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I recently spoke with Sinikka Elliott, a professor at the University of British Columbia, about what she and her co-authors, North Carolina State’s Sarah Bowen and Ithaca College’s Joslyn Brenton, learned from talking with these families, as well as from visiting their homes and tagging along with them to grocery stores. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.
Joe Pinsker: Your book includes examples of food writers and chefs—typically men—saying that people should make a point of cooking more, ideally from scratch. What do you think those commentators overlook?
Sinikka Elliott: This idea that if we all make time for food and cooking good food at home, we’ll be healthier and stronger families—it’s an empowering idea. It gives us the sense that we can transform something in our lives. But it overlooks how so many aspects of family life are really thrust on to the shoulders of women. They may be doing more in quantitative ways—in the sense of minutes they’re putting into food—or they may be doing the same amount as men but feeling more pressure to get it right. This argument offloads this larger responsibility to bring families together for a meal at the end of the day onto individual families who are already really strapped for time and money.
That argument also overlooks how families who have more resources have more options when it comes to making food from home, with whole ingredients, and assembling the family around the table every night to eat it, than do families who are working shifts, have unpredictable hours, don’t have control over their schedules, or are just barely making ends meet on two or three minimum-wage jobs.
Pinsker: What is the history of the family dinner as a socially contentious concept?
Elliott: I was amazed to learn there’s this long history of chastising people for how they are cooking. At the turn of the 20th century, there were these broader shifts, urbanization and industrialization, that meant families weren’t spending as much time at home, because the economy was shifting to paid work, factory work, work outside the home.
There was a lot of anxiety about cities getting bigger and more anonymous, so there was a focus on families as a solution to some of these fears—if we can just make sure people are coming together and enjoying a meal at the end of the day, it’s going to help repair a more fragile social contract. It was actually middle-class women who were at the forefront of trying to carve out a special place for the home and family in this time period.
One of the most fascinating things I learned about during this research was the work of the anthropologist Amy Trubek. She shows that at this time a lot of families couldn’t achieve this home-cooked, around-the-table meal—those who did often relied on domestic help to make these meals happen. So the middle-class people who were writing books urging Americans to make the family meal the centerpiece of their day were often relying on other women to help prepare and serve that food to their families.