on skinny shoppers, food elitism, and gender in the kitchen

You don't have to be a skinny, white, rich lady to get into cooking. Image by Nina Leen via the Google LIFE Photo Archive.

I’m a foodie. I’m an unabashed, CSA-member, local-beet-eating, corn-syrup-eschewing, pickle-making, bread-baking foodie. I write a lot about food, how I sacrifice my hopes and dreams to bake bread, how I experiment with the new and wacky produce that appears in my CSA boxes, how I try to eat everywhere worth eating in my city before I have to leave it.  I also read a lot about food.  I’m a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and if Michael Pollan wrote it, I’ve probably read it.

This doesn’t mean I *like* everything I read from Michael Pollan. Lately, he seems pretty fond of blaming the fact that we as a nation eat so poorly and have such poor health on those pesky feminists who convinced women to get out of the kitchen and into the workplace.  He wrote last week in the New York Review of Books:

In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating “foodwork”—everything involved in putting meals on the family table—we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal.

Those pesky feminists! They’ve taken away the family meal and threatened democracy itself!

And last week’s statements about feminists getting women out of the kitchen weren’t his first foray into gender issues– he made similar statements in the New York Times last summer:

Curiously, 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. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.

Michael Pollan: I love you, but, did it ever occur to you to ask why men didn’t step in? Or to perhaps make the suggestion that, because working women are so often crucial to strong families, and because many other women have no option but to work, perhaps men and women could work out more equal partnerships that involve the sharing of home-cooking duties? The problem is not feminism, it’s that the work of feminism, which is of course true gender equality, is not done! If it were, women doing less cooking wouldn’t have to mean less net cooking over all, because men could be filling the gaps! (Side note: I do most of the cooking in my house because I enjoy it and it’s my hobby, not because the male half of my household is unwilling or unable.)

As Amanda Marcotte, one of my blogging sheroes, wrote back in August:

If Pollan really wants people to cook more, he needs to preach more feminism, not bash feminism. Make women’s work important, not wallpaper. Get more men into the kitchen, and that will raise the esteem of cooking. Pollan’s hyper-focus on women as the primary source of food just contributes to the problem. If only women do it, no one appreciates it, and nobody is very understanding of imperfections or a learning curve. That’s why I think his criticism of competitive cooking shows is so misplaced. I think that they have the chance to encourage people to think of cooking as something you experiment with, and more importantly, by putting men in the kitchen in front of America, we’re giving our sexist brains an opportunity to think of cooking as something that is real (read: male performed) work, and worthy of being treated as such.

Criticizing feminism isn’t going to make more women want to cook, and it’s certainly not going to encourage more men to cook as it reinforces the idea that cooking is women’s work!

In addition to the idea that cooking is women’s work, we’re also running into a newer idea: that it’s a rich person’s hobby.  A new study this week found that shoppers at Whole Foods tend to be thinner than shoppers at lower-priced stores like Albertson’s.  This really doesn’t change what people interested in food politics already know: poorer people have higher rates of obesity and other diet-related health ailments* because poorer people have less access to healthy foods than richer people do.  In addition to greater access to healthy foods, the people who shop at Whole Foods also have the bucks to shell out at the yoga or pilates studio next door, have the free time to devote to tennis or swimming, and have the sorts of neighborhoods that are safe for an evening jog or bike ride.

In writing about this latest study, Jamelle Bouie points out that working-class people also lack the time and energy to cook family meals after work:

It’s not that healthier ingredients are absent or too expensive — even lower-priced supermarkets have plenty of fresh produce available — it’s that preparing those meals requires more time and energy than is available to most lower-income people. Cooking takes time, and after a long day of hard work in low-wage employment, parents want to relax, and the incredible ease of fast and processed food is a powerful lure. Indeed, if there’s any advantage to lower-income grocery stores Kroger or Wal-Mart, it’s that calorie dense foods — cookies, frozen pizza, Easy Mac — are cheap and readily available.

This explanation I buy, to some extent, except that: most great food cultures are built on working-class food– rice and beans in Central and Latin America, vegetables and noodles or rice in Asia, even things like Ratatouille in France– all are working-class foodstuffs.  Most poor people in most of the world cook their own food if they have food to eat. Working-class Americans just have greater access to cheap processed, pre-packaged food because our government subsidizes the commodity crops that go into processed foods.  Corn syrup is cheap and readily accessible thanks to your and my tax dollars.  I am NOT suggesting that working-class Americans are too lazy to cook or somesuch, just that it might be easier or more convenient for them to get packaged, processed foods than it is for working-class people in other cultures.

And here is where Amanda Marcotte is right again.  She tears down the “poor Americans are just too lazy to cook” argument by pointing out that cooking is harder than it’s often made out to be, and she points to the sexism behind the idea that cooking is “easy:”

Reading enough of this bullshit, I had one of those great intersectional feminist moments—these guys are couching their poor-bashing comments in sexism. The unspoken assumption behind the “cooking is easy!” nonsense is, “If my mother or wife can do it, how hard can it be?”

Reality: Cooking is difficult. It’s not intuitive.

And as a foodie, and a cook, I have to say right on. At least when you first start doing it, cooking is HARD, especially if you didn’t grow up helping your parents in the kitchen, eating homemade foods and participating in their preparation.

I mean, I DID grow up helping my parents grow our food in a half-acre garden, collecting eggs from our free-range chickens, helping my mom can tomato sauce and make pickles and prepare dinner and bake cookies and all of the sorts of experiences that give someone a firm foundation on which to base a food repertoire.  And I still struggled when I first started cooking about 4 years ago.  And even then, I had the luxury of being able to afford a meal out if I happened to ruin dinner in one of my experiments– not everyone has the budgetary wiggle room to experiment in the kitchen and fail once in a while, so to them, it might seem worth it to not even try.

This is why I’m so encouraged by things like school gardens and people like Jamie Oliver encouraging parents and kids to cook together.  We have to teach people to make food.  It may be the biggest barrier to a healthier diet for the average American, even more than cost.  As Michael Pollan often points out, we spend less of our total income on food now than ever before.**  We just need to take that amount we spend, direct it to more “whole foods” (though not necessarily from Whole Foods), and work on teaching all Americans, men or women, how to prepare meals from whole ingredients.

*I do not mean to suggest that obesity itself is an ailment.  Some obese people are unhealthy just like some underweight people are unhealthy.  I do, however, believe there is a strong correlation between the quality of one’s diet and the quality of one’s health.

** “Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy…It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.” (source: here)

16 Replies to “on skinny shoppers, food elitism, and gender in the kitchen”

  1. well said. i think we have to get out of this mentality (as a nation) that easy is always best. is it easier to go pick up sonic or pizza instead of cooking? absolutely. but, it is not the best decision for our family. we split the cooking, because we both enjoy it. there is a tv show called “the middle” that is entertaining, but portrays some of the worst of american habits. the mom works all day, so she picks up fast food for dinner every night, and calls it “making” dinner. tv is not reality, but i think that habit is more common than we would like to admit.


  2. also – saw your tweet about the jon/garlic incident. jed did the same thing 2 weeks ago while making salsa. the garlic was strong it burned my mouth. i felt like a vampire. he threw it out because he was so frustrated.


  3. I think Pollan’s misguidedly trying to argue that not doing the cooking and the cleaning isn’t some great act of feminist rebellion – it’s just leaving the dishes in the sink. I firmly believe in an equal division of labor and when I was unemployed and my wife worked, did the cooking and cleaning with a great deal of pride. When the situation was reversed it arguably went along those same lines.

    But I accept that in most family dynamics, even working mothers tend to bear the brunt of the household chores. That’s just what you’d call ‘the patriarchy’ at play – people conforming to expectations of how wives and husbands are historically *meant* to interact.

    As for the poverty/obesity thing – it’s a very interesting argument. I blame Whole Foods more than I do McDonalds for poorer people having higher rates of obesity. Whole Foods isn’t nicknamed ‘whole paycheque’ for nothing. McDonalds sells affordable, convenient food and sets up shops in poor neighborhoods that Whole Foods wouldn’t dare to tread in – THIS is why poor people are more likely to eat crap – it’s what’s within their budget and on their doorstep.

    I don’t blame poor people for obesity at all – if fresh, healthy food was available to them with the convenience it is to Whole Foods customers, I think the situation would be very different.


    1. I wouldn’t have such a problem with the “just leaving dishes in the sink” argument: the people who are able to opt out of those things entirely do so as the result of the privilege of being able to outsource them– you still have to eat, and you still need to clean. The rest of us who can’t afford housekeepers and eating out for every meal will eventually have to cook and clean.

      And yeah, studies show that in dual-income families, women still do most of the housework. It’s called “the second shift.” Even as a feminist with an awesome partner, I still often find myself slipping into the mentality that the housework is “my” job, and I work to counteract that as much as I can.


  4. A writer whose blog I follow recently came home after a monthlong book tour and confessed that she felt her writing “muscles”: had atrophied a bit because she didn’t get many chances to sit down and work. Cooking, like writing, is a skill: one that needs time to establish and a commitment to keeping it in shape over time. The issue there, of course, is that most of us likely don’t have the time or, frankly, may not want to make cooking a priority skill because there are people like Michael Ruhlman (a writer I do admire, but sometimes get exasperated with) saying that roasting a chicken is a perfectly suitable weeknight meal alternative (hence the exasperation). The LA Times food editor tried this one evening and didn’t end up eating until 9:15 after factoring commuting, purchasing the chicken, preheating the oven and then letting the thing cook: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-calcook-20100603,0,2285623.story

    Ruhlman’s black and white positioning (per Parsons) is truly missing the point: we need to encourage small steps, and more importantly small victories, in order to motivate more people back into the kitchen.

    Ironically, Ruhlman kind of double-backs on his holier-than-thou stance a little bit with this article saying that even if you’re starting your cooking odyssey with Sandra Lee, it’s better than nothing: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-ruhlman/becoming-better-cooks-or_b_535413.html

    While I get his point there, I feel like his choice of personality was off, because to me, Ms. Lee is Blissful Mediocrity incarnate due to her heavy reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods. At least Rachael Ray uses fresh ingredients!

    Anyway–sorry for the book. This post raises a lot of questions in my head (once again) that deserve a little more pondering, but the bottom line is cooking deserves to be taken more seriously as a skill that is honed and perfected over time, and not just a means to an end.


    1. Wow, how out of touch does someone need to be to think roasting a chicken is achievable on a weeknight? Beyond the time, I’m ravenous when I get home from work and couldn’t wait several hours for dinner!


  5. Wow, what a great post! I don’t cook AT ALL, and I recognize that it’s really serious work. I haven’t kept up with much of the food politics stuff, in part because I just get tired of being outraged and have decided that this is one area of outrage I’ll leave to others. But I really appreciate what you’re saying here, and I especially appreciate your feminist analysis of sexist food politics writing.


  6. I’m continually baffled by the controversy on this issue! I don’t see how or where Michael Pollan is BLAMING feminists. I think he’s just referencing the fact that, yeah, women leaving the kitchen to do other things has had an impact. Maybe he doesn’t parse that statement in as clear a way as hardcore feminists would like (say, by following up immediately that men didn’t step in to fill their shoes as was suggested above), but he’s quite clear on the fact that he thinks women AND men (and children!) should all be getting back into the kitchen.

    More of my thoughts on this issue here: http://epicuriosa.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/the-feminist-mistake/


  7. Wow – nice post. Much to think about, and I will chime in that cooking is a whole new skill set to pick up. Not easy at first.

    Also, curiously – I seem to remember Barbara Kingsolver saying something about feminism/women coming out of the kitchen and how that has adversely affected our food life in AVM. I’ll have to go back and look.

    Of course, her husband DOES bake all of their bread, so…


  8. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece. I completely agree that those that shop at Whole Foods are more likely to have the money for trainers, pilates and to lead a healthier lifestyle. You’ve inspired me to make my own bread!


  9. Cooking is not oppressive. It’s the expectation that the “family meal” is to be comprised of food prepared by a female which is oppressive. And the idea that second wave feminists ruined the family meal sounds a lot like backlash to me.

    I wonder, can democracy be nursed around a table just as adequately when the food has been provided by McDonalds? Or does democracy only flourish when food has been lovingly prepared by Mom? Is it the food, or the ritual that is necessary?


  10. Poor people also have poorly equipped kitchens. Fewer cupboards to keep staples on hand, less counter space to work on, fewer and less reliable appliances, pots and pans, knives and utensils, all of lesser quality. These things make the process of cooking more time- and energy-consuming, and make it more difficult to produce reliable results. As with any craft, good tools and a decent work-space make a big difference in both the result and the amount of frustration involved in the process.

    Buying fresh food – which isn’t actually very fresh – may mean lugging it home by some combination of bus/walking, following that with trying to cook in a cramped, poorly equipped kitchen, followed in turn by standing over the sink washing all those dishes by hand. If you have a job which keeps you on your feet a good part of the day, this is an especially unpleasant prospect.


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