Feminism, food, and the "new domesticity"

April 30, 2013

Houston antique store

I started listening to the audiobook version of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us on my drive to work yesterday. Early on in the first chapter (read a fantastic except here), author Michael Moss said something about how processed/convenience foods were not meant to be consumed all the time, but (and I’m badly paraphrasing here) our modern lifestyles have led to us relying on them more than ever in the past few decades. When he said that, my first thought was, Hm, and what changed about our lifestyles in the past few decades? And my second thought was, Well, many households went from a single breadwinner to having two people working, something that would probably make convenience food both more attractive and more affordable. And so for the rest of my drive, I was thinking about how (middle and upper class) women’s liberation from the kitchen may have had an effect on the way we eat.

Coincidentally, later in the afternoon, I came across Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? on Salon and then a response (No, Feminism Isn’t Making America Fat) on Jezebel. Two articles which were responding to the fact that apparently, I wasn’t the only one to wonder about these things — though I got the impression from these articles that even pondering these ideas was the same as blaming feminism.

The Salon article, despite its inflammatory title, is actually a really good read. The author, Emily Matchar, has a book coming out next week that I remember hearing about a few months ago and then promptly forgetting about: Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. Similar to Radical Homemakers, Homeward Bound takes a look at the women who see mastering the domestic arts as their way of subverting the patriarchy. These women are “femivores.”

“In 2010, writer Peggy Orenstein coined the term ‘femivore’ to describe a certain breed of stay-at-home mom whose commitment to providing the purest, most sustainable foods has become a full-fledged raison d’être. These are the women who raise backyard chickens, grow their own vegetables for their children’s salads, join raw-milk clubs to get illegal-but-allegedly-wholesome unpasteurized milk.

‘Femivore’ is an infelicitous-sounding term (do they eat women?!) but an on-target concept. Femivores, Orenstein says, use food as ‘an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.’”

…’The return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America,’ says Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on food culture. ‘We’ve lost our connection to traditional handmade cuisine, kids could have shorter life spans than their parents [because of obesity and poor diet], there’s global warming. This new food culture is a response to an industrial model that’s not working.’

Our country is clearly in a dire state when it comes to obesity and the environmental impact of factory farming, so the fact that more people care about food is terrific. But the kitchen’s always been a fraught place when it comes to gender and class, and the twenty-first century is shaping up to be no different. For some, the new cooking culture is incredibly empowering. Others are finding themselves tied up in apron strings all over again.”

It’s interesting to me that so many people (including the author of the Jezebel article) consider women who are growing/cooking/raising their own food as smug, clueless, and regressive because that’s the complete opposite impression I’ve gotten from Radical Homemakers thus far. That book argues (and I’m really simplifying it here) that instead of relying on a man, modern women now rely on The Man — that is, to be independent from male partners, we are just dependent on our employers who, we all know, do not always have our best interests at heart. And to work as much as we do, we rely on cheap convenience products that are bad for our health and the environment and are often made by low-wage workers. According to the book, radical homemakers:

“are not the brand of feminists seeking security through economic independence…in most cases, they view ‘economic independence’ as an imaginary condition; if a wife, say is reliant upon her husband’s paycheck, he, in turn, is dependent upon the vicissitudes or even the whims of his employer. They are both vulnerable if their life skills are limited to what they can do for a paycheck. They are more stable if the paycheck is only a small percentage of the livelihood, and life skills, increased self-reliance, community, and family networks supply the rest…these homemakers have evolved a more sophisticated view of what constitutes an economy and they have surrendered a false sense of independence to embrace genuine interdependence.

…it is only natural that many feminists, working in the context of a power struggle between the sexes, suggest that the only way to achieve equality is to exit the home. The trouble is, however, that everyone still needs a home…the power struggle that is alleviated when both husband and wife become working professionals is merely transferred to someone lower on the social ladder.

For there to be true social egalitarianism, then the work of keeping a home must be valued for its contribution of the welfare to all.”

And Radical Homemakers really does value the work of creating a home. It argues that we dismiss what has historically been considered “women’s work” as unimportant because of its association with women (and, perhaps more important, its association with poor women and women of color) when in reality, mastering the domestic arts actually has a lot of value on a personal, community, and large social and political level. The book isn’t arguing that women stay home to perfectly clean houses, organize playgroups for their kids, and make baby food from scratch while their husbands go off to work; it’s pushing families to become units of production (raising/growing/making their own food, sewing their own clothes, trading skills and homemade goods with other families, etc.) instead of units of consumption. To use a really simple example, most of us now our buy bread rather than making it making it ourselves. It would probably be cheaper and healthier to make it ourselves, so why don’t we? Because we don’t have time. Why don’t we have time? Because we have to go to work. Why do we have to go to work? Because we need to pay for our homes and cars. Why do we need two cars per family? So we can go to work. To pay for our bread. And all the other things we need to buy to offset the fact that we’re working so much and don’t have time to produce anything for ourselves. So maybe we should spend more time making our own bread so we don’t have to work in shitty conditions so that we can pay someone else (who is also working in shitty conditions) to do it for us. (I know I’m not doing this book’s arguments justice; if you’re interested in this topic, I really recommend reading it!)

The book really is pretty radical but I’m into it, and I’ve been waiting for some media coverage of this topic that doesn’t reduce all the women who are going this route to sanctimonious, out-of-touch, upper-middle-class white women. (I had high hopes when I saw the NY Mag cover story “The Feminist Housewife” a couple months ago but was sorely disappointed upon reading it.) Matchar’s article in Salon gets closer (and includes a lot of great info/history on this topic that has me eager to read her book), but then there’s that title.

So, what does Michael Pollan have to do with this? Is he really a sexist pig?


Matchar uses Pollan as an example of someone who is pushing this return to cooking, canning, and growing your own food because he’s sexist and regressive. She takes one of his quotes from 2009 out of context to make it sound like he’s blaming women and feminists for the way our country eats. But I’ve always felt that Pollan (who I was praising last week) really gets all of the issues that intersect when we talk about food. So I read the article Matchar (and, later, Jezebel) quoted, in which he allegedly “scolds that ‘American women now allow corporations to cook for them’ and rues the fact that women have lost the ‘moral obligation to cook’ they felt during his 1960s childhood” and…I’m not seeing that attitude at all. He actually makes a pretty great case for why modern cooking shows get it wrong in how they portray women cooking.

“These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television…Julia never referred to her viewers as ‘housewives’ — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read The Feminine Mystique that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.)”

That doesn’t sound sexist to me. And Pollan actually told NPR yesterday:

“We kind of assume that women went back to work and there was no time to make a family meal. But it isn’t that simple and it’s a lot more interesting. The corporations were knocking on that door for almost 100 years. And after World War II, when they had invented all these technologies for processing food and making it shelf stable and simulating real foods with fake foods, they really pushed. And they found their opportunity with the feminist revolution beginning in the ’70s. There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got you covered. We’ll do the cooking.’ And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan, ‘Women’s Liberation.’

So I really think we need to go back and finish that difficult conversation. And I’ve had it, you know, with my wife, over who does what in the house, and bring men back into the kitchen. And children, which I think is really, really important…I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook.”

I don’t get the impression that he thinks women or feminism are the problem…it sounds like he thinks KFC is the damn problem. And I think a lot of these “new domestic” women are pushing back against KFC and the like, not against feminism or working women. Sure, the Salon article may be using white, upper-middle-class stay-at-home moms as their example of this new type of homemaker and subtly hint that what they are doing is silly or just the latest trendy thing to do (and the so-called “mommy wars” add a whole other layer to this) but the women in Radical Homemakers are…grittier (for lack of a better term) that the Salon article makes them out to be. (Though the media always makes a point to say that the “new housewife” has tattoos and dyes her hair fun colors; I’m not sure if they think this makes her grittier, or if they are implying that tattoos are just the 2013 version of Betty Draper’s circle skirts.) The radical homemakers care deeply about social justice, the environment, their health, and about many of the seriously broken parts of our culture and economy. So is the fact that they choose the kitchen as their place to protest what makes people uncomfortable? Is it the fact that “women’s work” and “women’s interests” are still treated as fluffy and dismissed by a lot of people? (The argument “if it’s so great, then why aren’t men doing it?” is often used in discussions like this, I guess to prove that if men aren’t doing something, then it’s…not a smart, savvy, and worthwhile thing to be doing?) Is it that we interpret this as something that is only available to the privileged, ergo it must be bullshit? Is it that we struggle to imagine that something that was historically gendered could actually be a form of liberation?

I’m not entirely sure why people are giving a side-eye to these radical homemakers and new domestics, but I hope that as Homeward Bound hits shelves/Kindles next week, the media gives a bit more in-depth coverage to this topic and to the women (and men, and single people, and people without kids) who realize that cooking healthy, locally-grown whole foods for yourself and the people you care about has value (even when you do it in a small way — I mean, I don’t grow and can my own vegetables but I’ve been going to the farmers market regularly since reading Radical Homemakers because that seems like a good start for now) and that spending more time in the kitchen might not come from a desire to return to the 1950s, but instead from a desire to send a big “fuck you” to a lot of systems that really need some fucking up.

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