fitness · food

The pressure of cooking

First there was food.

Produce at an open market.
Produce at an open market.

Then, there was food porn.

Soon after came food morality.

Now, there’s emergency cooking advice. Not for the kind of emergency that requires baking soda or a fire extinguisher. No, I’m talking about how cooking advice has taken on a high-stakes life-or-death tone. That is, we are told that if we don’t buy fresh/organic/local/etc and cook it in healthy (to whomever’s doling out the advice) ways, we and our families and friends will suffer the consequences. So for goodness’ sake, don’t ever fry chicken. Why not? Check this out.

Caption reading– Research: eating fried chicken increases your risk of death by 13%.

In a new book, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, the authors take a look at the advice we are given to grow our own food, buy it from the most local and fresh sources, cook it in specific ways with specific spices, and make sure that we and our families and others eat it the way this complex (and time-consuming and expensive) process intended it to be consumed. Here’s what one reviewer said about it:

[In the book]…the anthropologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott do not deny the value of healthy, home-cooked dinners. Instead, they argue that the way our food gurus talk about dinner is fundamentally disconnected from the daily lives of millions of Americans, especially but not exclusively low-income Americans.

… When Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver preach their influential, well-compensated sermons about how you—yes, you!—can (and should) improve your family members’ lives by buying healthier food and preparing it at home, they implicitly frame the quality of our dinners as something over which we all wield a considerable degree of control.

If you aren’t doing dinner right, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough for your family: not shopping smartly enough, not doing the right prep work, not using the best recipes. In addition to creating a lot of angst and guilt whenever we fall short, this censorious approach shifts our collective attention away from the bigger forces shaping our lives and meals, blocking the way to more realistic solutions located beyond the kitchen.

The authors interviewed 150 women in North Carolina, most of them with low incomes. What did they find? Of course the women wanted to cook healthy meals, using fresh food. But they were constrained by:

  • food budget
  • time
  • family food preferences
  • local food traditions
  • did I mention money?
  • oh, and time– worth repeating

How do we respond to the pressure to cook, come what may?

Often, the way we talk about food makes it sound like fixing our meals will fix everything else: heal our bodies, save the environment, restore our family bonds. The proposed solutions in Pressure Cooker flip this equation on its head: Fix the big stuff—reduce poverty, recognize food as a human right—and families will figure out their own dinners just fine.

This makes sense to me. Taking the pressure off cooking to solve all the world’s problems is a good idea. Even better, taking the pressure off (mostly) women to tackle all the world’s problems by making the perfect meal and force-feeding it to their loved ones and friends is a good plan. We all have much bigger fish to fry.

Readers, do you feel pressured to cook certain foods certain ways? When? What do you do about it? I’d love to hear from you.

5 thoughts on “The pressure of cooking

  1. Thanks, Catherine, for this great post. The bottom line is that all the “food to table” and “cook at home” rhetoric is classist AND sexist and moralizing.

    One of the perks of living alone is that I feel no pressure to cook all the time (though I do enjoy it). I have effectively shaped my pantry and friedge into places where I can find foods I enjoy and everyone else can just SHUT. UP.

  2. The thing about all the food advice, even advice that may be true, (healthy foods are better for you for example) can be taken to an extreme that is still disordered eating. Having a screws up relationship with food isn’t just anorexia or bulimia. I’ve seen it with my own mother, who after years of talking about how dieting in the 80’s screwed her up, now is about “eating healthy” and has the same mentality of “dieting”. Sure, there is some validity to it, diabetes runs in our family, there are ways with food to keep a handle on it. But it’s gotten to the point where food comes up in almost every conversation with my mom and I don’t really care to eat with her. It’s hard, because I want her to be healthy physically, but I see the mental load this consumes on her.

  3. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many of us have replaced traditional religion with Foodism, this extreme attention to one’s food stuffs. Like my peers, I became a Foodist.

    It took me years to realize what a thankless treadmill this strenuous practice puts you on–the farmers’ market visits, cooking the items in the weekly produce delivery, reading every damn label of the burgeoning variety of products in a Foodist grocery.

    It’d be one thing if everybody eating in a household assumed all of Foodism’s chores, but that ain’t happening. I am so grateful for this new book and your publicizing it–questioning Foodists, join me in apostasy!

  4. Oh, this whole thing has me so torn! Yes, I absolutely believe that cooking our own food improves our health and our lives, environmental impact, etc, etc. AND I agree that the conversation is deeply classist and has all sorts of implicit cultural assumptions built in. Often, when I’ve had the most time in my life (unemployed or disabled and unable to work), I also had the fewest resources to access and purchase healthy foodstuffs. I could probably write a pasta and potatoes cookbook with all the creative uses to which I put those affordable and attainable staples! I think it was as healthy as I could be with the resources (time, money, energy) that I had at the time, and maybe that is the goal? To move towards better rather than insisting on some ideal to which we’re always being measured against.

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