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Rethinking Work: cooking as labor

Food politics are sweeping the United States. The local food movement, the slow food movement, all of it embodied in periodic sweeping pieces from lead guru Michael Pollan, whose writing is lush and pretty enough to make you feel the sensual pleasure he takes in his food—from procuring to cooking to eating, though rarely growing/killing.

Pollan and other foodies want to return to a world where cooking isn’t just an afterthought or something we pay others to do. But too often these food evangelists forget a couple of important factors. One of them being that cooking is work.

In a mostly-lovely New York Times Magazine piece last summer, Pollan sang the praises of Julia Child (revived by the Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”). He wrote:

Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles.

Kate Harding noted Pollan’s call for a return to cooking, though, sounds an awful lot to some of us like a call for women to get back in the kitchen. His acknowledgement of cooking as work that could be satisfying, in other words, leaves out the fact that it is also work that many people hate. She suggests:

I wasn’t around in the ’60s, but I’m guessing [feminists] made ridiculous, man-hating arguments like, “Dude, Julia Child gets paid to cook.”

….

And for women, having the option of feeding ourselves and our families without working pro bono all day is part of what allows us to function as (mostly) equal citizens.

Pollan may not have been making an explicitly gendered argument toward people getting back in the kitchen, but he did note that televised cooking has shifted from Julia Child’s glamorous-yet-comforting how-to style to daytime “dump ‘n’ stir” and nighttime competition that moves at a breakneck pace—and is made to appeal to men.

Delicious. But...

It’s been an argument made for years that cooking, when it is glamorous and well-compensated, is something for men. Chefs are male, but the everyday cooking in the household is something for women to do. When men do the work, in other words, it is labor to be compensated (if chefs do often make very little in comparison to the waitstaff at fancy restaurants) and congratulated; when women do it, it is part of everyday life.

Out of the kitchen and into the workforce arguments always had a class (and race) division to them: many women had already been working and didn’t find it particularly liberating. Many of them, often women of color, worked as domestic laborers as well—getting paid, if not very well, to do the same work they then did for free at their own home. Well-off women were already recognizing in their own way that cooking was work, and we still recognize this when we watch cooking shows on TV or go to restaurants, fancy or otherwise.

Now back-in-the-kitchen arguments have their own class dimension. They imply the time to spend in the kitchen as well as the money to buy fancy ingredients. Ethically produced local food tends to be more expensive partly because the people who produce it are being paid decently, so despite the lack of middlemen we pay much more for organic produce from the farm around the corner.

Raj Patel, in Stuffed and Starved, connects the dots from the labor of people on the consuming end of food to the labor of those who produce it, and notes that the creation of the unhealthy food economy that Pollan and company so despise squeezes those at the producing end as much as the consuming end. Cheap food, after all, is necessary in a world where most people (again, often people of color) have little income to spare to spend on fresh food, let alone delicacies, and little spare time to prepare things. Cheap food that is still profitable for corporations requires cheap labor. And so we go around the vicious circle.

Examining our social relation to food has to include the work necessary to prepare it—in a piece on health and “obesity” (the convenient stand-in for unhealthy eating that mistakes bodily characteristics for behaviors), Mary Ferguson wrote:

Recent research shows that social class measured by income and education can be more powerful than genetics in predicting future health problems, including obesity.

Though the piece focused on physical activity as a way to prevent obesity rather than on healthy eating at any weight, a much more important goal, sentences like this one explain just as much about why people don’t cook for themselves and eat cheap, fast, unhealthy food as they do about lack of exercise:

“A lot of minority women can’t relate to the word ‘leisure-time,'” Dr. Amy Eyler, a researcher at the School of Public Health in St. Louis, Mo., said in an interview with Reuters. “And when you ask them about it they say, ‘I don’t have any.'”

Over and over, new food evangelists arise with the latest solution to the problem, often in the form of a book they want you to buy, as if the problem doesn’t go deeper than something you can purchase. The problem, after all, is our entire system, built on squeezing some group or other for more work to make more profits. Adding more work to the end of our already overworked days on its own is not going to be enough, and it doesn’t help that the people who tend to be spokespeople for the food movement do enjoy the work of cooking.

It seems to be shocking, even to feminist foodies like Lisa Jervis, who understand not just the food part of food politics, but the class and gender issues at play, that some people simply do not enjoy cooking and will do almost anything to avoid it. She says:

I would want to know what they don’t like about it. Do they feel like they’re going to produce something that’s not good? Are they nervous about the result? Does their hand cramp when they hold the knife? Are they afraid they’re going to cut themselves? Are they too tired at the end of the day? Maybe it’s lonely in the kitchen. There are solutions to a lot of those problems.

Or perhaps it’s just work that people don’t want to do for free. One of the feminist arguments for work as liberation, after all, wasn’t just the right to be fairly compensated—it was the right to choose the form of our labor.

While that choice is not nearly as wide-open as the myths of the free market make it seem, it’s still an important choice for people—not just women—to make. Fixing our food system is one of the most important things we can do for our collective health, but ordering people to do work for free that they don’t enjoy isn’t going to fix it.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking Work: cooking as labor

  1. I don’t necessarily mind cooking for my family of 5, it comes with necessity. But the one thing I mind is the cost of food, because I am extremely mindful of what goes into my family’s mouth. I become angered at the travel shows showing how vegetables, fruits, grains are available in other countries and for the price of $20 American bucks you can feed yourself well for a month and eat all kinds of delicious, easily accessible foods. While I spend my days simmering with anger that I’m paying $5 for a pint of freaking blueberries, that’s a crime itself, add to the fact I live in one of the richest countries in the world, makes me really angry. There’s apart of me that needs to organize my anger to help change the system. Otherwise we’re looking towards a bleak future of our children and their friends being overweight, over stressed, over sick and living off of chemicals. And that makes me really sad.

  2. Cooking is not only work it is physically hard for some who are disabled. Those quickie meals that foodies take issue with can in some cases provide the only form of nourishment because standing over the stove for an hour is too physically draining. There are days when if I didn’t have my microwave I would forgo eating all together. Even getting to the microwave and heating food can be a Herculean task. I think that these foodies are determined to present only one side to a very complex issue.

  3. Thank you for this well-reasoned look at a very complex issue. I think we would do well to continue to question why people hesitate to return to the kitchen and help dispel myths about it being hard or time-consuming. (Cooking can take a lot of time, but doesn’t have to for each meal.)

    It’s about choice, right? Let people who can spend the money and the time cook and show them how making food themselves produces a delicious and satisfying meal. And continue to advocate for better food options, even if they are processed, for the times when we just can’t do it ourselves.

    As long as people think they can’t or that the results won’t taste as good as that take-out, there really isn’t a choice to be made. It’s made for them.

    Also, I really appreciate your acknowledgment that obesity is the lazy shorthand for unhealthy eating – a very mistaken assumption. Very few writers are paying attention to this.

  4. The quality of the food we eat determines our health which impacts all other aspects of our lives. Our curent corporate food system has undermined our ability to eat food that will nourish us and sustain our lives. Nothing is more important. We all need to take charge of our own health and do whatever is necessary to eat real food while working to change the system so that it is available for others. This is not a woman or man thing but a human thing and our future depends on it.

  5. I do not find this article entirely true. I am finding that there are just as many men trying to learn to cook as women. Viewing cooking as labor is a narrow minded, cultural viewpoint. Many families participate in cooking as a family activity which bonds them together and increases communication as well as accomplishing a task. It seems to me that people are trying to make cooking too difficult. Many of these people trying to learn to cook today do not have a lot of time or money. They need to be taught to use simple basic ingredients which results in easy recipes and healthier food. It is the point of view that needs fixing and a few basic skills need to be acquired.

  6. Cooking is not only work it is physically hard for some who are disabled. Those quickie meals that foodies take issue with can in some cases provide the only form of nourishment because standing over the stove for an hour is too physically draining. There are days when if I didn't have my microwave I would forgo eating all together. Even fetting to the microwave and heating food can be a Herculean task. I think that these foodies are determined to present only one side to a very complex issue.;

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