Reading Michael Pollan‘s latest in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, you’d think it marched out the front door, leaving slotted spoon behind, to find a female lover and a consciousness-raising meeting with extra space. Hey! Why is that pot roast burning a bra?
But is feminism at fault? Can working moms just not be bothered to throw down in the kitchen these days?
As Anna Clark points out over on Salon’s Broadsheet, Pollan tends to blame second-wave feminism for the death of home cookin’, the rise of fast food and the undermining of democracy. Clark quotes Pollan on Janet A. Flammang’s book The Taste of Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society.
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.
Mothers refused the demeaning task of dicing onions, the argument goes, so children were no longer tucking into fresh baked dinner rolls, veggie-dense stews and warm bubbling cobblers — while also engaging their elders about the issues of the day. Instead, they were plopped in front of the TV, foiled dinners on their laps. Eventually, they scarfed down burritos in the car. All so mom could get off on being equal!
Clark argues food isn’t just women’s work, and she’s right. And we all know men are stepping up (sometimes taking over) in the kitchen — a good thing.
But blaming working women, lazy men and feminism for a generation of bad eating and disparate sit-down dinners ignores the fact that Americans have been eating crappy food — for generations! Talk of real food didn’t happen on a nationwide scale until cable TV launched Food Network in the 1990s, leaving parents my age and some younger, to totally start over in how we think about feeding our kids. We didn’t have great role models, who also didn’t have great role models, who also? Might not have had great role models.
I think one thing that binds Gen Xers more than Gilligan’s Island and a secret love of Styx is the sheer blandness of the foods we were raised on. Back then, lettuce was iceberg, chicken was seasoned with Shake ‘n’ Bake and Mamwich made a meal. My kids’ grandparents cooked a lot of Stove Top and Betty Crocker, not to mention amassing a pretty sweet collection of reusable Lean Cuisine plates.
My grandparents served even more Betty Crocker, canned fruits and vegetables (not home canned, I’m talking Del Monte), and oleo (margarine plus an iodine pack!). When Michael Pollan suggests the food rule, “eat only ingredients your grandmother would recognize,” I’d have to say even I wouldn’t pollute my body like that. Unless you were lucky enough to be raised by new immigrants or Julia Child devotees, your people have probably been chowing on garbage for more than half a century.
But crappy food aside, it’s feminism’s affect on the family meal that Flammang and Pollan are bothered by. I’d argue, again, this one’s got nothing to do with Betty Friedan either, rather governmental policies favoring big corporations over family support. Pollan even alludes to it without actually connecting the dots himself.
Besides drawing women into the work force, falling wages made fast food both cheap to produce and a welcome, if not indispensible, option for pinched and harried families. The picture of the food economy [Eric] Schlosser [author of Fast Food Nation] painted resembles an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as “Fordism”: instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s pay their workers so poorly that they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of nonvirtuous circle driving down both wages and the quality of food. The advent of fast food (and cheap food in general) has, in effect, subsidized the decline of family incomes in America.
Falling wages, beginning in the 1970s, forced more and more families to bring in second (and third and fourth) incomes. Missing family dinners is not necessarily that mom found her identity through working outside the home (though nothing is wrong with it if she did!), it’s that she’s had to work so much outside the home. (Incidentally, poor, working- and middle-class moms have been going to jobs since forever! Did Stephanie Koontz teach us nothing?). Dad had to crank up the work hours, too, over the years. To pay the mortgage for a home in a decent school district, to pay for childcare, to save for college, to buy health insurance … to pay for food. Because local, state and federal laws and policies often worked against families’ best interests.
Women’s lack of excitement for cooking didn’t kill the family meal. This country’s lack of interest in family matters, however? Yes, that’s got a lot to do with it.