So, I’m definitely not the first person to criticize something Michael Pollan wrote from a feminist perspective, but I’m gonna give it a shot anyway. Kate Harding made some great points about this article. Especially when she skewers his comments about The Feminine Mystique
“the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” Funny, I always thought Friedan became a feminist icon because she articulated what millions of women already felt, not because she brainwashed them into believing that repetitive, menial, unpaid labor might not be the best use of their talents.
Pollan seems to be trying to rag on feminism but to toss in just enough comments that of course men should cook too to avoid being criticized for telling women to get back in the kitchen. He notes that men “are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals, many of them on the grill.” Wow, a whole thirteen percent? So, in a household with a man and a woman, the average guy is doing about 1/5 of his share of the meal-making. And that average might be worse than it sounds in terms of gender equity–what part of that 13% is cooked by men who live alone or with other men? (I recall reading somewhere that guys who get married do less housework than they did before, while women who get married do more. I don’t recall whether cooking was counted as part of that, but I’d be really unsurprised if the same thing applies.)
He talks about wanting men to cook too, but it often seems to be a sidenote, like he’s preemtively trying to keep too many women from feeling like he’s throwing us under the bus. But, you know, it’s really not enough to say that someone should cook, whether it be the man or the woman, unless you actually look at the reasons behind women doing 87% of the cooking, many of them while working the same or longer hours than the menfolk who manage to produce the other 13, and unless you actually emphasize that if Americans as a whole aren’t cooking, maybe our longstanding definition of feeding a family as “women’s work” has something to do with that.
Even though he gives lip service to “men should cook too,” he also says things like “Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.” Excuse me, *their* cooking? As in, even when she works full-time, it’s still the woman’s job to cook? Regardless of whether there’s a guy in the household who works the same or fewer hours? Unchallenged sexist assumptions much?
Pollan does a whole lot of waxing nostalgic about his mom making meals after watching Julia Child, including how entertaining it was for him to watch her prepare complex dishes like Chicken Kiev, and I had to do a little eyerolling at the way that the woman’s work is treated as entertainment for other (male) members of the family.
And while I’m eyerolling, a major portion of his argument, that Food Network no longer teaches us to cook, would fall apart if he’d ever watched Alton Brown outside of Kitchen Stadium. Yeah, there’s a lot of food entertainment, but there are also a lot of cooking shows. Not all on prime time, but dude, that’s what Tivo is for.
He also talks about how we spend more time watching cooking shows than it would take us to actually prepare food, as if you can’t do both at once. (Like, tonight, after cooking a nice dinner, the hubby and I settled in front of the TV to eat while watching Chopped, and I often have it going in the background while cooking or eating dinner.)
The thing that really annoys me about this article, though, is how it implies that women aren’t very smart. He talks about feminism convincing women that cooking is drudgery and then the food industry convincing them that pre-packaged food was acceptable and not a “dereliction of their ‘moral obligation to cook,’ something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care.” So we’re easily brainwashed and led astray. Thanks, haven’t heard that one before.
But, you know, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe the brainwashing wasn’t feminism, but the earlier Angel in the House idea that a woman’s job is to nurture, comfort, make things pretty and civilized, and of course, do a crap-ton of unpaid labor as part of that “nurturing” gig. And the mere existence of food options that didn’t involve devoting huge amounts of time to cooking didn’t automatically undo that conditioning.
Let’s also not forget that not every woman has the time or energy to do that cooking even if she wants to. I give Pollan some credit for noting that the ridiculous hours Americans are working puts a major crimp in home-cooking, but in all his snide comments about “instant everything,” he forgets that there are plenty of people who are actually not able to cook. Like folks who are disabled, for whom junk food is a hell of a lot healthier than nothing. And, presumably, for all those seamstresses, factory workers, secretaries, and schoolteachers who were working outside the home long before the last generation or two, who probably weren’t cooking the chicken Kiev and mousse that he remembers from his childhood. I’m guessing poor city children eat better now than they did 100 years ago, and microwaves and preservatives have a fair bit to do with that. (Well, so do laws against selling rotten meat or passing chalky water off as milk.)
Sure, cooking more is a good thing. It’s often healthier and better for the environment, and it can be fun. But let’s not, to use Pollan’s term, thoughtlessly trample over folks who don’t have tons of free time, spacious kitchens, and easy access to fresh foods, or over women who have no interest in being shoved back into the kitchen, in the pursuit of some nostalgic foodtopia (that didn’t exist for most people in the 60s either).