Wednesday, September 24, 2014

love people. cook them good food.

There's been quite the hullabaloo over a study recently published by a group of sociologists called Joy of Cooking?. Here's the abstract (quoted from the website where the study was published): "Sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton offer a critique of the increasingly prevalent message that reforming the food system necessarily entails a return to the kitchen. They argue that time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials." 

I read reaction to the study (here's the link to Room for Debate in the New York Times, which is worth a read, but the other thing I read was so stupid and infuriating I won't even bother to link it here) before I read the study itself. In fact, I was all prepared to write an indignant post of my own defending the home-cooked family meal, and then I thought, well maybe I should read the piece that stirred up the controversy in the first place, and so I did just that this evening. 

The study is full of examples of women whose lives are stressful enough already that the added pressure of cooking every night for their families or their children isn't worth the effort, especially when the kids won't eat what's in front of them. (I can certainly identify with that last part). They rightly point out that many proponents of cooking at home often overlook the extra time and stress it takes to plan meals and clean up afterwards, as well as the potential cost of ingredients. 

It's true that planning and cooking takes time, and that ingredients can be expensive. It's true that it sucks when the meal you set forth before your family as a labor of love is rejected and picked at. And even though I don't know from experience, I am sure that the stress of these realities is magnified manyfold if you're a single parent with significant financial constraints. I won't argue against any of those points.

But I will still defend the family meal, and I will do so adamantly. Good food doesn't have to be expensive or elaborate or difficult to prepare. Yes, it takes planning to have homemade meals in the midst of our hectic lives, but everything in our hectic lives takes planning. We all have to eat every day, after all, and I think it's worth the effort to eat as well as we can. 

My own reaction to the Joy of Cooking? article was mostly indignation. After I read it, I felt like the sort of person the authors would label as an "elitist foodie", someone out of touch with modern life because I do actually take the time to cook meals for my family every night. 

Now, I'm an advocate of home cooking for many reasons, not the least of which is that our country is facing an enormous public health crisis that is directly related to how we eat. In general, our population eats too much junk and drinks too much sugar. Not only that, most people have no clue where their food comes from or how it's produced, nor do they care. These things are not unrelated. Perhaps if more of the food we eat was balanced nutritionally and made from whole ingredients we would not be in this crisis. I also think the crappy eating habits we've developed collectively are in part a result of a work culture that does not support family life or value time spent making and eating meals together. (Go get yourself a copy of French Kids Eat Everything and you'll see what I mean.) 

But before you roll your eyes and close this window, let me assure you, I'm no Donna Reed. To hell with all this pressure on women to make the family meal every night. Didn't I say we all have to eat every day? Well then, maybe we should all pitch in on the effort, too. Take turns being in charge of meals, put the kids to work cleaning up, plan the weekly menus together, spread all that extra stress around!

So I think the most glaring omission from the study was that it offered no real solutions or even reasonable suggestions to the "cooking is too stressful" problem. The authors had an opportunity to discuss the structural flaws in our work culture that create impositions on people's time with their families, but they didn't. I mean, healthy food trucks? Monthly town suppers? Seriously?? I agree that sticking women back in the kitchen isn't really going to fly, but that's no reason to give up on the family meal entirely. We still have to eat.

3 comments:

Jessi said...

Disclaimer: I have read none of the articles surrounding this and am going to totally point to my single mom-ness and say I don't have the time nor the inclination to do so...

Okay, so, here's how I see it. Cooking is stressful and it's not always easy, especially for those who didn't grow up cooking. It's not cheap to make food out of whole, organic, locally sourced ingredients.

What I hate is the all or nothing mentality. Why is it so hard to believe that majority of the world is sometimes having great, well-prepared fresh meals and is sometimes having frozen chicken strips. All I'm trying to do is get through every day the best way I can. Sometimes that's Wendy's in the car and sometimes it's quiche from free range eggs.

Most of the time, it's somewhere between.

Sorry for the length.

Suze said...

And there's nothing wrong with "somewhere between"!! I don't have that all or nothing mentality at all (and I hope I didn't come across that way...sometimes I'm not very articulate). Some days are easier than others, that's just life. As for locally sourced organic ingredients, obviously those aren't cheap (usually...though if you go to the farmers' market at the height of zucchini season you can probably score a whole bunch for cheap!) but I never said everyone should cook that way. I was just trying to explain the choices I make.

My main problem with the study was that everything still came down on mothers. It's too stressful for mothers to cook, so maybe they shouldn't bother, seemed to be the conclusion. Never mind the other people - a spouse or partner if there is one at home and yes, kids too - who also have to eat and should therefore contribute to the work load of meal prep and clean up.

Also, there is a big question of access - access to good, affordable ingredients (why can't local produce be subsidized like agri-giants anyway?), access to time (the work day and school day don't exactly line up very well, do they?) and access to skills (why can't cooking be a part of public education?). These are problems that individual women can't solve on our own. It's more of a systemic, cultural thing.

In the meantime, I will never EVER judge you for frozen chicken strips or eating in the car.

Jessi said...

Suze,

I absolutely didn't mean you! I meant the general world, I guess. I feel like there's this very haughty attitude that you are either doing it right or wrong and that's so silly! And I agree that the idea that this is a problem for moms only is antiquated at best. I need to do a better job of involving my kids in meal prep, but most nights, I just don't have the energy.

In short, I agree with you. I think I just reacted badly to this because this has been a very chicken fingers week and I'm having some mom guilt. Mom guilt is the bane of my existence.