In a city like Muncie — or any city or town of reasonable size — fast foods and heavily processed foods are available in historically unprecedented amounts and at low prices. At the same time, we are bombarded not only with advertising for such foods but with contrary media messages encouraging us to eat healthfully and buy locally. In this setting, the act of cooking can become laden with emotional and ethical significance. More than simply a life-style choice, the decision to cook for oneself, and small daily choices about ingredients and methods, can become expressions of identity, ethical or political statements, markers of virtue and self-discipline. Everyday Life in Middletown informants express commitment to eating healthfully, pleasure in cooking balanced meals for themselves and their families, and — conversely — guilt over what they perceive as poor food choices.
Every eating custom, writes Luce Giard, “makes up a miniscule crossroads of histories.”  A complex of broad cultural and historical transformations undergirds the everyday cooking of contemporary Muncie residents. Late-twentieth century U.S. agricultural policy encouraged the overproduction of soy and corn, the invisible base ingredients of the salty snacks that line large shelves in every mini-mart. Activists in and around Muncie in recent years have addressed the ubiquity of processed foods — and the scarcity of fresh vegetables and fruits — as a social problem in so-called low-income “food deserts.” Nationally, well-known food writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman articulate an educated, middle-class pushback against mass food production and factory farming; they urge individuals to resist by buying locally and cooking at home using whole foods. This ethos, which posits American eating habits as a crisis, is pithily conveyed in the title of Bittman’s 2011 book, Cooking Solves Everything. On a skeptical note, sociologist Kate Soper suggests that the ethically-inflected cooking vogue uneasily mixes “consumerist and citizenly urges.” Meanwhile the diversifying and expanding media makes available vast amounts of food-driven information and entertainment, describing cooking methods, dishes, and ingredients Muncie residents two generations ago could scarcely have imagined. Globalization has brought ingredients from all corners of the earth to the local Marsh and Meijer and, dialectically, helped to fuel the anti-globalization, locavore ethic evoked by the Muncie Farmstand and The Barn Brasserie.
Everyday Life in Middletown informants show a broad range of practices and attitudes around cooking. They range, on the one hand, from Informant 13, a bachelor and small business owner who rarely mentions cooking and does not seem to plan his eating more than a few hours in advance, to several informants whose diaries meticulously record their meals and their thoughts about healthy eating and the pleasures of food. Informant 2 relates his pride in eating healthfully in an entry that recounts making a pizza with fresh, low-fat ingredients for dinner. For him and for others, cooking activates an emotionally charged life narrative within the everyday: the act of cooking healthfully raises the memory of past health problems but also a self-affirming sense of the present and hope for the future.
For the most committed home cooks in our study, cooking is associated with family and community. Informant 6, a retiree, cooks with and for her friends in her apartment building. An experienced and relatively effortless home cook without pretension, she is inspired to make salmon patties in the middle of the afternoon for a dinner with friends that night; as they simmer, she diverts herself by reading on the internet. Informant 11, whose youthful experience with macrobiotic cooking as a natural-foods caterer put her years ahead of the whole foods revolution, cooks copiously in preparation for a family funeral. Tenderness glows in the words of Informant 1 as she describes her husband making a “skillet brunch…delicious!” or herself preparing her daughter’s favorite cocoa.
Like so many routine activities, home cooking evokes contradictory emotions — tenderness and annoyance, pride and inadequacy. With gentle self-mockery, Informant 9 describes her cooking of a cheese and roasted pepper pizza as “the extent of my culinary capabilities…as good as it gets.” For Informant 12, making lentils and sweet potatoes on a weeknight is a chore: it takes an hour, comes out “blah,” and raises frustration with his young daughters’ reluctance to try new foods.
Two strong trends appear across the diaries. Cooking happens at dinner time: with few exceptions, people eat prepared foods or leftovers for breakfast and lunch. “Fixing” breakfast or lunch means pouring milk in cereal or making a sandwich or salad. But in a theme that confirms U.S. government research but contradicts the ambient, media-fueled sense that Americans don’t prepare their own food, a vast majority of the meals recorded in the study came from people’s refrigerators.
2. Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life. Volume 2: Living and Cooking. University of Minnesota Press, 1998: 180.
2. Soper, Kate. “Rethinking the Good Life: The citizenship dimension of consumer disaffection with consumerism.” Journal of Consumer Culture 7.2 (July 2007): 205-29.
3. Lindsey P. Smith et. al. “Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: an analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965-6 to 2007-8.” Nutrition Journal 12 (2013). Ncbi.nim.nig.gov. Accessed 19 March 2016.