“How Feminism Killed Cooking”

I read an article on Salon a few years ago: “Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig?” by a writer named Emily Matchar.  The title is, of course, very tongue in cheek; the article is about the omnivore/ locavore/ femivore movements, and about the myths we make up about the past.  In this case, the past in question is the good ol’ days of cookery from the writers’ childhoods, and how much better everything was in the days before feminism led us to processed food.

Now, all things being equal I like to make my food from scratch, I love the farmer’s market, I do read labels, and I attempt not to buy things that I can make myself.  But I do these things because I’d just as soon know what I’m eating, because I have family members with nasty allergies.  I don’t do them as a political statement.  I’m fortunate that I can afford to buy organic at least some of the time, that I have the time and the leisure to cook the way I prefer to. And oh yeah: I like to cook.  Not everyone does.  Not everyone likes to eat, for that matter.  There are people who regard food as fuel, something they have to be prodded to remember.  (I know: bizarre, right?)

Full disclosure: for a potluck at the time I made a chocolate tart with gingersnap crust, and a jam tart, and (possibly) some truffles made with leftover ganache.  Because I am insane, but also because doing this stuff is fun. For me.  As it is for many people in the “femivore” movement, which started out about making food (or raising chickens, or gardening or baking bread) as craft or art.  But an awful lot of the omnivore/locavore/femivore rhetoric is distinctly anti-Feminist (seriously, go read the article, particularly the quotes from the like of Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Marguerite Manteau-Rao).  In looking for a more “authentic” diet are these writers valorizing a time that never was?

Look at many of the cookbooks from the 30s, 40s, and 50s (never mind the 60s, when I, and many of the writers, were kids) and they’re full of short-cuts: use canned soup, top your casserole with deep-fried onion strings, use prepared ketchup or mayonnaise or Jell-O™ or corn flakes or instant oats.  Use instant pudding. Use frozen spinach (or, even scarier, canned spinach. Have you ever had canned spinach?  It’s like eating soggy green tissues).  A decade before Betty Friedan put pen to paper to discuss the feminine mystique, ads in womens’ magazines touted wash-day miracles and labor-saving devices and wonderful, wonderful processed food.  Because doing this stuff wasn’t a creative outlet.  It was work.

There used to be a rhyme that outlined a woman’s work week: Monday (when you were rested up from your day of rest and going to church on Sunday) was laundry day.  Laundry was a brutal task, involving boiling and stirring or wringing and hanging of an entire household’s clothes and linens. Tuesday was ironing day (yes, you put the iron on the stove to heat it, or on the coals of your fire if you didn’t have a stove, and yes, those irons were made of iron and weighed a young ton).  Wednesday: sewing day, making your own clothes and clothes for your family, repairing, darning, stitching new sheets (yes, women hemmed and darned their sheets).  Thursday: marketing, getting all the things that you couldn’t make, to last you a week.  Friday: cleaning. Scrubbing on your hands and knees, polishing, beating rugs, dusting, scouring. Finally, Saturday, baking–for the week.  All those pies and cake and breads–which explains a lot of recipes using “stale bread,” since by the end of the week whatever bread was left was likely to be rock-hard.  And Sunday, like every day, three times a day: feed the family.

Whatever the rhetoric of feminism, women didn’t want frozen food, store-bought bread, and labor-saving devices because feminism told them they were being oppressed.  They wanted these things because their work was really, really difficult and time consuming and exhausting.  If these things freed some women up to do other things–run Hewlett Packard or become Secretary of State or write science fiction, that wasn’t the point. The point was to get out from under all that backbreaking, repetitive work.

Valorization of a better, simpler, more wholesome time drives me nuts.  Because it’s fantasy.  I love the gorgeous, candy-colored rendition of small-town turn of the last century Iowa in The Music Man, but I don’t confuse that with real life, which included diptheria, weevil-ly flour, bedbugs, and food that often teetered on the edge of spoiled. Taking on some of the tasks of yesterday, while using some of the tools of today to avoid the nastier work, and disdaining people who cannot or don’t want to do the same, is a mug’s game.  It makes it all about aesthetics, when what most people 100 years ago, and many people today, are worrying about is survival.

Eat what you love, eat what is healthy, eat what you can afford and what you feel good about.  Cook or eat out or call for a pizza.  Grow tomatoes, spin flax, make poetry or pottery or raise llamas for the wool.  It’s all good.  But don’t blame Betty Friedan if you don’t like what’s for dinner.

 

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