Lately, I’ve been thinking about how language’s ability to affect our thinking on certain topics relates to food. I’ve noticed, especially, how recipes come into play. More and more in the past several years, recipes call for ingredients based on how those ingredients are pre-packaged in stores. Foods come in bags, in cans, in packets. Not as an option, but necessarily (or the recipes would suggest). This language frames our food in a certain way and reinforces a convenience culture.
Here are just a handful of real-life examples of what I’m describing—and these aren’t unusual:
- A recipe for cobbler calls for “Two 12-oz bags frozen mixed berries”
- A recipe for hummus calls for “Two 3-ounce cans chick-peas, drained and rinsed”
- A recipe for baked chicken calls for “1 can Campbell’s mushroom soup”
- A recipe for lasagna calls for “1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes,” “2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste,” and “2 (6.5 ounce) cans canned tomato sauce”
- A recipe for corn salsa calls for “1 12-ounce bag of frozen sweet yellow corn, defrosted and drained”
- A recipe for roasted potatoes calls for “1 (1 ounce) packet hidden valley ranch dressing mix”
- A recipe for peanut-butter bars calls for “1 (18.25-ounce) package yellow cake mix”
Our food has become so far removed from its original state that we now refer to it in terms of its packaging. Just think about that for a second. It’s pretty incredible.
None of the items in the above list need to come pre-packaged from the store. Most could be grown in a garden, or found locally while in season and preserved at home. The beans could be purchased dry and cooked on the stovetop. The roasted potatoes could be seasoned with fresh or home-dried herbs.
And on and on. None of that sounds simple to me. It sounds complicated.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for grocery stores (preferably smaller, locally owned stores or co-ops that carry goods from local farmers, bakers, etc.), and I’m not going to pretend I’ve never purchased pre-packaged food items. But I get uncomfortable when I see so many recipes describing our food in this way. Language—even the language in recipe ingredient lists—makes a difference. And it has the subtle power to shape the way we see food. (By the way, this trend of using packaging language and even brand names in recipes is nothing but great news for the manufacturers of packaged foods.)
I want to imagine two scenarios. In the first, every recipe out there in the history of the world that calls for berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.) lists “12-oz bags” of them. In the second scenario, every recipe out there that calls for berries lists just the amount (in cups), and then provides a note about where people can find and pick local berries, and how to freeze them at home. I don’t think if the second scenario were reality that the world would be vastly different. World peace won’t ensue because of blueberry dealings. But I’m willing to bet it would be just a tiny bit different.
The creative act of combining flavors and textures, and the physical acts of chopping, whisking and stirring, involve us in what we’re eating. These acts also feed our souls as human beings. We—a cubicle culture, fast-food nation, and screen-loving lot—seem to need and crave more tactile experience, more room for creative expression. Our food could help provide those things, if only we’d set aside the cans, packets, boxes and bags, and let it.
Photo from campbellfoodservice.com