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How Did Home Cooking Become a Moral Issue?

Three academics explain why we’ve put too much emphasis on family dinner.


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 The social insistence on home cooking may do more harm than good. (Sarah Lawrence for Vox)

There is a crisis in American kitchens. But what exactly that crisis is depends on whom you ask. If you turn to food media, the problem is we aren’t cooking enough. Everyone eats takeout. Kids are eating junk.

But there are solutions, food pundits say. “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” advises Michael Pollan. It’s easier than ever to cook and eat well, with our modern refrigerators and our modern plumbing and our modern stoves, argues farmer and author Joel Salatin, and if, with all those advantages, we still can’t cook and eat right, then we deserve what we get. The message is, yes, there’s a problem, but we can fix it, which is to say, you can fix it. You just have to try harder, shop smarter, cook better.

But sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott say it’s not that simple. In their book, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, they make the case that “the solutions to our collective cooking pressures won’t be found in individual kitchens.”

 The idea that home cooking will solve societal problems has become popular. (Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images)

Over the course of five years, the authors interviewed more than 150 low- and middle-income mothers and a handful of grandmothers, in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, all primary caregivers of young children. Ultimately, they focused on nine. It’s not that foodie doctrine is wrong, exactly — home-cooked meals are great, we should eat more vegetables, it is nice when families eat together — but rather that the prescriptions of (mostly white, mostly male) public food intellectuals stop making sense when confronted with real life.

The mothers and grandmothers in the book do take food seriously. Across income levels, they care about how they feed their families, and across income levels, they feel like they’re failing. Which they are, in a way, because the task is impossible. A societal problem requires a societal fix.

I called Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott to discuss how we got here, what we can do about it, and why “getting back to the kitchen” isn’t the answer. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This idea of getting “back to the kitchen” suggests that there was a time — not now, but before — where meals were healthy and wholesome, and if only we could get back to that place and cook like our great-grandmothers did, we’d all be better off. But … did that past ever exist?

Sinikka Elliott: It’s just a lovely, romanticized idea. You get fresh butter churned from the cow that was milked that morning, and everything is made using whole ingredients. There’s no doubt about the origins, or [concern] that unhealthy ingredients are being snuck in there.

“We are actually healthier and living longer today than we were back in that era of great-grandma” —Sinikka Elliott

[But] this is describing [the reality of a] small minority of women. We are actually healthier and living longer today than we were back in that era of great-grandma. I mean, a lot of people had diets that were marked by scarcity and deprivation. A lot of people had very monotonous diets. I grew up on a self-sustaining family farm, so I actually ate this kind of food growing up, and I will tell you it’s the same old stuff over and over and over again. Toward the end of winter, it’s really looking bad. Everything is wrinkled and soggy, and it’s not very much fun to eat.

Sarah Bowen: This is an image of white middle-class families. It’s not an image of immigrant families, who were eating different foods. It isn’t an image of urban poverty, of people who were crowded together and undernourished. It doesn’t make room for other types of people.

Sinikka Elliott: And almost all of these white middle-class families had at least one domestic servant, and many had more. These were families who were not doing this work merely on their own — they were actually paying people to cook and to clean. Between 1880 and 1940, almost all American upper- and middle-class families had at least one domestic servant they employed. By 2001, one in about 162 households had a domestic servant. That’s a huge shift.

Sarah Bowen: We have a lot of anxiety today about whether American families are cooking. “Have we forgotten how to cook?!” One piece of information is that we are still cooking quite a bit, but another piece of information is that even in the past, Americans weren’t cooking all their food. They were often relying on low-income women of color to cook a lot of it, and they still are. It’s just that it used to be in the house, and now it’s in restaurants.

So if that past wasn’t the reality for a lot of people — most people, even — why does the idea of it shape so much of the discussion around food?

Joslyn Brenton: I think people are looking through the past with these rose-colored glasses. I think one of the ways that we tend to look at women today, and historically, is that they’re doing the things that women do — having children, and feeding them, and sort of making themselves look presentable — and that they’re always doing it with ease, and they’re always happy doing it. Even though it doesn’t match the reality of how women experience their lives through their day to day.

Women have found lots of happiness and joy and creativity through cooking over the years. It’s certainly a rewarding experience to feed your family and have them enjoy that, but there’s another side of that coin. That is the day-to-day slog of making meals, and feeding people, and dealing with different food preferences. That’s not easy, and that’s the story that just never seems to get told about women of any era.

Sarah Bowen: I think they come out of anxiety about how healthy our diets are, and chemicals in the food system, and a regulatory system that doesn’t seem to be doing its job. Those concerns and anxieties are real and important, but then the reaction is to sort of idealize this image of how it was at a different time, and how it could be if we would just put in the effort. So the reaction, to some degree, is understandable, because it’s to all of these things that are happening, but the image that is held up is an ideal that’s not realistic, and it probably never was.

But it’s such an appealing ideal!

Sinikka Elliott: Yeah, I recently actually watched Michael Pollan present to a Vancouver audience, and someone had a question about “isn’t it harder for poor and working-class families to achieve this kind of home-cooked meal?” He did express some sympathy for the challenges of cooking homemade meals. But he also said that he thought that not being able to cook, not having the time to cook, not being able to afford “real food” is an excuse. And he said, quote, “We’re going to have to fix our diet before we fix the whole economy.” I think that’s the angle that they are coming at: Let’s empower individuals to fix these things, and then we can tackle those bigger issues. We really want to reverse that.

In the book, you profile nine women who are all living in pretty different circumstances, but one thing that’s really striking is that they all care a lot about what they’re feeding their families. If they’re struggling — and everybody is, in different ways — it’s not because they’re not trying. But in a lot of cases, there are other, non-food problems that are making it really hard for them to feed their families the way they’d want to. In one of the more extreme examples, there’s Patricia, who is living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a hotel room. She doesn’t have a kitchen. So yeah, she’s heating up frozen pizza — she doesn’t have a stove. And it seems like, no, “fixing our diet” is not going to fix this.

Joslyn Brenton: There weren’t that many people in the study that were experiencing homelessness, although there were a few, but Patricia showed how hard it is. That if you buy in bulk, that would be cheaper. That you should chop a lot of things up [to meal prep], and you can save money that way. But that doesn’t work when you’re living in a hotel. So she was buying microwavable foods, which were all she could make, but they’re also very expensive.

“A lot of people didn’t have tables or enough chairs for everyone to sit down” —Joslyn Brenton

A lot of people in the study had their own houses. But a lot of people in the study didn’t have basic kitchen tools. Their stoves wouldn’t work. They’d have pest infestations. The electricity would get cut off, or the water, for a period of time. A lot of people didn’t have tables or enough chairs for everyone to sit down. So really basic things of this kind of image of what dinner can look like and how you should do it didn’t map up with a lot of the experiences of the poor families in our study.

Not all the issues are as clear-cut as not having an oven, though. What are some of the more subtle obstacles?

Sinikka Elliott: There’s a lot of invisible labor that also goes into feeding a family, whether it’s strategizing to get the best deals so that you have food that’s going to last for the month if you’re on a very tight food budget. Which a lot of the working-class and poor women we interviewed were.

Then if you have a bigger budget, there’s strategizing how you’re going to incorporate those idealized foods [into your family’s diet] — sustainably produced, local, organic. How are you going to get your kid not to want to eat at McDonald’s, and not feel like they’re missing out because they’re not eating at McDonald’s?

As we’ve seen this huge inequality gap grow, and more uncertainty and anxiety around our children’s futures and their well-being, I think we see that kind of invisible labor really ratcheting up.

 Home cooking can be great, but there are a lot of pressures involved that often go ignored. (Getty Images/Caiaimage)

And it cuts across class — it’s not just the poorer mothers who are struggling to live up to their own ideas about what cooking should look like.

Joslyn Brenton: You would think [the middle-class mothers] would be better off. You would think that surely they must have it easier than somebody like Rosario Garcia, who we write about in the book, who has very little counter space; or Patricia Washington, who doesn’t have a home; or Ashley Taylor, who is a shift worker, and her husband is also a shift worker, she and her husband have this shift work, and they’re just trying to find five minutes to be in the same house together to have a meal, which seems really impossible. So you say, “Okay, those people are really struggling and that makes sense. I can see that, but surely the middle-class people should be having it easier.”

One of the people in the book is Greely Janson. She’s a middle-class mother, she has one child, she has a very high level of education. She has a lot of knowledge about food, and ethical eating, and nutrition, and all of these things. And still, she couldn’t make it happen. They had very busy work schedules, and she was trying to achieve such a high standard that she always just kind of felt like she was coming up short, and that she was failing her kid.

“She felt like she was failing somehow, or that she wasn’t setting her kids up for success” —Joslyn Brenton

Or there was another middle-class mother, Marta, and she had lots of resources at her disposal. And she had a kid who refused to eat, like, three-quarters of the meals that she would put in front of him. She was resorting to all sorts of techniques to get this kid to expand his palate, and she could not force him to eat. And it was really frustrating for her because she felt like she was failing somehow, or that she wasn’t setting her kids up for success. So even if you do have a little bit more money, or a work schedule that you have a little bit of control over, there are so many other factors that can thwart your efforts to really create that ideal meal.

There’s so much cultural messaging that seems to confirm Marta’s fears, though. Like, if you don’t feed your kids exactly right, then you aren’t setting them up for success, and it is all your fault.

Sinikka Elliott: The onus is on mothers to get it right. For example, we talk about Melanie Richards [one of the women in the book], and her trip to the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] office to get her WIC vouchers, and she has the mandatory nutrition counseling every person has to go through when they recertify — I think it’s every six months. But in this context, she then gets a grilling about what she’s feeding her daughter and is essentially told she needs to do more. She needs to do it better.

And what a lot of research tells us is that these kinds of moments, when people tsk-tsk when they look into a mother’s grocery cart at her purchases, or when they see the mother using WIC or food stamps, or when mothers get these kinds of grillings from the nutrition counselor — however well-meaning it might be — it creates these moments of stigma and shame. And there’s a big body of research that tells us that in and of itself is bad for us. It’s actually bad for our health, our physical well-being.

Sarah Bowen: I just always like to emphasize, though, that despite all those check-ups, people really appreciated WIC. They talked about that very consistently. One of the things that just came through so clearly was how important governmental programs like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and WIC were for so many of the poor and working-class families in our study.

One thing I keep thinking about is that for a lot of the women in the book, cooking is a huge part of their identities. It’s a creative outlet, or a demonstration of love, or an expression of culture. One the one hand, it’s not “if you care enough, everything’s better.” It isn’t. But on the other hand, you’re allowed to care, and caring can be really important.

Joslyn Brenton: One of the things that we grappled with [when we were writing this] was, “Okay, food is such a problem for so many women, but food is also a source of joy for women,” so we definitely don’t want to tell this story that only says, “Food is a struggle and woman hate it,” because that’s not the whole story at all.

“For so many moms, whether they’re rich or poor, or working class, or in between, food was an important part of caring for their family” —Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen: For so many moms, whether they’re rich or poor, or working class, or in between, food was an important part of caring for their family, and part of their identity and tied to these memories of how their own mothers and grandmothers had cared for them. We really tried to talk both about food as a source of joy and power and love, and a source of stress and struggle and inequality — for the same families in many cases.

Sinikka Elliott: I think our whole point is when we put the onus on individuals, yes, we create an arena in which people can feel empowered in their own individual lives to make positive changes and to create family rituals and special meals, but at the same time, we also ramp up this arena of judgment and moralizing and shame.

Where is that judgment coming from?

Sinikka Elliott: I study inequality, and one of the ways that inequality works is that you make everyone feel anxious — in this case it’s about their children’s well-being, their health, their futures — and then you kind of put the onus on the individuals to get it right in a competitive and uncertain context so that people feel a lot of pressure bearing down on them. And sometimes they’ll implement the new system — say, chopping veggies on the weekend, or they’ve bought an Instant Pot that’s going to help them create meals that they can eat throughout the week — and then they can feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a handle on this, I’m doing it well.” But this is a precarious thing.

So if “getting back to the kitchen” and “making time for food” won’t fix our problems, what will?

Joslyn Brenton: At the individual level, one of the things we say is that we can keep food in perspective. Food doesn’t have to define who we are and everything about us. If you’re a busy family and you need to pop a frozen pizza in the oven on a Wednesday night, fine.

Sarah Bowen: We hear a lot about “making time for food” from the food pundits — if you just prioritize, you can make time for food. And even when we’ve talked about our research, a lot of the call-ins to radio shows and stuff are like, “Well, you can do it if people just chop vegetables on a weekend, or plan better.” But that doesn’t take into account how many directions American parents are pulled. So food is important, but it’s also important to read to your kids, and help them with their homework, and teach them how to be a good citizen.

Joslyn Brenton: I think keeping food in perspective means saying to yourself, “I’m going to do the best I can but I don’t have to be perfect, and actually there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there.” If we look at diets of people around the world, we know there isn’t one perfect way to eat. There’s many good ways to eat. And so moms can sort of remind themselves of that. And they can also remind themselves that they don’t know what kind of an eater their kid is going to be when they’re 20 — as parents, we don’t get to have full control over that. We can try to offer them some good choices, and try to do the things that we think help, but it’s not something you can fully control. And I think it helps mothers to remind [themselves] of that.

What about on a societal level? You make a pretty persuasive case that this isn’t something we can address by just convincing people to pre-chop vegetables and cook more organic beans.

Sinikka Elliott: Some really interesting cross-national research has clearly shown that in countries with supportive family policies, parents are happier — much happier than in countries like the US that don’t have those kinds of family-friendly policies in place. Basic things, like paid sick days, subsidized preschool, universal health coverage. And so on a really, really broad policy level, if we want families to be happy and healthy, then we need to invest in them much more than we are currently doing. It has nothing to do with food, but it clearly has everything to do with family well-being.

Sarah Bowen: In terms of specific food things, one thing is to make food a human right. SNAP is so important for so many people, but we continue these debates about who deserves food assistance and whether they are doing it right. And if we reframed it as a human right, that would mean that we thought of it as something that we all deserved.

Every person in this country deserves to have enough food, and you start from there. And we think about education that way. We believe that basically all kids have a right to an education — and there’s a lot of educational inequalities, so I don’t want to downplay that — but we could think about food that way. But we don’t.

 “Food is important. But it’s also super clear that we can’t just keep asking the families to do it all on their own,” says author Sarah Bowen. (Getty Images)

So how can we support that?

If you have enough money, there are already lots of ways that you can get some help. You can get groceries delivered to your door. There are all of these meal planning kits like HelloFresh, so that you don’t have to deal with meal planning, if that’s the part that’s stressing you out. There’s a lot of prepared foods that are actually pretty healthy that you can get at Whole Foods. So if you can afford it, there are lots of answers.

But then for lots of the families in our study, all of those things were totally out of reach. So could we use — in some communities repurpose school kitchens or church kitchens and do some affordable, preheatable dinner for people when they really can’t get dinner, and they are out of time and need to get something together fast.

We talked about how there are already things going on. There are already lots of church dinners and community dinners happening all the time. They are happening in some of the neighborhoods in our study. Some families went to those every week. And it’s partly about not having to cook dinner, and that’s a good reason, but you also end up talking to people you maybe don’t know very well or that are maybe a little bit different from you, you get to try new foods, and there are other people who are interacting with your kids.

So we don’t have all the answers, but one of the things that we think is important is how do we move from talking about what’s happening in these individual kitchens and start talking seriously — as seriously as we’ve been talking about the kitchens — about how to move it out of the kitchen.

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This post originally appeared on Vox and was published March 5, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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