Today’s culinarians are almost unanimous in promoting the ideal of home-cooked meals, made from scratch, using fresh ingredients, as a route to good health, sustainable food supplies, and a revitalized home-life—while condemning the processed foods foisted upon us by the food industry.
But there is a reason why fast food and convenience foods have become so prominent a part of the American culinary landscape. As women began to enter the workforce in the 20th Century, they had little time for the labor-intensive planning and preparation required to make meals from scratch. The convenience of packaged, prepared meals promoted by the food industry were a necessity, not a choice.
This article by sociologists Bowen, Elliot, and Brenton (H/t Elatia Harris) reminds us that the situation for most women has not changed very much:
While Pollan and others wax nostalgic about a time when people grew their own food and sat around the dinner table eating it, they fail to see all of the invisible labor that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals. Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.
The researchers interviewed 150 women from all socio/economic classes along with ethnographic studies of 12 poor and working-class families and they conclude that:
The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures,financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held. Our conversations with mothers of young children show us that this emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.
This is an issue that does not receive enough attention among people promoting healthy, aesthetically-pleasing meals. Cooking is time-consuming, expensive when seeking out specialty ingredients, and may not be appreciated by the rest of the family who might prefer Cheetos and soda for dinner.
So what is the solution? The article proposes some innovative remedies:
How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.
These ideas are fine but there is a more obvious solution to the time constraints involved with cooking—get men to help out in the kitchen and become more invested in preparing healthy, tasty meals for the family.
This is not a new proposal. Feminists have been pointing out the burdens of the “second-shift” for decades. And fathers today are doing more housework than in the past. Fathers are doing 4.4 more hours of housework per week than they did in 1965 according to this research by the Council of Economic Advisors—that’s real progress. But that is starting from a very low base and is still not sufficient.
Come on men! Hone those knife skills and that shopping savvy and help out mom. There is no reason why the joys of cooking must be gendered.