're all too rapidly and easily (conveniently?) devouring our environment, our resources, our relationships with each other and with other species, all in pursuit of an experience that flowers only with careful cultivation. We have unwittingly created the conditions for our own inconsolable longing, not realizing the answer is within our grasp, if only we learn to reach.
In the end, I cannot bring myself to conclude that convenience in modern terms is necessarily convenient at an individual level, at least not for me. With regard to food, I enjoy preparing it with my own hands and honing my skills; my cooking is healthier than what I could buy; I indulge my taste for the highest-quality ingredients, and still find cooking at home less expensive; furthermore, the leftovers cater to the laziness that wanted to buy prepared food in a plastic container in the first place. Cooking makes me more active, as I walk several times a week to the market to buy fresh produce (and compost my kitchen scraps). I also get to support smaller-scale, local farms, and develop a more thoughtful, intimate relationship with what I eat.
VoilĂ : I get to be sybaritic and healthy, lazy and more active, indulgent and environmentally responsible, all in one fell swoop. Can convenience food accomplish all that?

1 The other most fundamental connection is largely mediated by water and porcelain, at least after infancy.[2]

2 In addition to the locution "convenience food", "convenience" (or, especially, "public convenience") has been used to refer to public lavatories, thereby creating an unexpected, and perhaps slightly repugnant, linguistic connection between the constructs that mediate these two fundamental relationships between Nature and human nature.

3 The economic and cultural forces behind this renaissance of culinary exploration will be explored in another post. I will note here, however, that I personally do not consider food processors and professional mixers particularly convenient, as they seem to take more effort to clean than hand-held tools and take up a considerable amount of space.

4 The possible downside of all this so-called convenience was presented beautifully in an episode of The Simpsons, "You Only Move Twice." Homer's new job brings with it a futuristic house that (in a secondary story line) cleans itself, cooks, etc., leaving Marge with nothing to do during the day except drink wine and mope. The success of the episode, considered to be among the best the series ever produced, owes much to its so brilliantly and concisely capturing the birth of contemporary ennui.

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