Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Joy of Housework?

While others (such as mythago) are lambasting Michael Pollan for his various assertions about the decline of cooking, this one caught my eye:
Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.
Ah, yes.... 1962, the last year of the joyous scullery maid.

From the first day a rich, powerful person said, "Wow - I can hire (or force) somebody else to do this for me," few truly wealthy people have taken time out of their day to empty bedpans, beat rugs, or hover over a hot stove. The scullery maid, pretty much at the bottom of the hierarchy of household staff, would spend her entire days cleaning and scrubbing... 14, 16, 18 hour days. But until Friedan came along, how was she to know that hers was an unhappy lot, as opposed to a life of endless joy? I mean, c'mon.

I don't so much mind people being wistful for "the good old days", and Pollan's hardly the first to imagine a version of "the good old days" that never actually existed. But seriously - has he ever picked up a broom, changed a diaper, cleaned a toilet, mopped a floor? Did somebody have to teach him that housework can be drudgery, and that as you approach scullery maid level it's unquestionably oppressive? If so much joy is to be found, why didn't men step in the moment women gave them the opportunity?

Pollan describes glorious memories of watching his mother cook, something he sees as more elevated than watching a cooking show on television, but something that apparently didn't inspire him to pick up a spatula or a mixing spoon. Watching my mother cook (I joke cruelly) was a bit like watching one of Snape's potions classes in a Harry Potter movie. Okay, I exaggerate, but I did pick up that mixing spoon, and made my first scratch cake from a Betty Crocker recipe when I was seven. (And yes, it was good.) Pollan suggests that cooking is like an alchemic science that can be lost in a generation. But recipes are plentiful, and honestly, following one isn't particularly hard. What we truly lack, as Pollan concedes, is time.

I don't watch cooking shows as a general rule, but I have occasionally been drawn in, and have at times picked up ideas or techniques that have improved my own cooking. I enjoy cooking. But that's not to say I easily confuse the type of cooking I enjoy with the type of cooking Pollan describes - planning a dinner party, picking recipes, doing something creative or difficult, and having everything come out beautifully can be incredibly rewarding. I don't claim to be a chef - I'll stick with "cook" - but as mythago (who makes my kitchen skills look downright pedestrian) points out, real people don't have the time, money or energy to cook like that every day, let alone three times per day.

Pollan does know that - he lovingly describes his mother's Chicken Kiev, but implicitly acknowledges that it's a "special occasion food" that can be eaten every day only when you outsource the labor - and even then, shouldn't be eaten every day ("When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt".) But that means, outside of those special occasions, we're not really following Julia Child's lead. We're talking about cooking that's much more ordinary.

When you map out the week by "spaghetti night, meat loaf night, chicken night," etc., week after week, the joy of cooking quickly dissipates. (In Pollan's view, where making sandwiches isn't "cooking", should "spaghetti night" count as cooking? When Pollan's mother made spaghetti, did she make her own sauce? Her own pasta?) It's difficult to come up with a creative, flavorful succession of recipes that you can prepare in the thirty or forty minutes between when you get home from work and when you need to get a plate of food in front of your kids. When you work as much as we do in this culture, sometimes it's hard to scrounge the time and energy to boil water for the spaghetti and warm up a jar of sauce. It's no wonder, and no fault of women, that we turn to convenience foods.
The question is, Can we ever put the genie back into the bottle? Once it has been destroyed, can a culture of everyday cooking be rebuilt? One in which men share equally in the work?

Why am I asking if spaghetti night counts as cooking? Powell alludes to something he calls "real scratch cooking", a concept he doesn't define but that he clearly sees as excluding certain cooking short-cuts - perhaps not Minute Rice, as he excused his mother for using that product, but including unspecified prepared ingredients that make cooking faster and easier. I made chicken, broccoli and quinoa for tonight's dinner. Was it "real scratch cooking" even though I used a commercial marinade? If not, would it have been "real scratch cooking" had I made my own marinade, but included a commercial soy, teriyaki or Worcestershire sauce in the marinade? I added some garlic powder and chicken bouillon to the quinoa; should I have used fresh garlic or made my own chicken stock to make it "real scratch cooking"? Should I be embarrassed that I know what quinoa is, even though I learned about it from a nutritionist and not a TV show? I put some butter on my daughter's broccoli, but to my shame I didn't churn it myself.... (I'll leave to mythago the discussion of whether I should have slaughtered and plucked my own chicken.) Seriously, at some point everybody tries to save time and labor. Even grandma had somebody else grind her flour.

With a definition of "cooking" that includes making sandwiches and grilling burgers, Pollan tells us that men "are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals". If he can get that number up to 50%, while women hold steady, won't his goal pretty much be achieved? If only Betty Friedan hadn't convinced, um, men that cooking (and housework) are drudgery. I'm personally of the opinion that the dominance of men in the kitchens of fine restaurants has nothing to do with innate skill, and is primarily the result of a culture that expects women to cook food to feed a family while allowing men to approach the kitchen as experimenters and hobbyists. If you want more Americans to return to the kitchen, you need to be honest about what you're asking them to do, and that includes being honest with yourself that there's drudgery involved (even if you can convince your spouse or kids to wash the dishes).

Powell is correct that today's food culture is aimed at mass market consumerism and instant gratification - which means it's not really different from anything else in our consumer culture. If you think about cooking, there's a huge component of chemistry. (Switch alkalized cocoa for natural cocoa in a typical recipe without adjusting the rising agent, and you'll see what I mean.) Modern corporations have turned food production into something that doesn't really resemble cooking, but produces (artificially) flavorful, (artificially) aromatic food items that are incredibly calorie dense. (Absent artificial odors and flavors, I suspect the typical fast food burger would smell and taste like cardboard, if that good.) No, our nation's diet is not on a healthy course, but the solution is not to besmirch sandwich-making as "not really cooking", to guilt-trip women or to pretend that we can recapture either the hours in a day we spend at work or a bygone era that exists primarily in rebroadcasts of 1950's-era TV sitcoms and our imaginations.

I don't feel guilty that for lunch, yesterday, I bought a salad composed of locally grown, flavorful vegetables (that I did not grow myself) with fresh feta (that I did not make myself), nor that the day before, when a visitor and her children unexpectedly desired a meal, I made sandwiches - good ones - from what I had on hand. (Pollan's correct that the "make a meal in thirty minutes out of the ingredients at hand, whatever they happen to be, perhaps including string cheese" situation doesn't arise in a professional kitchen, but it sometimes does arise in mine - and I wouldn't be surprised if it arose at times in his mother's.)

Let me offer Pollan an idea for his next column. It used to be common for men to build their own homes, often with the help of neighbors. There are a ton of shows on home improvement all over the networks, and between the Internet and television you can easily collect the information you need to build your own home from the ground up. Yet somewhere along the line, men apparently decided it was drudgery, or even oppressively difficult and time-consuming, to build their own homes, and now pretty much everybody busy homes built by others. Was this due to the release of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House - shame on Cary Grant? Did "This Old House" transform home building "from something you do into something you watch" - shame on Bob Villa?

Or perhaps it's that with increased specialization of labor, diminished spare time, a desire to have a home that's nicer than you could build yourself, and the ready availability of builders to whom you can outsource your construction and home renovation needs, people have chosen an easier, less time-consuming, more gratifying path. If you don't like to cook, or simply don't have the time, you shouldn't be expected to feel guilty about it.


  1. Aaron,

    I loved this article! Just thinking about the joyful scullery maid who didn't know her life was drudgery until Betty Friedan came along had me rolling on the floor. Bravo on an awesome rebuttal!

    Besides commenting on this great article, I wanted to suggest a new site I think you might enjoy for your Interesting Reads. It's called Random Facts, is hyperlinked with my name, and contains a lot of fun articles you should like. If you do like it and want to link to it, will you please let me know at my email


  2. I can't stand Michael Pollan for some many reasons, not the least of which is his "good old days" crap. (Don't get me started on his "eat food!!!1!1!! not too much mostly plants!!11 Whee aren't I clever?!?!)

    Interestingly, girls my age (30something) were sold another bill of goods...the career, career, career thing. I bought right into it until I realized how much I hate working and how much I actually don't mind cooking and such. (Now, if I *had* to cook and do that sort of mindnumbing crap that you described...then of course it would be a different story!)

  3. Somebody on Pandagon already snarked about the whole 'Betty Friedan brainwashed happy Stepford Wives' thing, and anyway I was more making fun of the sexism and classism of Slow Food in general, so I skipped it. I like the points you made here. And I still want to kick Pollan in the nuts.

  4. The Pandagon piece is amusing....

    "...becoming an adult who makes her own spaghetti sauce was a revelation for me that caused me to spend more time in the kitchen."

    My mother made spaghetti sauce from scratch... the memory almost brings tears to my eyes. *cough* (Really, it wouldn't have been bad if she'd seasoned it and called it "tomato vegetable soup" - just not over spaghetti.)


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