My summer reading list this year included several books about food, in particular Year of No Sugar: A Memoir by Eve Schaub and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (and family).  Both books were about the families’ attempts to do something “extreme” with their eating habits over the course of a year.  Schaub’s book describes the family’s struggle to eliminate added sugar from their diet.  Kingsolver’s follows the family’s quest to eat only locally grown food in season.

I read them mostly for my interest in health and sustainability, but they left my feminist brain confused and conflicted about a seemingly straightforward topic: cooking.  Since both books are at least nominally about food, they included a lot of material about cooking.   Both authors were very much in favor of cooking, spent a fair chunk of their time doing it, and were encouraging others to do the same.

But wait! my brain kept saying.  Wasn’t the point of feminism to get women out of the kitchen?  Should we really be saddling ourselves with the cooking chores again?  What’s next?  Wouldn’t feminists scream at this?

Let me take a step back and say that both women freely chose to undertake these food experiments.  Given their interests, education, work flexibility, etc. they were in the position to make this choice for themselves.  No one was pressuring them to cook or telling them to stay home because that was all they were good for.

However, I do think there are broader feminist issues here.

While both women freely chose to undertake their yearlong food experiments, both expressed a feeling that in the broader scheme of things, they did not have a choice.  They believed they were poisoning their families, ruining the planet, and/or eliminating their children’s prospects for a healthy and prosperous future.  Saying no to the food experiments did not seem like an option.

What does this have to do with feminism. Well Kingsolver stopped me in my tracks when justifying her time in the kitchen.  I am paraphrasing, but she basically said:

We (professional women) got our educations and joined the workforce with the implicit promise that society would help us take care of our families.  The schools would make sure our kids learned what they needed to know.  The food industry would provide nutritious, responsible food requiring limited preparation.  New products and technologies would keep us safe, healthy, and clean.  They lied.

She could go out and maximize her earning potential, but to her, the bargain was not worth it.  She would rather make sure her family was healthy and that she was leaving the planet in better state for her children to live in when she was gone.  Similarly, Schaub was dismayed by the amount of sugar her 1st grader was getting in school and by the sugar hiding in her emergency chicken with pasta and cream sauce meal from the grocery store freezer isle.

My feminist point?  I have two.

Point 1: Society promises a mother everything but on closer inspection, she gets very little in return.  We no longer resign women to the kitchen as their rightful place in a patriarchal society, at least not explicitly.  But do we actually give them a choice?  This gets back to a point I made in my More Work for Mother: Part 2 post.  In that discussion, I concluded that

“internet access has placed the burden of research on the consumer.  Whereas once you paid a travel agent to book your flights, now you spend several hours researching and comparing prices.  The variety of products available also means you spend a lot more time researching the perfect backpack for your child or the best rice cooker.  All this research time seems like an added burden on working mothers that we take for granted.”

All this leads us to feminist goals regarding social support for women’s empowerment.  Obvious examples include affordable childcare or flexible work schedules, but maybe feminists should expand their thinking to include basic things like education reform, food safety, and sustainable agriculture.  Yes, moms can drive markets, but they deserve to be astrophysicists or chief operating officers rather than the country’s unpaid food inspectors or agricultural watchdogs.

Point 2:  Cooking itself is not the enemy.  This might be obvious, but I missed this point and maybe other feminists do too.  I grew up in an environment where cooking was a chore and food was either a haven for allergens or a problem for the latest diet fad.  I never ended up with an unhealthy relationship with food, but only recently did I realized that cooking can have its own rewards.

Cooking can be an exciting and creative process as well as a way to make delicious AND amazingly healthy food.  This is part of Kingsolver’s argument in favor of home cooking.  In addition, besides the obvious health benefits, she lays out a range of other family benefits: time together in the kitchen sharing stories, making memories, experimenting, and learning new skills; setting up a designated family meal time; interacting with the past through family recipes or foods that remind you of Thanksgiving with Grandma; taking time from a crazy schedule for some quiet and reflective time.

Obviously all these wonderful things don’t happen every day.  Sometimes cooking IS a chore and we want to make sure mom is not the one stuck with it all the time.  But in these books, especially Kingsolver’s, cooking is family work.  Dad makes the bread daily and plows up the garden.  The children look up recipes, work in the garden, help with the cooking, or even run the family’s egg business.  Everyone works, everyone learns, everyone benefits.  As a result, bringing a feminist view to cooking can be very rewarding for everyone in the family, not just the women.

So there you go . . . food can equal feminism.