A Braised New World

How the crockpot resurgence contributes to the American slow down.

My crockpot – the SUV space hog of the kitchen counter – is my new enabler in the quest to take time to smell the roses, not to mention the aromatic free-range bird melding with organic onions and homegrown herbs in a lethargic, six-hour simmer. Toss them in the pot, come back for the gold six hours later. A meal that drove itself home. It’s what’s for dinner.

The process of slow-cooking tasty comfort food without constantly stirring the pot helps me and countless others to heed Michael Pollan’s directive to focus on “real food” and connect with life – especially during a time when spare minutes to hover is chronically elusive.

“It opens up a space to do other things and this is huge when it comes to reducing stress,” observes Thea Singer, Ph.D. – author of Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate The Body and The Mind. “We know the benefits of mindful eating, and you could say that another synonym of the slow food movement is mindful cooking.”

Yes, time is what fuels the resurgence, at least on the ceramic surface. Like a lover who gives generously without demanding constant hugs and feedback, the plug-in grub tub frees us up to do our thing – only to come together in the evening and share what we bring to the table as a unit.

Unless you’re a Top Chef contender or former professional stuck at home with too much time on your hands,  neediness in food prep can be a major turn off, especially during hectic week days when a lofty goal might be schlepping to the taco stand to get burritos on the table before seven.

“Braising is what I would usually do on a Saturday or Sunday if it’s raining and I can walk over to the stove and stir every half hour, and the slow cooker lets you do that on a week day before you go to work,” says Jill Santopietro (above), the senior food editor of Chow.com, who vlogs recipes.  “But you have to choose the right recipes that need eight hours of cooking. A lot f them, like a veggie stew I made in our test kitchen, cooks in three hours. You still have to be there, so it’s not full proof.”

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, agrees Santopietro. But the consummate foodie adds that true mindful cooking results from mindful planning, something our society greatly lacks.

“As a kid, my grandmother would plan in the morning for dinner, and that is what is missing from our culture,” says the chef and writer. “People  in this country don’t think about what they are going to cook for dinner.  If you don’t think and go to the store and plan, you will end up going to a fast food joint to get dinner when you are starving.”

Despite the clever advertising, the fast food we reach for when starving contributes to obesity, diabetes, breakouts and other undesirable side effects, while slow cooked turkey chili, veggie stew and lentil soup sans the corn syrup and trans fats is typically the antithesis to all of that. Of course, you have to eat it slow, too, to reverse the national epidemics rushing us to early deaths.

Researchers on the cutting edge of linking cooler jets to happier cells find listening to our bodies is the key to thriving, according to UCSF Dept. of  Psychiatry professor, Elissa Epel, who specializes in identifying mind-body behavior that promotes stress resilience.

Five steps Epel cites in achieving well being: Breathing and awareness, staying present and minimizing time traveling, expressing gratitude and savoring, carving out a time allowance and daily exercise (the big E). Add the antioxidants and vitamins, handfuls of pistachio nuts, blueberries and purified Omega -3, and you might add years to your life. Of course, eliminating the stinking thinking goes a long way, too.

“Our brains are set up to focus on the negative,” says Epel, “But we can choose to reinterpret any negative experience and restore cells that deteriorate when we age or experience stress.” Take the example of not getting an ideal parking space at the store. When you tell yourself you are doing something great for cell regeneration by walking further, you create a positive spin that boosts your health.

Health science has witnessed a greater emphasis on cellular aging and the telomere maintenance system, an area led by Epel and several colleagues who form the Psychoneuroendocrinology Laboratory Group – which runs studies on issues such as stress – induced cortisol and overeating.

“Cortisol kicks off dopamine, and the reward system stimulates wanting to get what we need,” Epel explains. “We go in search of fatty and sweet food because we think we are exerting ourselves and this leads to a cycle similar to addiction,” she has found.

Which leads me back to the crockpot, and the question, could this help break that cycle of addiction and other bad behavior which shortens our lives?

Santopietro, who doesn’t own a crockpot, says it can help you relax, but isn’t a cure-all.

“A slow cooker won’t cure people of not going for that quick fat option,” she finds. “A better method is thinking more about food in advance. I’m an anomaly because I think of food more than the average person – I’m obsessed with it. There are great recipes you can make in 30 minutes without a cooker.”

Guess it boils down to the old adage: failing to plan is planning to fail. Can thinking ahead help us carve out that time to hover on a rainy Sunday or even sunny Monday the way foodies do to feed their souls along with those they love?

Maybe so. Until then, I’m sticking to my crockpot. As I said, it’s my enabler.

Images: Christine Leiser, Busbeytheelder, Chow, Amazon


Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.