Normally, when I write about cooking, I’m doing it over at Urban Meliad (the food-gardening-religion blog). But this particular subject also has a lot to do with gender (and gender expectations, and social norms) and class – or at least income, which in this neck of the woods amounts to more or less the same thing, so it’s being put over here.
See, over at NorthWest Edible Life, Erica has a post up on The Ethics of Dinner. Apparently, Amanda Marcotte wrote a very short piece about home-cooked meals, gender expectations, and the burden of The Second Shift that so typically and frequently falls to women. And then Joel Salatin wrote a response wherein he both upheld the importance of cooking from scratch and eating meals together (which gets a thumbs up from me), but also dismissed Amanda Marcotte’s legit critique as nothing but “whining” (how condescending can you get?).
Here’s the thing: Joel Salatin is a good farmer. He knows what he’s doing. And I’m totally willing to cut a guy some slack for leaving all the cooking and processing of household food to his wife and daughter-in-law when he’s the one out raising and harvesting the animals and plants that the women in his life are then cooking and preserving. But he’s also a Conservative-Christian Libertarian, and that particular worldview frequently comes with an absolute refusal to acknowledge wide-spread and socially-based conditions that effect the situations of any particular individual. It’s an attitude that believes people are poor because (a) they’re not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps the way they should be, and/or (b) they’re clearly just squandering their money on cigarettes, flat screen TVs, and gossip magazines (as if rich people don’t squander their money on exactly the same crap, wtf), and it’s an attitude that leads to statements like this one (made by Joel in his response):
[…]Since when are women the only ones who are supposed to shoulder the burden for integrity food?
Sorry, Joel, but as much as I approve of a world where it’s socially normal – not just a lip-service idea of “expectation” but actually normal – for het dudes who live with their partners to routinely cook, clean, and parent even while sick or sleep-deprived just because it has to get done and not because someone else isn’t around to do it that day… that world does not describe any kind of wide-spread North American reality.
I wish it did.
I think we’d be living on a very different continent if that were the case.
But the fact is that domestic work – child care, elder care, cooking, cleaning, mending, preserving – is heavily gendered as “women’s work”, and has been the case for pretty much all of recorded history in most parts of the world. The fact is that this work is also deeply undervalued – in terms of whether or not it’s okay to pay for it, in terms of who’s doing the work when it is paid work, and in terms of how frequently that work is taken for granted or rendered invisible when it’s not done for a paycheque – is directly tied to the fact that men (typically) don’t do it, or aren’t expected to do it – at least not for free. The “private sphere” and the work that goes on there-in has been valued less and less since the first Industrial Revolution led a lot of men to jobs-for-money outside the home and it’s within this culture, this particular set of norms and values, that yes, actually, women are, if not the only ones expected to shoulder the burden of finding and preparing “integrity food”, certainly the ones assumed by default to bear that responsibility.
Please understand me: I, too, believe really strongly that cooking from scratch is an amazing way to save money while also eating better quality food, and that eating together in an absence of cell phones (ye gods) is an important and necessarily way to keep one’s family – whatever its configuration – connected and strong. But I think that preaching the gospel of the kitchen without recognizing both that (a) people’s circumstances totally effect the degree to-which they can do this, and (b) that a surrounding culture that lionizes workaholism and treats any household with more (or fewer) than two adults as “weird” or “non-normative” (despite evidence to the contrary)… is ignorant, frankly.
In Joel’s response, he writes that Great Grandma split wood, fetched water, cooked on a fire-box stove, and still managed to feed a large family… and he’s right. My great grandmothers did all of those things (well, most of them – I suspect my paternal grandmother’s mother had The Help to cover off most of that stuff). But they also weren’t doing it alone. They had sons and husbands splitting the firewood and slaughtering those home-raised pasture-fed animals rather than buying them with income that had to come from somewhere else. They had sisters and daughters on hand to help pull together those meals-for-twenty as well as to watch the kids, and the kids were fetching the water from the spring. They had household staff or farm-hands to help manage it all, too, some of them (and the people who were the household staff? Well, they’ve been relying on prepared foods for at least 200 years now, so it’s not exactly a new thing under the sun).
I look at my over-worked friends, the ones who earn the lion’s share of the household income, then bullet home to do the lion’s share of the parenting and the cooking as well; the ones who feel guilty about asking The Grandparents to watch the kids for a day just so Mom can have a few hours to get the chaos under control at home, or who are nervous about asking for that help too often lest it be withdrawn entirely; the ones who are ashamed to be paying someone else to do the vacuuming because they feel Less Than for needing the help, or because it’s an expensive reminder that the spouse at home isn’t providing that help as part of the deal that is Partnership; the ones who rely on prepared foods – whether from the shawarma joint on the corner or the yuppie-hippie Food Shoppe on Hipster Street – because the only time they will have to themselves all day long is the walk to the store and back to pick up dinner.
That’s not the situation that my Great Nan was dealing with (except, possibly, the lack of time to oneself). The situation my Great Nan was in was probably closer to that of the Poly Triad with two working-for-incomes parents and a third one who is at home, doing lots of cooking and greeting the kids when they get off the school bus; or those who, while being single working moms, are part of a tightly knit and closely located (this is key) community who can be called upon for emergency baby-sitting when needed; or maybe to the situation I’m in, where working from home lets me multi-task in productive ways – cooking from scratch in between laundry and freelance writing pieces, for example, or picking up groceries at a leisurely pace (and in an uncrowded grocery store whose lack of line-ups means that I’m probably home faster than I would be with a car if I were grocery shopping during rush hour) on my walk home from a modeling gig – where cooking is a joy, not a stressor, because I have all the time in the world in-which to do it and because my hard-working-for-the-money spouse is both always appreciative of my wacky dinner concoctions and recognizes the value of someone providing that labour, free of charge, and on a tight budget.
I can made due with limited funds because I have tonnes of time. I don’t have little mouths to feed, and I don’t need to worry about squeezing dinner in before an 8pm bed-time. I don’t need to worry about whether or not the adults whom I routinely feed will refuse to eat what I’ve cooked and, instead, demand a burrito (and, frankly, even if they do, they can pick it up and pay for it their own damn selves, so it’s rather less skin off my back should that ever be the case) or be super cranky for the rest of the night. I have the hours (and occasionally days) it takes to prepare and slow-cook a tough (and therefore less expensive) cut of meat and a mess of root veggies, or to preserve fruits and veggies while they’re in seasons (and therefore cheap, or at least cheaper, to buy). When I’m working full time, however, I too rely on prepared foods – BBQ’d pork, chicken-in-a-dome, frozen lasagna, pre-diced squash – to cut down on prep time and tend to fall back on tried-and-true combinations purely because my inspiration has been drained away at whatever day-job I’m working, and I don’t necessarily know what I have on hand to work with.
Amanda’s piece about how cooking is seen as a burden primarily because it is one… is true. For many, many people (many, many of them women), cooking is both a basic skill of resilience (as Erica Strauss has put it) and an added element of stress that, unlike the stress of having kids or the stress of house-based chaos or the stress of arguing with your spouse because you’re both stressed out about the kids and the house-based chaos… can be easily avoided. I understand why so many people take the out when it’s offered, even as I’m incredibly glad that I don’t have to.
Someone posted an article to facebook the other day, someone writing about how sick they are of hearing about French (as in France) kids and how they eat healthy meals and love vegetables and are oh-so-much-healthier than kids in the US because of it… without those Praise The French folks looking at the cultural context that facilitates this apparent love of the green stuff.
In frugal-foodie world – you know, the one I live in – I hear a lot about how “the American way of life” (and, as a Canadian, I’m aware that my own culture is dealing with similar stuff) is all about eating take-out at our desks or drive-through on the way home, and how it’s How We Eat that’s making us sick and destroying the planet at the same time.
While I think there’s definitely something to this, I also think the reality is rather mor of “the American way of life” being one that glorifies 14-hour work days, scoffs at sick-leave (have you ever picked up a package of cough drops and read the awful little guilt-trips written all over the wrappers and passed off as “pep talks”? They’re appalling!) let alone vacation time, insists on hiring the lowest bidder (see: internships), offers “flex time” to workers but really means “be on call for us every hour of every day”, and generally under-values humanity on many levels… Within that context, the time, energy, and attention needed to cook from scratch, and with good ingredients, is hard to come by and often written off as frivolous – as “hobby time” or “a luxury for the wealthy” or as one more thing for-which to criticize women (“Oh yeah? And who exactly is watching the kids while you play suzy home-maker in the kitchen???”) or whatever.
It’s not. But as long as those obstacles of time-pressure and money are weighing on so many of us, as long as cooking-for-pleasure (and, as such, cooking as pleasurable activity) is being pitted against the idea that Good Women, and inparticular good mothers, are martyrs who would never be so selfish as to take time for themselves, as long as those are still the case, then cooking-as-fun will continue to be treated as a nice-to-have or an extra (but, girl, you’d better be remorseful about when you’re failing to put three from-scratch meals on the table every day!) and that attitude will continue to be used to uphold the cultural status quo, to keep us chained to our wage-labours and our guilty consciences at the expense of everything that matters.
 Both in terms of “Should I expect to pay money for this service, because it’s a valuable thing that I want done” and in terms of “What does my paying someone else to provide this service say about me and how well I’m living up to the expectations to-which people of my gender are commonly held?”
 See “Counting for Nothing” by Marion Waring for more on that subject.
 A fairly literal thing for me, as a kitchen witch, and a Pagan for-whom food (the growing of it, the harvesting, the preparing, and the sharing there-of) has some seriously religious connotations.