In her book, How The Other Half Ate, Katherine Turner says that although bread was a staple for many Americans at the turn of the century, it wasn’t baked at home, it was purchased:
“Being able to bake bread at home required resources. In fact, increasingly in the last nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, home bread baking was a privilege reserved for well-off workers and the middle class. … A Pittsburgh study of the 1890s that compared six dietary studies (deliberately taken from different income levels: families of a professional man, a skilled artisan, a skilled laborer, an average day laborer, and unskilled mill workmen) found that bread baking correlated to higher income and social status. Only in the household of the professional (a lawyer) was bread regularly baked at home (and there was most likely at least a maid or cook to help).”
The resources it required, apart from the cost of the flour and other raw ingredients (even if people could afford to purchase ingredients in quantity, they had difficulty transporting and storing them) were “the costs of the fuel and equipment used to bake it,” the time (and the wages forfeited), the labor (workers were often exhausted at the end of the day), and sometimes the skill.
Turner says urban workers purchased prepared foods and meals for the same reasons. I would venture that this still applies today, that people with fewer resources, out of necessity, purchase more prepared food – processed and packaged foods from markets and ready-made meals from restaurants.
I recently saw a cookbook, “Good and Cheap: A SNAP* Cookbook” by Leanne Brown. There are some great recipes in it. But I see the same lack of appreciation for the broad experience of poverty, and the same patronizing view that Home Economists held a century ago. Maybe it’s not that people don’t know how to cook, maybe it’s that they lack the resources. Besides money, they lack time, energy, paraphernalia, transportation, and raw materials. This is a good book and a worthy project, but it has limitations. Fresh produce is difficult for people to purchase (access), transport (getting a bag of apples or a 5 pound pork roast home on the bus or on foot is a chore), store, and use before it perishes (fresh dill?). Having the time to simmer dried beans, roast meats (e.g. roasting a 5 lb pork shoulder for 10 to 12 hours), or bake cakes was a luxury a century ago, and very may well be a luxury today. There are substantial external costs that Ms. Brown didn’t calculate, indeed, that Reformers failed to consider a century ago:
“[Reformers] believed that it was more thrifty, as well as more healthful and more virtuous, to bake bread at home. … If one didn’t count effort and time, bread baking seemed to require only the cost of flour, and flour was cheaper than bread. Florence Faxon, writing in American Kitchen magazine in 1899, calculated that bread cost two and a half cents per loaf to make at home (not counting labor and fuel), as opposed to five cents per loaf from the bakery. … Apart from economics, food reformers believed that home cooking was conducive to good morals and family stability.”
SNAP recipients include single parents, the disabled, and many seniors – 9% were age 60 or older in 2012. That’s over 4 million poor seniors, a group that bears the lion’s share of chronic disease in this country (27% of people over 65 have diabetes, 20% of people over 65 have some form of dementia) receiving nutrition assistance. I just don’t think it’s realistic to suggest that a single, working parent or an indigent senior make their own pasta and pizza from scratch or a pot of 12-hour roasted pulled pork, as cookbook author Leanne Brown suggests.
* SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.