Why Don’t Americans Have Time for Food? A Conversation with Sophie Egan

“We not only spend the least amount of time cooking and preparing food, we spend the least amount of time eating food.”

Have you been a victim of Sad Desk Lunch? If so, you aren’t alone. Many overwhelmed Americans seem to view eating as just another task on the to-do list, one of the numerous trends documented by Sophie Egan in her new book, Devoured, a provocative look at how and what Americans eat. A program director at The Culinary Institute of America, Sophie recently talked with Panio Gianopoulos, Heleo’s Editorial Director, about what our food habits say about our culture, history, and values—and why, as a nation, we can’t get enough Doritos Locos Tacos.

Panio Gianopoulos: Food seems enormously important in our culture—especially eating out. We spend more money at restaurants and bars now than grocery stores. Yet you’ve said that we don’t have a national food culture. How is that?

Sophie Egan: One of the things that distinguishes us as a country is our diversity. Both in terms of the sheer size of the United States, as well as the different regions and subcultures. We’re a nation of immigrants. We’re all over the map in terms of our views, our backgrounds. You couldn’t possibly pinpoint a shared, cohesive food culture the way that many other countries do.

The second thing that distinguishes us is how rapidly evolving we are. Many other countries are rooted in tradition. They’ve been around for much longer than our relatively young country. They also have much more respect or deference to the past, whereas we’re very forward-looking. So instead of a mindset where you pass on the recipes and the traditions from your grandmother and great-grandmother, we toss it all out the window from one year to the next. We anoint a new veggie of the year, new fad diets. It’s very dynamic—that’s the other reason why it’s often considered impossible to really define such a thing as an American food culture.

Panio: I was struck by your idea that we don’t put food first. We put other values before food.

Sophie: I really feel strongly about this. It’s interesting because as you’ve pointed out, food has taken on such an enormous role in our culture. The Food Network, food blogs, self-proclaimed foodies, social media, just the sheer number of Instagram feeds completely dedicated to food, and so on. You could not argue that people don’t care about food or are not paying attention to food. Everyone agrees we’re more interested in food than we were before.

“We not only spend the least amount of time cooking and preparing food, we spend the least amount of time eating food.”

What I’m referring to is the role of food in our daily lives. The earlier paradigm, and the paradigm in other countries, might be to design your day around meal times. You might go to the market to get the freshest produce every day. One of the most stunning figures to me was that out of all of the major developed countries we not only spend the least amount of time cooking and preparing food, we spend the least amount of time eating food. By a long shot.

That is really the crux of what I mean about our not putting food first. We expect that a day is full of busy stuff. It starts in childhood, right? You’ve got all of your extracurriculars. In college you’ve got clubs, sports, a class load. Throughout our lives it’s this mad dash to take care of everything on your list. Increasingly, food is just squeezed in where we can make time for it. Dinner is often the one exception, but even so, with evening activities it can be when we get around to it. We have this perception that we’re paying more attention to food and maybe we are on an entertainment level, but in terms of actually being involved in the making and the obtaining of the food, and the mindful eating of it, that’s not the case.

Panio: In many ways it feels like meals have been devalued, reclassified as tasks. I’ve got to drop off the car, I’ve got to pick up the mail, I’ve got to get breakfast. It’s just one in a series of things that you have to check off your list.

Sophie: Yeah, and if you look at breakfast and lunch, they’re bygones of our weekdays. Only 26% of Americans eat breakfast every day. It’s very much that mad dash of grab a banana if you can. Very few people are actually going to make a hot breakfast for themselves. Break out pots and pans on a Wednesday morning.

Panio: It’s true. I have young children. A few days ago, on a school day, they said, “Dad, can we have pancakes for breakfast?” I almost laughed at them. Like, are you crazy? I’m not going to make you pancakes. It’s like they asked me to make them a bearnaise sauce. No, you have a bowl of cereal or some oatmeal. You eat it in seven minutes and then you get to school. Which is sad and a little crazy, because there’s no real reason why breakfast has to be a culinary wasteland.

Sophie: Well that’s just kind of the pace of a weekday morning in the home. Families, especially with young kids—if I can get both socks on their feet and pack lunch in their backpacks, that is a victory. Tossing in a granola bar is like woo hoo, my child is not going to starve.

In terms of lunch, though, I feel that is much more about the individual’s mental and emotional well-being. We used to take a lunch break much more regularly, often one-on-one with a colleague. It was almost like therapy. Maybe you’d vent about something that was frustrating you or you’d just get some fresh air. Maybe you’d even get a little exercise. The omission of that part of your daily routine—we don’t yet know the full implications of that. It’s a relatively new death of daily activity.

Panio: I’m one of those people who suffers from what you call the Sad Desk Lunch, the 40 percent or so of workers that regularly dine at their desk. On days when I force myself to leave the office, either with a friend or just to go sit down and read a book a little bit, I feel so different. I have actually done something that is not work. Normally, your life doesn’t really catch up with you again until you’re done with work at six or seven.

Sophie: Absolutely. I describe it as like the bottomless chips and salsa at Chili’s. There’s this sense that there is an infinite amount of work that can be done now, especially because you’re tethered to your smartphone or work email. This lack of any upper limit has made it pretty uncommon to do something non-work-y during the work day. I remember, growing up with my mom, she worked in an office in Downtown Seattle and she would say, “I ran over to Nordstrom and took care of a birthday gift I needed to get.” That is just so radical to me today to imagine that I could pop over to the mall during my lunch break—

Panio: During the middle of the work day.

Sophie: People would be like, “Where were you!”

Panio: I once got a haircut during my lunch hour and when I came back I was sure that there was a scarlet “H” on my chest telling everyone in the office what I’d done and that I was a terrible person. And yet, there’s Facebook, Twitter, social mediapeople will spend hours on them without realizing it during work. As opposed to having lunch with a friend for an hour, which is a self-contained and positive experience.

“No one says, ‘I’m going to sit down and go on Facebook for one hour.’ You think you’re going to check one thing and then you’re just in a vortex and all of a sudden you somehow shake out of it an hour and a half later.”

Sophie: I’m sure there are all kinds of researchers looking at this, the perception of the amount of time spent on social media versus actual time spent. It’s true, it’s not as intentional. No one says, ‘I’m going to sit down and go on Facebook for one hour.’ You think you’re going to check one thing and then you’re just in a vortex and all of a sudden you somehow shake out of it an hour and a half later.

It also relates to this complicated question of do we have time or make time? Michael Pollan has really been the one to point out the irony in the decreased amount of time cooking and increased amount of time watching cooking shows. If you have thirty minutes to watch the Food Network—let’s just do the math.

Panio: You have a great take on the paradoxical rise of what you call “stunt food.” To some degree we want healthy food—or what we think is healthy—and yet these things come along that are just nutritional evil, like the KFC double down, where the chicken is the patty (which is ingenious and diabolical), and somehow they’re amazingly popular. They seem so extravagant and indulgent and yet people love them. They’re almost like the new version of culinary cigarettes. You know they are so bad for you.

Sophie: Oh exactly. That’s what sets apart this genre. Stunt foods celebrate their indulgence. That chapter grew out of an article I did for Wired‘s first food issue on Doritos Locos Tacos. My question was how can we all be more concerned about health, calling out fast food chains for “healthy” Chinese chicken salads that actually have 1500 calories and 27 grams of sugar—and yet we’re buying Doritos Locos Tacos in record-breaking numbers? Taco Bell sold a hundred million in the first ten weeks, which was unprecedented. It took McDonald’s ten years to sell that many of their hamburgers. (It was the 1950s, but nonetheless.)

I was fascinated by this dichotomy. You always hear, “Oh, it’s market segmentation. You have your Whole Food shoppers and they’re over here in one corner. Then you have your fast food people and those are not the same people.” When you really dig into it, for the vast majority of the population, it’s the same person. It’s just that we are so full of contradictions and mixed feelings about food. Most of us are simultaneously health-seeking and indulgent-seeking.

With stunt foods, they really play to this relief from the “skip that aisle in the grocery store” or “order from the under 500 calorie part of the menu” experience. There’s this collective holding of our breath as we navigate the food environment. Eventually, we let our hair down. Yes, I do want to try this over-the-top, don’t-even-look-at-the-additional-information bacon sundae. Yesterday, I saw a Whopperrito. I mean, this is not going away. If anything it’s just continued. Did you see Mac N’ Cheetos was another one?

Panio: I didn’t see it.

Sophie: Picture Cheetos filled with mac and cheese.

Panio: Oh my God.

Sophie: The ingenuity continues. Which also speaks to a very American value of appreciating innovation. We are interested in progress. We have a deeply held sense that we can take a taco and improve upon that. Surely, there’s a value-add, right? You can make it out of chocolate. You can make the shell out of, I don’t know, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Who knows what they’re going to come up with next? It’s that sense of iterating and improving and working toward something never seen before.

“We have a strong urge to make use of our time on earth and have a lot to show for it. Part of that is the collection of experiences.”

I don’t know if Taco Bell had done their research into behavioral economics when they came out with the Doritos Loco Tacos, but there’s the idea of an experiential résumé—the bucket list mentality. We have a strong urge to make use of our time on earth and have a lot to show for it. Part of that is the collection of experiences. Research has found that people would rather stay in an ice hotel than a pampering beach hotel if given the option, because the ice hotel would be more ‘other’, more memorable, versus just pleasant. Taco Bell really played to the sense of living a full life. The tagline for Doritos Locos Tacos was ‘Live Mas’—eat this and feel good about living a full life. There’s definitely that adventurous spirit at the root of a lot of this. At the same time it’s this subtle rejection of the ever-increasing urge and pressure to eat healthy.

Panio: This strain of innovation makes me think of Soylent, this new food that means you never have to eat again. It feels totally futuristic in a bleak way—it will keep you alive but you will derive no pleasure from it. The pleasure is in the hyper-efficiency.

Sophie: Right, the pleasure is in the avoidance in all that is involved with eating food. There are no dishes to clean, there is no grocery store to navigate.

Panio: There’s no decision to be made. You’re opting out of that fundamental, biological experience of the gathering, the eating. It’s like the pill they would take in the Jetsons, which was supposed to be really funny. But it also seemed so joyless.

Sophie: It could not be more joyless. It suggests that taste or flavor are these superfluous desires in life, right? Seasonality, freshness, all of the qualities of gastronomy and, as you said, the biological experience as well, those are dismissed. “Oh, you’re weak if you feel that you need those.” It’s a transaction—that’s all it is.

The solution is the magic bullet of nutrients. That also is a very uniquely American desire, to find the magic bullet. Everyone is looking for the weight loss pill. I explore this in the chapter on the history of diets, the number of astonishing things that people have tried. The quick fix. The fat-sucking suit. I remember one infomercial featuring a vibrator for your abs. You sit and watch TV and it instantly chisels abs for you. Again, that efficiency, or productivity, or orientation is unique to the American mindset. It’s that “I want it now,” “I want it instantly,” quick and easy.

Panio: We’re returning to that Walt Whitman-esque idea of containing multitudes. We’re full of contradictions.

Sophie: Definitely.

Panio: You could have used that as the jacket image to your book. Walt Whitman with a kale smoothie in one hand and a chicken wing in the other.

Sophie: Oh my God. What a missed opportunity. The paperback is coming out next year, so there’s still time.

“The social rules around eating in public are surprisingly nuanced. No one expressly tells you when you can eat, what you can eat, that certain foods are okay to eat in this place.”

Panio: I’m intrigued by the idea of social mores and food—in particular, eating in public. I once ate a burrito while walking down the street and my wife almost filed for divorce. She literally physically distanced herself from me, she was so appalled.

My argument was that I can eat an ice cream cone while walking down the street—that’s okay. We’ve established there’s a baseline where you can eat in public. The only difference is a burrito is hot, whereas ice cream is cold. So it’s just a matter of temperature.

Sophie: I think it’s also about the form that it’s in. With a burrito, the fact that it’s one hand-able puts it more in the ice cream cone realm. There’s something about walking with both hands occupied by your food—if one hand is holding the bag and the other is deeply submerged in the bag—that just seems less acceptable for some reason.

Panio: Also no utensils. Those take it to another level.

Sophie: Yes, the hand-eye coordination involved.

Panio: The social rules around eating in public are surprisingly nuanced. I once saw somebody eating on the subway and all the passengers were revolted. Then I saw somebody on the MTA eating and everyone was cool with it. The guy had a full dinner laid out, he had a beer, everything. I thought “What’s the difference?” We’re both in a train and speeding north.

If you’re new to the country, these rules must be confusing. No one expressly tells you when you can eat, what you can eat, that certain foods are okay to eat in this place. I wonder how those rules change as new people move to the country, how they evolve in general.

Sophie: That is so interesting. I love your distinction about the MTA versus the subway. You’re absolutely right. The realm that has fascinated me recently is shopping environments. I mentioned in the book that I saw someone with her hand submerged in a snap pea crisp bag in DSW, the shoe store. I thought to myself, “But then you get the salty stuff all over the shoes.” It just seems like that one should not be allowed.

In terms of what shapes these social food rules, you take signals and cues from the people around you. “Oh, that’s an okay thing to do.” For example, think about office environments, when did people start to eat in meetings? Has that always been a thing? I don’t think so.

Panio: That seems new.

Sophie: What started happening was administrative assistants would put a candy bowl in the center of the table, or bring cookies, snacks. The person organizing the meeting was cueing to everyone attending, we expect at some point that while trapped in this room you will consume the things that we put in front of you. If there was a meeting where there was no food and you were the only person who showed up with your food, that would be super weird.

Panio: Right. If you just sat down with a hot slice of pizza. “Hey everybody. Let’s talk about marketing.”

Sophie: Exactly. I also think so much of it has to do with high influencersessentially celebrities. Those high-profile media experiences really affect the culture. Beyoncé going vegan is probably really contributing to an increase in vegan-ism.

A lot of things that are normal and set as a cool or reasonable thing to do are often captured in the paparazzi-type of photo. Do you remember when Donald Trump ate a piece of pizza with a fork and knife? Everyone was like, “You just don’t do that.”

Panio: Especially in New York.

Sophie: He was in Times Square! It was shocking.