The Women Who Scooped Michael Pollan by 200 Years

Long before the modern food movement, Catharine Beecher, Ellen Swallow Richards, and many others tried to increase the public's estimation of home cooking.

A home economics class in Toronto, Canada, circa 1911 (Archives of Ontario)

"The problem with cooking is that we've denigrated it," said Michael Pollan in last week's New York Times, promoting Cooked, his new book about the importance of home cooking. "There's just a cultural problem of persuading people it's a valuable way to spend their time."

Underpinning these statements is the idea that, until the mid-20th century, cooking was indeed valued. And then Big Food taught us to view kitchen work as drudgery, and everything went to hell. These beliefs, repeated by food writers and celebrity chefs from Pollan to Mark Bittman to Jamie Oliver to Alice Waters, have become received wisdom among the food-loving classes.

But, as I've written before, cooking has not been particularly valued in the past. Necessary, sure. But valued? Not exactly. Respected? Certainly not. For most of human history, cooking involved hot, back-breaking physical labor—drawing water from the well, killing and plucking chickens, kneading bread day in and day out. When possible, it was delegated to servants or slaves.

In fact, cooking has historically been so undervalued that, as far back as the mid-1800s, reformers have been crusading to earn it more respect, and to convince Americans to do more of it. Pollan and co, it seems, are merely the latest in a long line of pro-cooking agitators.

In the early- to mid-1800s, some of the era's greatest female thinkers turned their hands to the task of making cooking, and other so-called "women's work," worthy of respect. Feminist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote The American Frugal Housewife (1829), in which she warned readers against "convenient" pre-made bread and cakes, and despaired over young women too busy having fun to learn to cook. Catharine Beecher, an educator and the sister of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), arguing that cooking should be "on an equality with the other sciences in female schools." This was a radical idea at the time, as cooking was seen as a form of manual labor, unfit for cultured ladies.

"A lady would be ashamed to be seen in her kitchen at work," wrote Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and pioneering magazine editor (and author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), in an 1841 cookbook—The Good Housekeeper—she wrote to combat just such attitudes.

Later, the Home Economics Movement, founded by Ellen Swallow Richards (the first female MIT graduate), aimed to make cooking as professional—and therefore as respected—as any other science. This was an uphill battle.

"In the past, domestic science was unrecognized and the whole trend of education was away from home-making," wrote a Mrs. Wells W. Cooke in the early 1900s, in an editorial arguing that home ec ought to be taught in public schools. Cooking, wrote Cooke, was not simply about manual labor, but about "an expansion of all the senses." Good food, she said, was necessary for creating good citizens, and for nourishing social justice.

"We need to exalt the profession of home making to see that it is as dignified and requires as much intelligence as other professions," wrote an editor of The New England Kitchen Magazine in 1890.

To achieve these goals, Richards and other home economists applied the era's newly discovered scientific principles to housework. They set up academies to teach young ladies the science of homemaking, and started cooking schools, where they taught women how to cook the most nutritionally sound food (by the standards of the day, that is, which meant a heavy emphasis on meats and white sauce).

"The cook who can compute the calories of heat which a potato of given weight will yield, is no drudge," said Richards proudly.

Today's home cooking crusaders lean away from professionalization and science, and towards a simpler, more personal approach. But the fact that experts have felt the need to act as boosters for home cooking for the past 200 years suggests one thing: "persuading people it's a valuable way to spend their time" has never been easy.