Does fast food make you fat? According to British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, recently profiled by Alex Witchel in the New York Times Magazine, yes. He’s not the first to say so, either. But two prominent bloggers--Think Progress's Matt Yglesias and the Washington Post's Ezra Klein--are taking exception this time.

They're not just fed up with Oliver, former "Naked Chef" currently campaigning to clean up American school kitchens. The problem, they argue, is the entire parade of wooden-spoon enthusiasts prancing through the pages of the New York Times. Chefs aren’t public health officials, they say, and it’s time to calm down about home cooking.

  • There's a Better Way to Do This  Far more helpful than "an endless procession of ... articles hectoring people about how they should cook more," argues Matt Yglesias, would be "an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier." How about the Times put their food writers to work on that? Their current "idea," writes Yglesias, "that a large-scale increase in the proportion of home-cooked meals is the solution to the world's public health problems really makes very little sense." He offers a social history lesson:
Compared to people in 1959, people in 2009 have more money, less time, and less ability to call on socially sanctioned unpaid domestic labor. So obviously they're going to cook less. Or to look at it another way, there are lots of things you can do in 2009 that you couldn't do in 1959--read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand. There are also a lot of things you can do in 2009 that were prohibitively expensively in 1959--fly cross-country, make a long-distance phone call to your sister. But there's no more time in the day. Which implies that people need to spend less time doing the things that you could do in 1959 ... you can't really speed up cooking from scratch.
  • Agreed--But Snacks Are the Real Issue  "My first instinct," writes Ezra Klein in response to Yglesias's post at the Internet Food Association, "is to yell 'right on!' [to Yglesias] and pump my fist." But Klein thinks there's another issue in here that needs addressing. For one thing, he writes, "[s]omething has been triggered in my demographic that's made a lot of people adopt cooking as a high-priority activity, even given the existence of Netflix" that Yglesias mentions. "What Oliver is trying to figure out is why some people make that choice, while others head out to Arby's." But that's not the best question to ask, argues Klein, because "[t]he problem is that the evidence suggests meals aren't driving the rise in obesity--snacks are."
  • So Let's Address Snacks  Yglesias counters by pointing out that the prominence of snacking might in fact mean "cultivating cultural taboos against prepared food--which is part of the Oliver/Pollan argument for cooking--actually could improve public health significantly," though not in the way that Oliver thinks; "[I]f you eliminated prepared food from your diet you would almost have to cut down on your snacking substantially since you're not going to get up from your desk and whip up some spaghetti carbonara in the middle of the afternoon."
The bottom line? Yglesias may like cooking, but "public health is still a serious issue and people shouldn't just assume that their hobbies hold the key to saving the world." Klein concurs, and tosses in a recipe for a modified aglio olio just to keep his policy readers guessing.