Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reality Check for Food Scolds

Obviously, a FEMINIST mother!
I have been harping on this of late, but I'm not the only one.

Emily Matchar points out the sexism and the revisionism in the slow food movement.  I'm with her.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Betty Friedan was some sort of pied piper, leading women to run from the kitchen and abandon their families to a hell of over-processed foods to hear Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver and their ilk tell it.  So I would like to inject some reality into these discussions.

From jabs about Betty Friedan convincing women to leave the kitchen to insinuations that people (especially mothers) are lazy, these foodies remind me why I had little to do with learning the art of homemaking when I was younger.

Betty Friedan didn't "convince" (affluent, white) women of anything.  The Feminine Mystique documented what her fellow (affluent, white) housewives told her about how they felt, which was bored, stifled, and frustrated. They weren't convinced to not like being housewives. They already didn't like it. She was no pied piper.

Barbara Kingsolver made a crack about how no one said women would be stuck doing it all.  Actually, less affluent women who had to work paying jobs and who had families already knew this thank you very much. However, in the supposedly good old days of woman at home cooking healthy scratch meals (more on that in a minute), women were also dismissed from their jobs when they got married. In some cases, they were hired back as temps. After all, you'll be busy raising your family! Depending on the place you worked for, your status as a temp could mean you worked on the weekends or on major holidays (like Thanksgiving and Christmas). You certainly didn't get the pension permanent employees got. Oh, and it was just fine to openly practice pay discrimination, since men had families to support (so did the women, but they weren't "supposed" to work, therefore, they got pin money).  The assumption that all women were affluent housewives is a little irritating, frankly. I'd rather live in a world where that kind of gross discrimination is not okay, and if that means I eat ramen noodles, I'm okay with it.

Processed foods were introduced and popularized by the food industry, not by feminist harpies who longed to overthrow God, America, and Apple Pie. Thanks to advances in technology to develop it and the war to make it a necessity, dehydrated, canned, and (eventually) frozen foods were widely available.  They were touted as a good thing and housewives were exhorted to buy them and use them.  People saw this as a sign of progress and prosperity and did so. This had jack squat to do with women running away from the kitchen to go find themselves or become CEO's. And frankly, my homemaking mother (who yes, had a garden, and yes, froze the surplus) and her homemaking friends used the convenience foods that affluent slow food evangelists recoil from.  Canned or dehydrated soups, instant coffee (that was all the rage for a long time), Wonder Bread, cereal, frozen prepared vegetable sides, etc. . . yes, they did. 

Have a chat with someone who grew up just after the war. Who raised kids before and after the war. Let me tell you something, it's illuminating. All of that rose colored claptrap about the days of yore neglect the inconvenient truths that in the winter months, the available vegetables were sparse (sometimes canned and soggy).  Frozen vegetables were not common for a long time because most people didn't have freezers! And unless you had a plot of land to garden, you weren't about to can all of the produce for your family for the year.  The food available was pretty narrow.  People still worked hard, they worked long hours, no matter what they did. Food that didn't require a lot of preparation provided some relief in that regard.  And quite honestly, the food people ate tended to be high in fat, high in salt, meat-heavy, and depending on the time of year, light on the fresh vegetables. Take off the rose-colored glasses already. You look stupid in them.

Many slow food aficionados wax lyrical about how wonderful cooking is, how great farmer's markets are, how rewarding gardening is. They never remember to add at the end of their sentences "for me."  Because here's the thing: what's great for you is not great for someone else. It may well be stifling and frustrating to them. They may hate every minute of it. They may not have a particular talent for it. And they may prefer to do something else. Some people--some women--feel perfectly fulfilled working a job outside of the home, and I think that is great. We're human beings and we have the same variety of desires and skills that men have. I'm sick to death of the assumption--unconscious or otherwise--that our domain must  be the home. It's not for everyone. (And frankly, that attitude is what kept me from wanting to learn to do any of this stuff.) If you live in a home and want to eat and live in a clean place, you need to do your share and not expect someone else to do it. And if you are going to extol the virtues of scratch cooking, etc. you need to start very vocally expecting the menfolk to do their share. I have yet to see this from the affluent foodies out there, who only say it when we point out how narrow-minded they're being.  Then it's a grudging "Well, of course men should take part. . ."

And they often don't stop there. They want to do everything themselves.  I mean, great! Make your own yogurt. Make your own cheese. Bake your own bread. Grow your own vegetables. I do many of these things myself! But don't point-score. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver made a comment about how a woman proclaimed her a real housewife when she learned that she made her own cheese. Indeed. My mother was a slacker in comparison to you, Ms. Kingsolver, because she didn't make cheese. Even when women do what they're supposed to do, they are still shamed for not doing it "right" or for not going far enough.

The other thing they forget is that when it becomes someone's job, it can be a source of frustration and resentment, especially if your kids refuse to eat what you made (and trust me on this, your assertions about how you'd never let your kids get away with that make me laugh--you never had me as a kid. Trust me, Ms. Formerly Picky Eater here would have made you go gray early). It's tiring. It's endless. And if you don't enjoy it, it's drudgery. Heck, even if you do enjoy it, it can be drudgery.  When you have a bunch of relatively affluent scolds lecturing you about how you're doing it wrong, it becomes a bigger source of resentment.  Why even bother when it's never going to be good enough?

Foodies already cast a jaundiced eye at the food system.  But they seem to blame women for not harkening back to the 1950's and staying in the kitchen, or individuals for not cooking meals from scratch. If these foodies don't like the food system, they could work to make it easier for people to have access to healthier and sustainably grown food. They could understand why processed food was popularized, and understand why people actually still use it. They could drop the shaming little jabs made at women for having the gall to be human beings with desires that may not include homemaking. They could give people room to be different from them. They could encourage people and not tear them down.

Or they could continue to proselytize, shame, scold, and harken back to a past that didn't exist. That's worked swimmingly so far.


  1. That "Is Michael Pollan Sexist" article is great.

    Btw, I have The I Hate to Cook Cookbook and it is excellent. :)

  2. Great post! It is amazing that the mothers of the past were perfect, yet somehow managed to be vilified for buying into a little convenience.

  3. I LOVED this post. Its like a breath of fresh air. Honestly I do get tired of certain bloggers touting how they make everything from scratch, from bread to laundry soap plus they all have immaculate gardens full of veggies along with homes full of all the crafts and sewing they do AND they have four kids but can do it all. Sometimes I just look at my screen thinking to myself, ..seriously? .LOL...Thank you for this post

    1. I don't get tired of it-- more power to them! That's just not what I spend my time doing. But that's ok, different people have different priorities. (Me, I prefer to work outside the home.) It only becomes a problem when they vilify people with other preferences.