How Feminism Killed Cooking

I read an article on Salon a few years ago: “Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig?” by a writer named Emily Matchar.  The title is, of course, very tongue in cheek; the article is about the omnivore/ locavore/ femivore movements, and about the myths we make up about the past.  In this case, the past in question is the good ol’ days of cookery from the writers’ childhoods, and how much better everything was in the days before feminism led us to processed food.

Now, all things being equal I like to make my food from scratch, I love the farmer’s market, I do read labels, and I attempt not to buy things that I can make myself.  But I do these things because I’d just as soon know what I’m eating, because I have family members with nasty allergies.  I don’t do them as a political statement.  I’m fortunate that I can afford to buy organic at least some of the time, that I have the time and the leisure to cook the way I prefer to. And oh yeah: I like to cook.  Not everyone does.  Not everyone likes to eat, for that matter.  There are people who regard food as fuel, something they have to be prodded to remember.  (I know: bizarre, right?)

Full disclosure: for a potluck tomorrow I’m making a chocolate tart with gingersnap crust, and a jam tart, and (possibly) some truffles made with leftover ganache.  Because I am insane, but also because doing this stuff is fun. For me.  As it is for many people in the “femivore” movement, which started out about making food (or raising chickens, or gardening or baking bread) as craft or art.  But an awful lot of the omnivore/locavore/femivore rhetoric is distinctly anti-Feminist (seriously, go read the article, particularly the quotes from the like of Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Marguerite Manteau-Rao).  In looking for a more “authentic” diet are these writers valorizing a time that never was?

Look at many of the cookbooks from the 30s, 40s, and 50s (never mind the 60s, when I, and many of the writers, were kids) and they’re full of short-cuts: use canned soup, top your casserole with deep-fried onion strings, use prepared ketchup or mayonnaise or Jell-O™ or corn flakes or instant oats.  Use instant pudding. Use frozen spinach (or, even scarier, canned spinach. Have you ever had canned spinach?  It’s like eating soggy green tissues).  A decade before Betty Friedan put pen to paper to discuss the feminine mystique, ads in womens’ magazines touted wash-day miracles and labor-saving devices and wonderful, wonderful processed food.  Because doing this stuff wasn’t a creative outlet.  It was work.

There used to be a rhyme that outlined a woman’s work week: Monday (when you were rested up from your day of rest and going to church on Sunday) was laundry day.  Laundry was a brutal task, involving boiling and stirring or wringing and hanging of an entire household’s clothes and linens. Tuesday was ironing day (yes, you put the iron on the stove to heat it, or on the coals of your fire if you didn’t have a stove, and yes, those irons were made of iron and weighed a young ton).  Wednesday: sewing day, making your own clothes and clothes for your family, repairing, darning, stitching new sheets (yes, women hemmed and darned their sheets).  Thursday: marketing, getting all the things that you couldn’t make, to last you a week.  Friday: cleaning. Scrubbing on your hands and knees, polishing, beating rugs, dusting, scouring. Finally, Saturday, baking–for the week.  All those pies and cake and breads–which explains a lot of recipes using “stale bread,” since by the end of the week whatever bread was left was likely to be rock-hard.  And Sunday, like every day, three times a day: feed the family.

Whatever the rhetoric of feminism, women didn’t want frozen food, store-bought bread, and labor-saving devices because feminism told them they were being oppressed.  They wanted these things because their work was really, really difficult and time consuming and exhausting.  If these things freed some women up to do other things–run Hewlett Packard or become Secretary of State or write science fiction, that wasn’t the point. The point was to get out from under all that backbreaking, repetitive work.

Valorization of a better, simpler, more wholesome time drives me nuts.  Because it’s fantasy.  I love the gorgeous, candy-colored rendition of small-town turn of the last century Iowa in The Music Man, but I don’t confuse that with real life, which included diptheria, weevil-ly flour, bedbugs, and food that often teetered on the edge of spoiled. Taking on some of the tasks of yesterday, while using some of the tools of today to avoid the nastier work, and disdaining people who cannot or don’t want to do the same, is a mug’s game.  It makes it all about aesthetics, when what most people 100 years ago, and many people today, are worrying about is survival.

Eat what you love, eat what is healthy, eat what you can afford and what you feel good about.  Cook or eat out or call for a pizza.  Grow tomatoes, spin flax, make poetry or pottery or raise llamas for the wool.  It’s all good.  But don’t blame Betty Friedan if you don’t like what’s for dinner.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


How Feminism Killed Cooking — 44 Comments

  1. Apparently, in his new book, Cooked, Pollan makes a serious case that feminism can/should be blamed for the rise of processed food. I can’t at the moment find the response I saw yesterday, pointing out clearly that capitalism led us to processed food, and you and me getting back into the kitchen and making chocolate tarts with gingersnap crust, or beautiful panzanellas (bread salads) with homemade bread, wonderful as those things may be, are not going to make processed food go away.

    • Yup. Corporations are trying to find ways to monetize the back-to-Domestic-goddesshood movement because that’s what they do. But that’s just another income stream; they’re not giving up on the tried-and-true billions of process food.

      • Yes, precisely.

        I can’t count how many bloggers who I read who cook out of disdain for big corporations… but can’t resist the newest canning implements, the currently-hot cookbooks, the snazziest fermenting crock/silicone baking cups/bento boxes/windowsill herb growers/whatever.

        It’s not marketable in quite the same way that buying Lean Cuisine is. But it’s still consumerism, and pretending it isn’t is, well, silly.

    • actually, Pollan does not make this claim and is quite emphatic that fast food etc is not because of feminism. Please read the book instead of posting assertions like this.

  2. I used to love cooking when it was purely for taste and joy. Now, it’s more complex. I can’t buy very many things (IE Can’t currently afford) that are already prepared — I must cook from scratch to accommodate my health. I try to enjoy the process. Discovering how good fresh food can taste, and watching my changing tastes, has been fun.

    People who think all that stuff was not a big deal don’t understand that “spring cleaning” was done because the cinders of the fire blackened EVERYTHING in a house. So you took everything out of the house, cleaned with harsh chemicals, and then whitewashed the inside of the house again to have a new base for the year to come. And to not have cinders smeared on everyone and everything all the time.

    I don’t throw stones at people who can’t find the time to cook the food they need — I try hard to help them find a way to get what they need.

    And I hope to have my life sorted and easily dealt with by the time I check out. Everything my mother got done with three kids constantly amazes me.

    • Kathi, you’re cooking (and shopping, and making food decisions) as a matter of survival, because of health issues. It’s the people who fetishize it, or forget what the past was really like, who drive me nuts.

  3. I think in the glorification of the past people are also forgetting that a lot of women were not good cooks. Yes, they might have to cook to provide for their families, but that doesn’t mean they were good at it.

    The same goes for the housework, as far as that goes. One of my great-grandmothers was evidently known for not being a tidy housekeeper in an age where that was how a woman was judged. At least I know where I got it from.

    The “good old days” syndrome, it lives!

    • There’s a lovely line in Red Sky at Morning, one of my early favorite books, in which the mother tells her son with great earnestness “Long cooking brings out the flavor of spaghetti,” before she doles out helpings of a grey, formless mass. Not everyone could cook, but most women didn’t have an option.

  4. Does anybody still remember Alexander Haig? Secretary of State, under Ronald Reagan. Then as now all SofSs had to travel a lot. Haig boasted that for him food was simply fuel. He didn’t care what he ate. Seeing him on TV saying that I knew immediately that I would never marry a man like that. (Sorry, Al!)
    And, as to women being responsible for processed foods, we may recall that the putting of food in cans was invented by men for men, for purely military purposes. Napoleon was tired of having his soldiers waste all their time pillaging farmhouses and then peeling the potatoes or baking the flour into bread. He wanted them to eat fast and fight. (A man after Alexander Haig’s own heart.) So he put up a reward, for the invention of some process to preserve food. And the can was born.

    • And the explosion of seriously processed food after WW II came from all the left-over food made for the military that needed to be sold somewhere. Cake mixes, powdered mashed potatoes, Tang…

      (Anyone who seriously proposes that the 60s, God save the mark, were a heyday of wholesome home-prepared food should remember Tang. And Fizzies. And Green Giant broccoli. And…)

  5. And I’m still trying to figure out where the assumption comes from that wanting to make food from scratch is a product of being liberal or white. Or even middle class, for that matter, unless one’s foodie status is dependent on buying one’s bread pans at Williams-Sonoma.

    • I think time and money have more to do with it than skin color or class. And I (still) reject the idea that feminism ruined dinner for the rest of us.

      Williams-Sonoma is for pikers. If I want to faunch over kitchen equipment I go to restaurant suppliers.

  6. Those who decry the labor advances in domestic maintenance, including cookery, have (as other posters have already pointed out) forgotten the labor involved in doing the work. I’ll point out the piece others have left out–actual farm labor to produce food in anything like the quantities you need for real self-sufficiency and not just playing at it is Damn Hard Work. I’ve read those writers, and none of them (to my knowledge) have ever processed 150 chickens in a summer for the winter’s food. I know that process from 40 years ago, and it’s a lot of hard work, even if you get smart and run your fryers through a 5-7 week processing cycle. At best, two-three people can process 15 fryers a day from head chopping to freezer. And that’s with not doing much else other than bare maintenance chores.

    My parents were back-to-the-landers in their 50s, but they were back-to-the-land with Real Farm Experience. So they knew the shortcuts and tricks, but even then it was a LOT of work for a teenager and two adults with full-time jobs. We didn’t buy much food other than staples such as flour, sugar, milk (my dad absolutely refused to have a milk animal on the place), coffee, tea and a few other things, but raised our meat, eggs, fruit and veggies. One of my brothers would help out with stuff that required muscle and he lived on the place for part of the time.

    It took over 2 1/2 acres to pull it off, but that acreage supported anywhere from three to seven people during that time. Granted, it came with a full season apple orchard that produced apples starting in early July all the way through to November as well as berries and grapes.

    So when I start reading about “self-sufficiency on urban homesteads,” I have to snort a little bit.

  7. Actually, Sunday was the day of rest, and in many of those homes, that meant not eating hot food, so Saturday was double work, preparing for that cold Sunday meal as well as Saturday night’s dinner. But otherwise, yeah.

    Reading L.M.Montgomery’s diary is fascinating for details on attitudes toward housekeeping and especially cooking. As a young teacher boarded out, then later a minister’s wife, she ate in a lot of homes. Her descriptions of ‘dirty’ food (you could taste the grit, and served on scraped, unwashed plates) are stomach turning. Not every woman was a great housekeeper. (Her grandmother, who was fanatical about it, forced LMM to join her in eating every bit of hard, stale cake before she would permit another to be baked, because throwing any food out was wasteful. So you ate it, no matter how awful it was.)

    • My mother had baked goods recipes that called for sour milk. And if you didn’t have any sour milk on hand, then you could sour it artificially with vinegar, but the assumption was, you had sour milk you wanted to use up. She also had recipes for “pudding sauce” that used stale bread. So did meat loaf and so did bread pudding. In fact, that’s what bread pudding was invented to use up.

  8. There are yummy things to be done with hard stale cake. Unfortunately it is unlikely that LMM’s grandmother would have consented to sprinkle the cake with brandy…

    • But soaking in milk and eggs in a buttered baking dish, then popping in a medium oven… (Ahem, sorry. Bread pudding fan here. Maybe a little obsessed. Did you know that stale Danish pastries make amazing bread pudding? Ahem. I’ll stop now, really.)

  9. Whipping cream and butter. You could serve up the classified section of the Washington POST with enough whipping cream and butter, and people would ask for more. Stale cake, it is to laugh.

    • So true! I remember how delicious dried-out hazelnut cake was, when I was a student in Austria, when it was loaded with a generous helping of whipped cream. YUM!

  10. I love the gorgeous, candy-colored rendition of small-town turn of the last century Iowa in The Music Man, but I don’t confuse that with real life, which included diptheria, weevil-ly flour, bedbugs, and food that often teetered on the edge of spoiled.

    Like today. People really truly believe there IS a Lake Woebegon, where all the women are strong….etc. Small towns have always been claustrophobic and incestuous. And may well still include bedbugs.

    • Actually, there’s a bedbug epidemic in the US at the moment so both small towns and large cities like Detroit, Michigan or Portland, Oregon almost certainly contain them. Ah, modern times… they are not so very different from any other time apart from the robots. 😉

  11. I love the gorgeous, candy-colored rendition of small-town turn of the last century Iowa in The Music Man, but I don’t confuse that with real life, which included diptheria, weevil-ly flour, bedbugs, and food that often teetered on the edge of spoiled.

    Now I’ve got “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” stuck in my head! CHAU-cer… RRRRRABelais…. BAAAAAAAL-zac! Seriously, even in “Music Man,” the town ladies make life hell for a young woman who supports her family, simply because she’s educated and unmarried and doesn’t appear to want to be exactly like them. The best idealizations don’t over-idealize.

    I guess I’m going to have to read this new Michael Pollan book and find out for myself if it’s really as misogynistic as some people are saying. I think he’s a thoughtful and interesting writer, and I’ve really enjoyed his other books, so I’m hoping that the line that’s getting quoted is a dumb offhand comment, and not a major theme.

    • The feeling I get is that Pollan isn’t so much misogynistic as tunnel-visioned. He is thinking about the food (“for God’s sake, man, think of the FOOD!”) and echoing pat notions (“feminism killed the family dinner”) without thinking much about whether they’re true or not.

      • Well, to be fair, it would be disingenuous to say that no feminist ever suggested that women could find better ways to spend their time than cooking a family dinner from scratch. On the other hand, as you pointed out, the rise of processed foods had, let’s see, approximately nothing to do with feminism.

      • I’ve enjoyed Pollan’s books, but he doesn’t get a free pass from me for a number of reasons, and this latest adds to my WTF! list under his name. “Femivore”? GMAB.

        Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals? I have questions that nobody I’ve asked (including Pollan; email got no reply) has an answer to.

        1. In the hunter-gatherer meal, which included sourdough bread and homemade pasts, where did the flour come from? He didn’t glean and mill any wheat. He caught his own yeast, but he grew it in *flour.* He made his own pasta. From *flour.* I’m kind of curious about whether flour is such a staple that he didn’t even think about it when he used it, or whether he figured it’s such a staple that nobody would notice that he neither hunted nor gathered it. I think that’s cheating.

        2. He worries about the amount of petroleum that is necessary to raise industrial-strength crops. But he doesn’t factor in the petroleum necessary to drive out to the organic farm to pick up your weekly organic veggies. I think that’s cheating, too, and would like to know how the amount of gasoline it takes to drive out to a farm to pick up veggies compares to the amount of gasoline it takes to raise industrial-farm produce. (Also I believe the organic farm used a tractor rather than, say, horses or oxen, but I don’t have the book easily to hand to check.) There’s something to be said for economies of scale.

        3. The meals he investigated are interesting, but why not investigate the one meal an average American person might eat? Which would probably include some industrial-grown food, maybe some organic food, possibly something home grown.

        I will say that Pollan’s investigation of the chicken industry changed my egg-buying habits. When my across the street neighbor’s chickens aren’t laying, I buy cage-free eggs. Though even those can turn out to be not quite as advertised.


        • Yes, I liked “Omnivore’s Dilemma” a lot, and I liked his earlier book, “Botany of Desire,” even better. It’s been years since I read either, so I don’t remember the details, but I think you’re absolutely right in all those criticisms. I think we’re on the same page about Pollan — he’s a good writer who makes a lot of interesting points, but he makes mistakes, too. Having heard him speak on the radio, my sense is that he does have a sense of humor about himself and might even agree with that assessment.

          What bothers me about some of the discussion I’m seeing — not just here; he’s getting trashed over on Feministe right now — is the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater aspect. It seems to me that the “sexist pig” line, which was included in the original piece more or less as a joke, then picked up by the editor in the title, and now has gone kind of viral, tends to invalidate everything he writes. It makes it hard to have a useful and interesting conversation about what he actually wrote, in what areas he’s making sense, where he’s not thinking completely clearly, or where he’s written something that’s just stupid.

          Also, to be fair, the term “femivore” comes courtesy of Peggy Orenstein, another writer whose work I like and respect but who I think occasionally goes off the deep end.

          I wish Pollan had answered your e-mail! I’d love to know what he had to say about those things.

          –Virginia, aka Willowgreen, who also buys cage-free eggs.

          • I’m not anti-Pollan by any means. What I was reacting to, I think, is the sheer number of writers who are conflating “the loss of dinnertime” with “the rise of processed foods” and the rise of feminism.

            And I’d have loved to see Pollan’s response too.

          • Yeah, I thought Botany of Desire was a kick. I *like* Pollan’s work, generally speaking.

            Are you familiar with the term “mansplaining”? It seems to me that the whole “feminism is responsible for the loss of family dinner” idea is an example.

            Hey! You women should be doing food right! (Hey! If guys want food done right, why not help? And I don’t mean taking control of the barbecue.)

            Hey! You women concerned about breast cancer! Why aren’t you worried about prostate cancer, which doesn’t get enough research money? (Hey! You guys who want research money for prostate cancer — Why don’t you organize? And do not get me started on research targeted at the disease-of-the-month instead of basic research, or you’ll be in for quite a rant.)

            Hey! You women concerned about FGM! Why aren’t you fighting male *circumcision*? It’s just as bad and you should be working on the behalf of men on this subject. (Hey! Why don’t you guys organize for your own selves and your sons, instead of trying to drag attention off one more subject that concerns women?)

            But I don’t have strong feelings about this or anything…


  12. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and one of the things that I’ve realized is an easily-swallowed fallacy is the idea that cooking is always pleasurable if you do it right.

    It is for sure enjoyable for me. I like doing it. I will happily make a meal that takes six hours, for fun, because I want to. Or for that matter a twenty-minute pasta dish–I enjoy that too.

    But pretending that everyone should do it for fun, because they want to–whether it’s a six-hour meal or a twenty-minute meal–is ridiculous, as much so as claiming that everyone would love knitting, skiing, or gardening if they only just tried it. Some people love cooking. Some people hate it.

    The problem is that the “everyone should cook from scratch!” manifestos of Pollan et al are aimed at people like me–people who already cook a lot, because they want to, because they enjoy it. Convincing them that it’s not a chore is not terribly hard, which is why I called it an ‘easily-swallowed fallacy.’

    But it’s just not true. Some people will never like cooking–the best they can do is get it over with quickly. Same as I am never going to enjoy decluttering the living room, even if I like the result. And it drives me nuts how much of the discourse ignores that fact.

    • And even people who like to cook can get overwhelmed by the daily necessity: I swear there are days when I feel like…Jeez, didn’t I feed you guys 24 hours ago? What’s with these ceaseless demands.

      Sometimes you can’t cook, or shop mindfully–your mind is just too full of other things. Sometimes you kiss it up to God and buy the damned Cheetos because that’s what you want. And if you don’t care what you eat, or hate to cook, having to think about this stuff in the first place is a pain. If you don’t care what you eat, or you hate to cook, having to deal with the moral judgement that gets attached is just a misery. Fuel should not = misery.

  13. In the modern urban world, it is possible to eat real, healthy food (as opposed to food-like substances) without devoting a lot of time to it. I’m not a fancy cook, but I can make a healthy stir fry from scratch in about 15 minutes. It takes about five minutes to broil a piece of fish and maybe ten to make a full-meal salad. You don’t have to participate in the extremes of the foodie movement to eat well.

    That is, eating well and feminism can go hand-in-hand. I manage both quite nicely.

    Cost and accessibility are a different matter. Organic costs more. So does low salt — ridiculous in this world where everything contains way more salt than is healthy for the average person. Grocery stores in low income neighborhoods have poor selections. And in rural areas people may end up buying most of their groceries at big box stores, which have run the local mom and pop grocery out of business.

    Those who are interested in improving the world’s diet would provide better service if they’d focus on making healthy food easily available to those who can’t indulge in the latest food fads rather than criticizing women for not taking the kitchen seriously enough.

  14. I haven’t read Pollan’s latest yet. Normally, I’d have read it as soon as it came out, but I have tickets to see him in Portland in May, and the book is included.

    I’m inclined to cut him some slack. I’ve been a fan of his writing from day one. I think that by nature he’s a generalist who muses on things. His essay collection Second Nature analyzed how people live in the landscape. It was all over the map. For example, when he looked at lawns, he included how his cat reacted to the lawn being un-mowed, and when a forest fire devastated a local park, he looked at both the ecology and the community’s behavior. In A Place of My Own he decided to build a shed in the back yard for writing, and dove into the whole experience. The Botany of Desire starts from looking at the garden as people exploiting plants, and asking “what about the plants using us?” With The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he took the same curious look at what we eat—and tapped into the hurricane-force winds of America’s obsession with food, health and weight. I don’t have any charts of his book sales, but I imagine that his career took off like a rocket at that point, and he’s written about nothing but food since then.

    I wonder if he wistfully longs to write about something else for a bit?

  15. I’m one of those women Pollan’s moaning about. I don’t like to cook, so now I mostly don’t. I eat out, or pick up takeaway, or fix a peanut butter sandwich. The idea of spending two hours to fix a meal that’ll be eaten in fifteen minutes makes my skin crawl. There are so many other things I’d rather do with my limited time.

    If it’s so vital that we all eat homemade-from-scratch food then men can start cooking it. After however many millennia cooking has been women’s work, I think it’s their turn now. Funny how Pollan doesn’t seem to have considered that option.

      • Yep.
        That’s me, as well. I’m one of those who are at best indifferent to cooking and at worst hate standing in the kitchen trying to decide whether I want to even bother with pans and stuff.

        Having said that, I believe it’s getting fahionable to blame feminism for lots of things. Backlash everywhere …

  16. Canned spinach. At least it slithered down your throat more easily than stewed tomatoes or canned mini onions or stewed prunes. I hated eating in the 60s, mostly.

    I don’t mind cooking, I hate -having- to cook. But I have never leapt into the kitchen with excitement and joy — that’s how I enter a good restaurant.

    • I admit to a fondness for stewed tomatoes. I will say for my mother, who was a good cook but didn’t like to cook, that while she didn’t do fresh vegetables she at least used the frozen ones. If I’d grown up eating canned green beans and mini-onions I’d probably be vegetable averse…

  17. I have main objections/comments to the “It wuz the femminists folt”

    1. While early feminism may have been about getting women out of the kitchen, the last twenty years have been increasingly about getting men into the kitchen (and all the other unpaid domestic work). So it’s a bit offensive to read all this family health and food purity as women’s responsibilities/fault.

    2. The mass social amnesia about mythical food purity and wholesomeness vs actual food safety and availability is a middle class delusion similar to the anti-vaccination movement; and Kids So Unsafe These Days ideas. No matter how much passionate historians and scientists point out the facts, the soft focus emotive imprint of movies and tv. For food history, I recommend watching the fun BBC series The Supersizers for some amusingly gross recreations of actual menus and diets from Ye Olden Dayes!

    I also presume that all those quoted in the salon article have managed to turn their sacred food wholesomeness calling into paying and public careers; which is a bit different to endless repetitive and invisible unpaid labour. I say this as someone who LOVES to eat and cook from scratch often, but adores and couldn’t go without convenience foods to build on.

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  19. On “flour” as component of a hunter-gatherer meal: not unless the gatherer has gone out and plucked the grain, then ground it with available materials (not an electric-powered or even hand-cranked modern handmill) into the coarse meal most grinding between two stones by hand produces. Hunting and gathering in a supermarket doesn’t count.

    On blaming women for not cooking from scratch with organic foods–ptui, Pollan. For many women in this country, the only grocery stores within their reach (distance or economic) do not stock many fresh vegetables, and non organic. They don’t have cars. Public transport, if any, doesn’t go out to the organic farms or even the posh farmer’s market the richer people drive to. They may not have good (or even remotely reliable) appliances in their housing; they certainly don’t have money for quality cooking equipment, the kind that makes cooking and cleaning up easier; they may have trouble affording the power (electricity, gas) to cook with or the water to clean up with. There’s a serious problem with middle-and-upper-class assumptions about what resources are available to women in poverty. “Why don’t they just do so-and-so?” makes my blood boil.

    On the romanticizing of pre-20th century diets and food safety…oh, lord, yes. We have new challenges in nutrition, not denying that, but it’s not like it was safe to eat anything you found in the past, either. Adulteration of foods began as soon as foodstuffs were sold (you can find penalties for getting caught doing it in the old legal codes.)

    As a former organic gardener producing up to 40% of our food on a small urban lot…I strongly favor home and community gardens, where the water resources permit. But not everyone has access to the space, or the time to do the daily work that such intense gardening requires–and even with a lot of time and sweat equity, we weren’t producing all our own food. (Now it’s the limitation of water that’s the problem–we are under severe water restriction, worst during the growing season.) So I have sympathy–not sneers–for those who don’t have a big garden and baskets of produce to share.

    I like to cook. I cook a fair bit from scratch. But: I work at home, which means if I’m making stock, or bread, I don’t lose much work time while tending whatever I’m cooking. Someone who has two hours of commute on three buses and a half mile walk–who is scolded for not reading long enough to her children every night, not being home when they get home from school, and not supervising their homework, and for this and that and the other because she’s poor, unmarried, and dark-skinned–does not have that time. Or the money I spent on three sizes of stock pot. Or friends with a ranch from whom she can get ranch-raised, unmedicated and unhormone supplemented beef cheaper than the meat in the market. Or a neighbor with a flock of chickens who supplies her with wonderful free-range eggs part of the time.

    Making good choices is a lot easier if the choices available include a good one, not just a less bad one. I’m sick of women being scolded for not making “choices” that they never had a snowball’s chance in hell of having.

  20. And I have to add…has Pollan ever been really poor and hungry–stomach-griping hungry–except as an experiment? Esp. in a city? When you’ve eaten brown paper towels from a restroom because a) they’re free and b) they swell up in your stomach and momentarily still the hunger pangs…when you’ve faced the choice between a healthy bowl of soup every other day, or a candy bar every day, and you know what it takes to endure the hungry day to have the healthy meal the next day…THEN you can talk about blaming people for making bad or lazy or careless food choices.

  21. It bugs my britches that so few discussions of this mention servants. There wasn’t a lot of time between the end of the era in which almost anyone either had a servant or was one, and the rise of canned food.

    Ignoring servants hides how incredibly hard the work was — it wasn’t one woman also raising her children, but probably several, most of whom would be lucky if they ever got to marry or even retire.

  22. I had the occasion to tour Mount Vernon this past weekend, with our own Linda Nagata. George Washington lived, as you can probably guess, in a style to which we would all love to become accustomed. However, he was maintained at the pinnacle of this lifestyle by 300 slaves, one of the largest estates in the region of his time, and four subsidiary farms. Everybody worked like bees to keep the thing going, including Washington himself, who was an entrepreneur of Bill Gatesian vim.
    To get stuff done in the past, you needed boots on the ground, many many of them. Processed food is a tiny step in getting away from that, along with mechanized farming, industrial clothing manufacture, and artificial fibers. We don’t have to eat MREs, but we should be grateful that we can if we want to.