A pleasant evening in Vancouver, I enjoyed a spicy Chinese dinner with a small group of psychologists, including Paul Rozin. Rozin is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who, in addition to being an entertaining dinner companion, has studied various aspects of the psychology of food. He coined the term “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which became the title of a Michael Pollan bestseller. The dilemma is that eating a diverse range of new foods makes it easier to find calories, but also opens up the danger of eating something toxic (some mushrooms and berries are delicacies, some are deadly).
Rozin argued that psychologists have historically ignored the importance of food or focused on the negative side of appetite, such as hunger, overeating and eating disorders. But it convincingly demonstrates that food is intrinsically linked to much of human existence – parent-child relationships, friendships, status, mating, and even moral judgments.
Going further, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham, in his book Catch fire, argued that “cooking made us human” – shaping sexual differences, social relationships and human emotions, as well as freeing up time for our ancestors to be creative and inventive. I talked about Wrangham’s book here earlier.
Satisfaction in a fruit bowl: Fruits and vegetables are good for you, physically, emotionally and aesthetically.
Source: Photo by Doug Kenrick
Even with the efficiency of cooking, our ancestors spent a lot of time foraging for food (this, of course, is the raison d’être of hunting and gathering). With supermarkets and refrigerators, it’s much easier these days. On Saturday, I spent a few hours foraging for food at the local hipster market, leaving me free to spend several hours cooking elaborate dishes on Sunday.
Most days I spend over an hour preparing breakfast – a bowl of fruit which may include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, papayas, plums, pears, mangoes, kiwis, pineapples and bananas, followed by a frittata made with chopped kale, Swiss chard, garlic, pepper jack cheese and turkey bacon, all served with a delicious cup of creamy coffee infused with four kinds of beans fancy ground fresh in an espresso machine.
Later that same day, I spent a few more hours chopping several kinds of spicy peppers, onions, scallions, garlic, lime, and avocado for an improvised version of pozole, replacing the usual pork with fish. To accompany the pozole, my wife had baked a visually stunning and incredibly flavorful loaf of sourdough bread (with the crispy crust and delicate inner crumb you’d be delighted to stumble upon at a high-end New York bakery).
Was I wasting time in the kitchen that could have been better spent doing something “constructive”? Well, between hours in the kitchen, I spent a few hours researching the psychology of food and thinking about the connection between eating and other human motivations. It turns out that cooking can be a key to personal fulfillment in at least five ways.
1. Cooking can make you healthier, physically and psychologically.
A recent article by Farmer and Cotter (2021) reviews a number of studies linking diet to various aspects of physical and mental health. Compared to those who eat lots of highly processed foods (such as sugary breakfast cereals, white breads and frappuccinos), those who prepare their own food from scratch are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. vegetables. Your mom was right: fruits and vegetables are healthy, linked to heart benefits, lower rates of obesity and diabetes, and even a reduced risk of certain types of cancer (all these flavonoids, carotenoids and various other vitamins and minerals prove to be quite essential for a long and healthy life).
And apparently, there’s also evidence that in addition to nourishing your body, healthy eating is also good for your mind. For example, following a Mediterranean diet appears to be linked to reduced depression and anxiety.
2. Cooking can improve your relationships.
If I make a delicious dish, like cioppino (an Italian seafood dish, my version of which includes fish, prawns, scallops, clams, mussels, anchovies and sardines, all cooked in a stew of tomatoes, garlic, shallots, finely chopped carrots , olive oil, clam juice and red wine), I want to share it. In traditional societies, finding food, preparing it, and sharing it with family members and neighbors occupied a large part of people’s lives and cemented their cooperative networks. In the modern world, a good meal can still cement our platonic friendships and fuel a new romantic relationship or nurture an existing one.
3. Cooking can give you a sense of personal achievement.
The research I reported here earlier suggests that self-actualization is associated primarily with status and secondarily with affiliation. If you develop your technical or artistic skills, you will not only feel a personal sense of competence, but other people will reward you with respect and prestige.
Mastering the art and science of cooking is a great way to gain some respect and appreciation. At the highest level, master chefs such as Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay and Nigella Lawson earn more respect than most world leaders and other celebrities, coming just south of the Buddha on the dimension of admiration. If you want to experience the fascinating scientific side of cooking, check out Harold McGee’s 2004 book, About food and cooking (quote below).
4. Food preparation improves hedonic well-being.
Hedonic well-being refers to the feeling that your life is filled with a good balance between pleasure and pain. Preparing a good meal, when you allow yourself the time to do it well, is rich in pleasures. There are the beautiful colors of fresh fruit (see photo above), the aromas of garlic and onion sizzling in olive oil, the visual spectacle of a well-arranged plate of various vegetables, seafood and sauces, and then the pure pleasure of tasting all those spicy and fragrant delicacies that hit your tongue. Just reading a good cookbook and looking at the pretty pictures is a fabulous form of hedonic self-indulgence.
5. Food can give meaning to life.
In addition to self-actualization and hedonic well-being, positive psychologists also distinguish between eudemonic well-being or the meaning of life. In research I conducted with Jaimie Krems (now at Oklahoma State) and Becca Neel (now at the University of Toronto), we found that people tied the meaning of life most closely to the fact of take care of loved ones and be with friends. In another project led by Ahra Ko and involving a team of 40 researchers from around the world, we found that people universally consider caring for loved ones and maintaining long-term relationships to be their highest priorities. What better way to express these family values than by preparing a good meal for your loved ones?
But I have to go now. There are leftover seafood pozole and sourdough bread waiting to take me to the next level of personal fulfillment.