The family dinner as it’s known today was contentious from the start. When, about 150 years ago, the evening meal began to replace the large midday fuel-ups that were common when people didn’t work outside the home, some traditionalists were concerned. One 19th-century cookbook author fretted that “six o’clock dinners destroy health” and that women, in the absence of their typical food-preparation obligations, would “give the day to gossiping and visiting.”
A century and a half later, dinner’s time slot is now secure, but the meal—and idealizations of it—remains tied up with American culture’s expectations around family, gender, and health. In a new book, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, three sociologists trace those ties as they catalog “the complex, messy, joyful, creative, fraught process of putting food on the table.”
Their survey of home cooking is based on interviews with more than 150 mothers (and some grandmothers) who live in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, and who for the most part are poor or working-class. These are not the people who populate typical books about food and cooking. One family, after being evicted, prepares dinner in the bug-infested hotel room they’ve been living in for months. They store bottles of ketchup and cooking oil in the bathroom, using it as a pantry.
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.
Pinsker: There’s a notion that if people struggling to feed their family healthy food were wiser with their money and time, they’d be eating better. Having seen a lot of these people shop, what are your impressions of their spending habits?
Elliott: I left those grocery-store observations with a sense of awe at what these working-class and poor women were doing to make their food budget stretch—for instance, getting a calculator out while using self-checkouts so they could monitor the total and make decisions about what they might or might not include towards the end.
We wrote about one mother who would collect all these coupons and organize them by grocery-store aisle—she’d have them in a black binder that she would rest on her forearm and she would walk up and down the aisles, being very systematic and studying everything in advance. She went to two stores because one store had better deals than the other, which was really common among the people we talked to. An incredible amount of effort and thought went into those shopping trips.
Pinsker: You have also studied the eating habits of families higher up on the earnings spectrum. A lot of people who are of parenting age now have all sorts of food preferences and restrictions, whether about adhering to certain diets or not eating GMOs. To what extent do these people pass their food philosophies on to their children?
Elliott: I don’t know if I can say, because socialization isn’t this simple process whereby we impart messages to kids and they wholeheartedly embrace and reproduce them. It’s way more complicated. But there is a mom in the book who is very much into organic, small-farm, locally sourced food. She discovered in her 20s that she had problems with sugar, and she’s against processed foods. So she’s raised her daughter to eat healthy foods—she talks about how they go to the farmers’ market and her daughter is excited to get collard greens. But she also talks about being at a birthday party where her daughter sees a bowl of M&Ms. Her daughter doesn’t know what they are and says, “Mommy, what are these?” And she feels strangely guilty, like, I haven’t even given my child the joy of knowing M&Ms. She had conflicting emotions about whether she should be feeding her daughter this foodie mantra. So I think it can be quite fraught.
Pinsker: It seems like parents, especially mothers, are in a bind. Some are worried they aren’t feeding their kids healthy enough food. And parents like the mother you just described have their own worries. What would make parents less stressed about feeding their children?
Elliott: I think when we talk about how parents feed their kids, we should acknowledge that we’re not always going to get it right—and that’s okay. Kids are resilient, and if you have to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, do it.
After we published the article that then became this book, a woman wrote in to thank us. It was a really sad story. Her husband had passed away two years before, and they had two children that she was now raising on her own. And she’d gone through this huge transition of being the sole parent, figuring out so much, and mourning, but at the same time she was lying awake at night freaking out because she was feeding her kids chicken nuggets for dinner. It’s okay to give ourselves permission to not always have the perfect meal for our kids.
What also needs to happen is we should better support families. If we think that some food isn’t healthy, let’s make it so that the food industry is better regulated. And wages have stagnated for a long time now, so often we need two adults in the family to be working full-time to support the family. If we can think about ways to make it so that families aren’t stretched so thin in terms of time and finances, those things can go a long way towards alleviating some of that anxiety about getting it right.