Lots of factors contributed to families abandoning from-scratch meals , but feminism isn't one of them.
In the current zeal to reform food culture, some gourmets have begun to look to the culinary past with rose-tinted glasses. Restaurant menus drip with words like "old-fashioned" and "traditional." Food writers wax romantic about reviving the nearly-lost "foodways" of rural America. "Don't eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," is Michael Pollan's oft-quoted battle cry.
Food—good, wholesome, authentic food—is not just for pleasure these days, either. It's increasingly seen as a solution for a wide variety of social ills, from obesity to global warming to broken communities.
But what happened to our great-great grandmothers' good, wholesome, authentic food culture in the first place? Where did it go wrong? Disturbingly, the blame has lately seemed to settle on an all-too-convenient target: Betty Friedan and co.
Here's Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine: "[The Feminine Mystique was] the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression."
Here's Mireille Guiliano, author of the New York Times number-one bestseller French Women Don't Get Fat: "[Women] don't know how to deal with stress, and they eat when they're not hungry and get fat. They don't know how to cook, because feminism taught us that cooking was pooh-pooh."
Here's Rose Prince, the British celebrity cookbook author: "Yes, it's feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity."
Yes, that's right. Feminism killed home cooking. Feminism destroyed family dinner. Feminism made us fat. These attitudes are troubling. And they're flat-out wrong. If Friedan convinced women that cooking was drudgery, then cooking must have been considered fun and fulfilling before 1963. Right? Wrong.
While today's middle-class locavore may exult in the pleasures of pie-making and pea-shucking, cooking has not been a huge source of enjoyment, historically speaking. Of the many chores of pre-industrial women, cooking was "particularly burdensome...both repetitive and difficult to do well," writes Gail Collins in America's Women, noting that kitchen chores were often farmed out to servants or slaves.
Utopian thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries envisioned a future where cooking was professionalized and citizens could grab dinner at healthy public kitchens (sort of like a socialized Whole Foods hot bar, perhaps?). Two of the 20th century's best-selling anti-cooking cookbooks—Poppy Cannon's "The Can-Opener Cookbook" (1951) and Peg Bracken's "The I Hate to Cook Book" (1960) were published years before The Feminine Mystique supposedly convinced women to hate making dinner.
The mid-century transition from scratch-cooking to using prepared foods had nothing to do with Betty Friedan and everything to do with industrialization. In the years following World War II, corporations began trying to market wartime advances in canned and frozen food technologies to the domestic market. To do so, they aggressively courted housewives with pitches about "quick skillet suppers" of Spam and "ready to serve" Swanson chicken in a can. They sold these foods as more modern, more nutritious, easier, and just plain better than old-fashioned from-scratch cooking.
Many women were initially suspicious about these new foodstuffs, but plenty were happy for a chance to spend less time in the kitchen. And not because they were busy racing to their jobs or consciousness-raising groups, either. Full-time homemakers were just as likely to use convenience foods as women with outside jobs.
This onslaught of processed foods almost certainly contributed to the obesity epidemic, as did the increase in fast-cooking technologies like the microwave, a decrease in smoking, lack of sleep, rising TV use, and growing economic inequality, among many other factors. But feminism? Not on the list.
As a paper called "Why Have Americans Become More Obese?" in the Journal of Economic Perspectives points out, two of the major gains of feminism—more equality in the workforce and access to education—are actually protective against obesity in and of themselves.
"Obesity for women is strongly negatively associated with education," says the paper; the same negative association holds true for obesity and income.
Furthermore, the authors of the paper—two Harvard economics professors and a PhD candidate—write, "We also reject a theory of obesity that the increased numbers of women at work have increased the demand for eating out—and for eating less healthy food...increased female labor force participation does not appear linked to rising obesity."
Lastly, the idea that feminists convinced women that cooking was oppression is utterly silly, a modern day rendering of the hoary old "man-hating bra-burners" stereotype. There were feminists who hated all housework, there were crunchy feminists who baked whole-grain bread and crocheted sweaters all day, and there were feminists (the majority, no doubt) who simply felt that women shouldn't have to be the ones who did all the housework. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, "a baked potato is not as big as the world" to point out that keeping women in the kitchen all day long shrank their horizons. It was not a diss on potatoes, nor those who bake them.
So why does this idea of "feminism killed home cooking" keep staggering around, zombie-like, infecting new and otherwise intelligent audiences?
Twenty-first century foodies like Pollan and his followers have an understandably hard time seeing cooking as anything but enjoyable. In the post-industrial middle- and upper-middle class America of the 21st century, cooking, stripped of necessity, has been reimagined as a hobby or a vocation. Many of us spend our days in front of computers, disconnected from the kind of tactile labor that produces tangible results. Baking bread, digging up watermelon radishes in your backyard garden, or stirring a big pot of earthy mushroom risotto fulfills a very common urge to work with your hands and enjoy the end product. But stirring pots and digging in the dirt is not necessarily fun when you have to do it. And we ought to remember that.
As I researched my new book, on women and modern domesticity, I interviewed dozens upon dozens of otherwise progressive young people who echoed some variation of Pollan's claim: "Feminism was really important, but it kind of destroyed traditional domestic life, and now we're suffering the consequences, with the obesity epidemic and everything," they say.
A 32-year-old writer and mother-of-two in Los Angeles recently complained to me about the pressures of competitive domesticity in her educated, ostensibly progressive community:
I am not into canning and I don't have chickens and most of my food comes from Trader Joe's already cooked. But I have a vigorous inner life and I've maintained my involvement in the culture and in intellectualism . . . But nobody sees that as noble. The noble thing is to cook your food from stuff you've grown yourself, not to cook your food from Trader Joe's so you can work on another article.
The Feminine Mystique is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Let's celebrate it, not as the book that taught women to hate cooking, but as a book that helped give women choices beyond the stove.
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