Over the years, the amount of time I've spent cooking has waxed and waned, depending mostly on my living situation, my diet and my work situation. In my early 20s, during my first stint as a vegetarian, I cooked often, mostly out of necessity -- the small town where I lived was sorely lacking in meat-free cuisine. Years later, alone in Washington, DC for grad school and without a busy social life, I cooked a lot again, because I had a lot of time. But when I moved from there to New York City with a roommate who loved to cook, I happily demoted myself to dishwasher and when she wasn't around or didn't feel like feeding me, I'd head to the pizza joint at the end of the block.
It was through my friendship with Kim O'Donnel, who I met through my freelance work with the Eat Well Guide, that I began to really think hard about the virtues of cooking, and its very necessary role in what my colleagues and I have been working toward -- major change in the way we eat. Some who focus on food politics (and many who don't) have pooh-poohed others' focus on culinary niceties, often slamming such groups as Slow Food as elitist, over-indulgent gastronomists. But, if we are to celebrate "real food" and lack the funds to dine out nightly at the restaurants that serve it, and we are to encourage people to eat more fresh vegetables, well, they're not going to cook themselves.
So, last weekend, when the NY Times magazine published a new Michael Pollan manifesto, this one bemoaning the fact that most Americans now spend more time watching cooking shows than they do in the kitchen (all while waxing nostalgic about his mother's love for Julia Child, playing on the upcoming release of Julie and Julia), I ate it up. But I was quickly given pause to think by a couple of aspects of the piece, and I was not alone, because Pollan, in navigating the seemingly innocent but all too treacherous waters of American home cooking, had drawn the wrath of the feminist blogosphere.
Pollan credits Child with helping 60's era would-be cooks to overcome the fear factor, but only the fear of hoity-toity French cuisine, and fails to acknowledge that for some, there are very real fears of even basic culinary exploration (more on this in a minute). And while he acknowledges that at the same time Julia Child rose to fame, food marketers were taking advantage of the rise of the feminist movement, he might have done well to riff on the marketing front and leave out, or at least edit more carefully, such nuggets as this one:
Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air -- 1963 -- was the same year Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.
Through my work advocating for local and sustainable food systems, I've heard the argument that "we" need to cook more hashed out more times than I can count, and while I certainly agree, I'm always surprised and disheartened by the fact that, like Pollan does, even the most progressive crowds quickly revert, however subconsciously, to the assumption that the "we" who no longer cook are women. It's not a mistaken assumption per se -- according to Pollan, men, now cooking more than ever, still only prepare 13 percent of meals -- but to fail to question the legitimacy of that is to let American men off the hook.
But if Pollan stumbled at the intersection of feminism and food, he also fails to mention the people -- and there are more of them everyday in this economy -- who lack not only the skills but also the basic cooking implements necessary for a Rachel Ray-style feast, let alone a Julia Child-caliber meal, or who, for that matter, can't afford to risk burning their dinner, and he barely touches on the obstacles some of us face in getting a wholesome meal on the table, most notably time. I've been guilty, too, of insisting that locally grown and sustainably produced food can be had as cheap as most "ordinary" food, if only folks were willing to cook for themselves, without recognizing how many people lack these two most imperative ingredients.
On the time front, perhaps a more community-minded approach would help. With the rise of kitchen gardening this year, we are seeing more and more community gardens, as well as creative solutions like organized gleaning and yard-sharing. Why does this ideal not extend to the kitchen? Potlucks, eat-ins, taking turns hosting meals with your neighbor or extended family, all of these could help lighten the load for home chefs, with the added benefit of enhancing those relationships. After all, good food is best enjoyed with company.
Over the years, food processors and fast food companies have exploited the time crunch by marketing to us ever more complexly processed but easy to imbibe foods, in the supposed effort to simplify our lives, but for many of us, it probably takes as long to run for take out as it would to have whipped something up. So too, have they capitalized on the decidedly archaic ideas so many of us (however subconsciously) hold about women's roles and food, often by marginalizing food issues as something only women care about.
Pollan does make some interesting points about the rise of the Food Network and why it has had such success in capturing male viewers -- largely due to the mindlessly competitive nature of shows like Iron Chef. He points out that such programming is designed, not to impart any knowledge of how to cook, but to teach viewers how to order high end foods, and this observation is important because it's hard these days to overestimate the role that money plays in the design of not only such programming, but say, government subsidies, or the layout of our supermarkets.
I don't think Michael Pollan is sexist -- the article was about a film about two women chefs, and the reality is still that women perform the overwhelming majority of cooking that still gets done in this country. Could he have done better? Sure. And he could certainly stand to dig a little deeper into the reasoning behind America's lack of culinary proclivity, but of course, that would have made for a deeper, less nostalgic, almost certainly much longer article.
As for my friend Kim, whose blog is a great resource for those who would seek to re-learn the culinary arts, she was just excited to hear Pollan issue a call to cook. Says Kim of the article:
One of the lines that resonated for me was:
"It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it -- and watching it."
I think this is really true, no matter how much money you earn or how much you know about where you food comes from. We love to talk about food, we love to watch it on TV, but by and large, we need a swift kick in the pants when it comes to actually preparing it.
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