Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. Delicious meals can be made with very few good quality ingredients, and often the best meals are. Looking through the recipe cards left by the mother of the Second Chance Foundation Director Dr. Joan Mencher, we are amazed by their simplicity. Take the recipe for dessert brownies in the photograph. Mencher Recipe_0001 The recipe requires chocolate, butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, vanilla, nuts, and eggs. All of these ingredients are common in many US household, and all can be used for multiple recipes. We recently came across a blog by Australian food scientist Jules Clancy in which Clancy writes about her minimalist approach to cooking. Minimalist cooking is an approach that advocates minimal ingredients, minimal utensils, and minimal time. Sign up for her email list and Clancy will send you a free PDF version of her cookbook. It contains nearly 100 recipes that use only 5 simple ingredients, few utensils, and little time.

Compare Clancy’s approach to most celebrity Chef’s on television and online, and you will find a drastically different method. Celebrity Chef’s make money by marketing products, and, consequently, their kitchens are filled with expensive food processors, branded gadgets, and multitudes of utensils designed for limited tasks. In addition, their recipes require an extensive list of ingredients that leave most cooks sweating and require most of us to forgo all but the essential ones. Aspiring cooks, parents, and young adults are left flipping through kitchen supply catalogs instead of learning how to cook.

Industrial agriculture, the kind promoted by agribusiness corporations, is a lot like a TV cooking show. It is designed to give the illusion of ease, simplicity, and health. Industrial agriculture requires farmers to buy expensive machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds. These inputs are expensive. Few small farmers can afford them without taking on huge debt burdens, but the few companies that sell them profit enormously. In a way, industrial agriculture has a simplicity of its own: it’s proponents encourage farmers to plant a limited number of highly profitable crops using a rigid set of agricultural methods.  However, it’s a simplicity that breeds disastrous consequences for local people, small farmers, the environment and consumer health.

One illuminating example of the disastrous effects of industrial simplicity is discussed by journalist Michael Moss in this interview:

In the US, corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice dominate agricultural markets because they are heavily subsidized by the Dept. of Agriculture. They put $50 billion into the US corn crop over the last decade alone. Seeking profit, agribusiness corporations turn these cheap crops into corn syrup, processed cereals, cookies, and other products which are unhealthy and taste terrible until excessive amounts of salt, sugar, and fat are added. Moss calls salt, sugar, and fat the “junk-food holy trinity”. What results from this mixture are food that are cheap, dangerous, and have complex ingredients lists, some of which may be harmful in large quantities.  Finally, these foods require little or no preparation.

Corporations do not want consumers to know what is in their food nor how to cook their own. The more we learn from our parents, grandparents, and from Chef’s like Jules Clancy about how simple delicious and healthy food can be, the more we question what’s in the food we eat and how the ingredients are made. Few people in the US today, except for those who buy locally produced food, actually know where or how their food is produced. Industrial farming requires only a small number of farmers to cultivate massive acreages.

Luckily, some people (more and more of them are young people) are joining local food movements and learning that there other ways to produce food. Vegetable farming often requires fewer resources to get started and local food movements are producing more jobs as they grow. Local food movements advocate organic methods that rely not on expensive technology but on sustainable strategies to growing food that don’t require farmers to take on debt and do not damage the environment. Alternative methods such as Agro-ecology and the System of Crop Intensification offer a set of principles and flexible methods that inspire farmers to be creative, adaptable, environmentally conscious, and scientific. Agribusiness corporations like to think that they have a monopoly on scientific agriculture, but their science is limited and only concerned with profit.

Any good cook knows that tasty and healthy meals can be made from a few simple ingredients, the knowledge of how to use them, and the desire to experiment and adapt. That is not to say that cooking is easy. It takes practice and experimentation, but neither of these are out of reach to anyone.