A SYTYCB Entry
Oh the days when our mothers would spend half a day in the kitchen, prepping, dicing, frying, baking, boiling, broiling, freezing, canning, scrubbing and cleaning so that we had home cooked meals! Every day! That was the time before TV meals, before cheesy puffs, before the era of convenience foods that lined the grocery store aisles, packaged in colorful boxes with paragraphs of ingredients you can’t pronounce. Back then, the grocery stores were smaller, quainter versions of themselves and sold only real food. Yes, real food, like celery, spinach, fennel and ham…
Popping up in the conversations around food activism is this strange nostalgia for “back in the day” when people took the time to prepare their dinners and sit down at the table to eat. Mark Bittman explores this nostalgia in his TED talk, “What’s Wrong With What We Eat.” Michael Pollan in one essay, reveres his mother’s attempts to reproduce Julia Child’s recipes. Pollan reveals his own ideas for the decline of home cooking in the same essay: “Women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so.” He goes on to say: “the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” [emphasis mine]
For some strange reason (cough), men’s voices seem to be overwhelmingly prioritized in the food movement. Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Joel Salatin, Jamie Oliver and others are getting cooking shows, writing books and speaking about food. And because of this, women’s voices are left out of the conversation over and over again.
Yet, women have 85% of the consumer power in the U.S. Women are still the buyers and the decision-makers when it comes to domestic life. You cannot talk about food in this country without talking about women (and hearing from women) and their roles in growing, buying and cooking food.
While writers like Michael Pollan can easily blame feminists and women for our food problems because they walked out of the kitchen, it’s a far harder thing to do to understand why women gave up cooking and what led to our era of industrialized food production.
Some of my younger cousins nicknamed my grandma the “instant grandma” because she is such a fan of quick meals and desserts, the kind that come in ready-to-eat packages, pre-washed, pre-sliced and pre-cooked. This is because she grew up on a farm in Mississippi, where they grew their own everything, even their own sugar cane. She had to churn her own butter before she could spread it on her bread.
The new convenience and fast foods appealed to women like my grandmother because they knew that growing, harvesting, processing and cooking food was darn hard work. The first chance they had to re-hydrate potato flakes with boiling water, they did. The first chance they had to microwave frozen vegetables with pads of margarine and add water and eggs to chocolate cake mix, they did.
This freed up hours for women who were otherwise chained to the kitchen. Not just women who were stay-at-home moms, but low-income women and women of color in the 50s and 60s, who had paying jobs during the day and worked several more hours domestically without pay or recognition, and certainly without the help of their partners (a reality for many women today). Actually, the production of convenience food in our country was as liberating for some women as the release of birth control pills in 1960.
Women sought after convenience food for their families because the cooking and cleaning they did was not seen as “work” by society or their male counterparts. It was just something that was just expected to get done. Food industries took advantage of women’s circumstance and capitalized on the under-appreciation of their work by creating the food prep shortcuts and insta-meals. With more time available, many women were able to work longer days outside the home, labor that was legitimatized because it was done for pay.
We have lost decades of collective knowledge about budgeting for meals at the grocery store, cooking with seasonal foods and preserving fresh foods, all because our society devalued the work of women. In the U.S., not much has actually changed by way of domestic work. Women are still the ones doing most of the cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. According to a report released earlier this year, women conduct 13.4 hours of cooking and cleaning each week, compared to men, who contribute only 5.1 hours per week.
Food advocates are urging people to cook more at home. They say this will help solve our food problem and our epidemic with diet-related diseases. Yet, it is way too great of a burden to place home cooking back on the shoulders of women in this country.
It’s true, cooking and growing food are important skills—skills we shouldn’t have let gone unappreciated in the first place. Dedication to home cooking will redistribute the power of food production to families instead of corporations. But, we cannot look to the past as a way to create a better food system. We need to act together to redistribute domestic work so it lies evenly among the adults in the household, and work to make sure our children know how to cook and prepare food for themselves. And most importantly, we need to appreciate cooking for the hard work it is.