THE BLOG
05/23/2013 06:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

Where There's Dirt, There's Life

Over the past several years, I've learned that I have this thing for process and evolution. Nothing gives me as much pleasure as learning how things grow, watching people flourish, seeing ideas evolve into actual places and systems. The thing I've learned about evolution is that once things grow, other less desirable issues pop up. You can't have a healthy garden without weeds. You can't become a great cook without a few broken sauces. And when you try to keep the process too squeaky-clean, you kill something inherent and beautiful. So the undesirable is actually desirable because it proves that there's life there.

Part of loving process means knowing as much as you can about the topic at hand. In the world of science and public health that means data, data, data. Which is usually fascinating. The only problem is that conviction can be challenging when the minute I grab hold of an opinion, I need to know all the other possible opinions out there. So research either helps me prove myself to myself or changes my outlook. Either way, information is good. As a Food Studies student (I suppose that makes me, simply, a Food Student) I'm fascinated by how we evolved -- or devolved -- into a nation that eats almost half of our meals from restaurants, supermarket prepared food counters, and packaged meals. I'm constantly amazed at how quickly we went from an agrarian society to a country where kindergartners think eggs come from paper cartons and an estimated 20 percent, with some estimates as high as 50 percent, of the food we produce goes to waste. What happened that made us so cooking-averse and confused? Are we simply too overworked and too disconnected from what food really is, or just totally uninterested?

Two years ago, when I told my lovely 75-plus-old aunt that I was planning on opening a cooking school, she practically fell off her chair. "Oh sweetheart," she said, "Nobody wants to learn how to cook! Why would you want to send women back into the kitchen?" After explaining to her that Haven's Kitchen would be a gender neutral food space, and that both women and men are quite interested in the art of cooking, she was a little less horrified, but doubtful nonetheless.

Considering the history and evolution of our relationship with food in this country, her sentiments made perfect sense -- my aunt grew up in a rapidly changing world. Between the World Wars, women were taught that they were responsible for providing their husbands and children with a sense of hearth and continuity, safety and protection. The message was that what a woman could provide for her family with meals that would safely carry our country through perilous times.

Then, a major shift happened when eight million women took on jobs outside of the home during WWII, and then the majority of them lost those jobs within the next three years (1). Women were essentially displaced, the country was readjusting to a peacetime existence with machines and manpower in need of a new mission, and the Civil Rights and Women's Movements were beginning to stir just under the surface.

Enter in industrial farming, grain surpluses, subsidies, fast food, Jell-O and frozen dinners. Women were on one hand being pushed toward Stepford-perfectionism, and on the other hand being told that the way to a healthy economy and good times was to buy, buy, buy. Consumerism was the key to a good life, Americans were told, and who better to fuel that fire than the women? A happy family had a good shopper at the head of it.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published what by some is considered the lynchpin of the Women's Liberation Movement, The Feminine Mystique. All the connections between anxiety, perfectionism, boredom, guilt, and resentment led to a possibility of empowerment in a very new way. The next several decades saw major changes in the way women saw themselves and each other, and how they managed their homes and family economies. So for my mother, my aunt, and anyone who experienced first hand what they saw as an escape from the kitchen and all it represented, the idea of their smart little girl (I'll always be little to them) who not only loved the kitchen but wanted to teach other people how to love it too, triggered something visceral in them.

And as the pendulum swings, and the world keeps spinning, things continue to change. Now, we yearn to gain back some of the knowledge we once had. The thousands of students who've come to Haven's Kitchen have proven to me that people do want to connect with food again and care about making food for themselves and the people they love. I've read that the definition of work is simply something we don't want to do. That means that cooking is only work if you don't want to do it. And while cooking school students are a self-selected bunch, there are a lot of them out there.

Now, we are cooking not because we are told to, but because we want to. And more than cooking, we're farming and growing and caring about food production and distribution. Perhaps our own insecurity about the world this time around triggers something visceral in us too. Maybe we've realized that consumerism is not the key to a happy country. And with that evolution and awareness, there are going to be weeds, and broken sauces -- in the form of misinformation and co-opting of ideals by the very corporations that are putting forth a lot of the nonsense. But every time I see a Mc Donald's commercial showing a "real, live farmer!" or a Coke ad talking about community, I smile. Because it shows the Food Movement is alive and well, and gives me faith that we will salvage our land and our ability to feed each other and ourselves before it's too late.

(1) Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, And The Status Of Women During World War II