Dismantling a couple of strawfeminists in food discourse

My “review” of Michael Pollan’s Cooked went up today. The scare quotes should warn you: it’s more of a frustrated excoriation. It’s a badly organized book, full of prose shortcuts and weak argumentation that does it no favors. Which is unfortunate, because there’s some really neat material in the book: I liked reading about people like Pollan’s friend Samir teaching her craft, I thought the history of barbecue and white bread were very interesting, and overall I am already on board with the idea that cooking can be empowering, economical, and so forth. I just don’t think we should assume the only reasons people don’t cook are laziness and ignorance. That’s both untrue and rude.

But as I discuss in my post at Table Matters, Cooked is pretty ungenerous to readers and eaters in general, and a few bêtes noires of his in particular. Namely: women.

Michael Pollan has always has a problem with writing about women. He started to lose me when he insisted throughout In Defense of Food that “culture” and “mother” are equivalent, as in: mothers are the primarily source/cause/culprit of human socialization. He’s been criticized for that among other gender issues. To my great surprise, Pollan acknowledges some of his critics (though not by name) in Cooked–but his response is pretty defensive, saying that when a man talks about people needing to cook more, folks assume that he means women need to cook more, and that women are to blame for the lapse of homecooking. He notes that he thinks men should cook too.

I suppose he could have stopped there, and it would have been inoffensive if not thoughtful. But he doesn’t, and it becomes clear that Michael Pollan still has a problem writing about women. Despite his disclaimer, he repeatedly uses Betty Friedan as shorthand for feminism, and feminism as shorthand for the force that  replaced cooking from scratch with microwaving and opening cans–demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge and respect for both. If he’s worried that people will “assume” that he blames the women’s movement for the displacement of home cooking, perhaps he shouldn’t make it quite so explicit.

Let’s start with Betty Friedan, to whom Pollan frequently assigns the belief that cooking is drudgery. I’ll be honest; until recently I had never read The Feminine Mystique. But neither, apparently, has Michael Pollan. Because a little skimming through Google Books showed that Betty Friedan doesn’t talk much about cooking specifically, let alone demean it. She refers to the whole litany of housekeeping chores as drudgery, where “cooking” appears alongside a number of ever-rotating tasks: “cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing;” “baking, cooking, sewing, washing, and caring for the baby;” “cooking, gardening, and home decorating;” and on and on. It’s actually a neat writing trick, using the slightly varied repetitive language to emphasize both how repetitive the house labor was and yet how many chores had to be invented to take up the time: one of her examples of this paradox is the advertising images of smiling women washing already-spotless floors.

Speaking of ads, Friedan spends a lot of linespace critically discussing the consumerism and marketing of the housewife lifestyle:
 “Once a woman stops trying to make cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing into ‘something more’, she can say “No, I don’t want a stove with rounded corners, I don’t want four different kinds of soap.’ She can say ‘no’ to all these mass daydreams of the women’s magazines and television , ‘no’ to the depth researchers and manipulators who are trying to run her life.” (469)
As well as the so-called “liberating” products that only created more work:
 “each labor-saving appliance brought a labor-demanding elaboration of housework. Each scientific advance that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing, thereby giving her more time for other purposes, instead imposed new drudgery.” (342)

It’s a very consumer-savvy book, really–which is why I think Michael Pollan must not have ever read it. In Cooked, he discusses how companies marketed “labor-saving” processed food to housewives before Second Wave feminism, and then how many companies co-opted the language of the women’s movement to sell “liberating” products to ladies (Virginia Slims is one of the more memorable examples; Sociological Images collects a bunch more at the bottom of this post.) He’s not the first contemporary writer to have this idea, either, but it’s particularly galling that he uses Betty Friedan as a sort of synecdoche for the way he imagines feminism (as a menace), when in fact he ought to be citing her to support his critique of consumerism.

Also galling: Michael Pollan says this.

“It’s generally thought that the entrance of women in the workforce is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but the story turns out to be a little more complicated, and fraught.”

Yes indeed! Being a feminist with any kind of relationship to cooking–love it, hate it–is indeed fraught! That’s what Kate Harding was trying to tell him four years ago, and that’s what Emily Matchar is saying now. (See also her Salon article “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?“) But later he makes it clear that the hypothesis (women + workforce = home – cooking) not just “generally thought,” it’s specifically thought by Michael Pollan. He cites Simone de Beauvoir writing about how cooking can be a creative process, then adds:

“We can read this as either as a special French exception for the culinary arts, or as a bit of genuine wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”

. . . yeah. That’s what American feminists do: thoughtlessly trample genuine wisdom!

In truth, there are a lot of different feminisms–even among the early Second Wavers–and a lot of different feelings about cooking. I don’t think you can argue that the endless litany of unpaid chores (“cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing”) is anything but drudgery, but cooking itself has always been a bit more controversial. On one hand, it’s extremely empowering, creative, and fulfilling to have the comfort and satiation of your loved ones in your hands. This is what a lot of contemporary DIYers are discovering: cooking, canning, pickling, etc. can be a loving and creative act. But it’s not exactly empowering if it’s expected of you, or if you are pre-assigned the  “nurturer” role in a family or couple, or assumed to have some kind of natural affinity for cooking (but not, you know, a talent for it–at least not in the way a chef has talent or genius.)

I love to cook, personally, but I am frequently reminded that my pleasure and self-care or nurture of others with cooking don’t exist in a vacuum: when dates, early on, jokingly ask when I’m going to make them dinner; when partners, later on, take a seat while I’m still mid-cooking or washing-up; at parties, when we suddenly realize that all the women and only the women are in the kitchen; in my research, when I come across articles criticizing female food bloggers for antidiluvian attitudes toward gender roles; and, of course, reading popular nonfiction.

Deciding to cook is an easy decision for me, but there’s no point in pretending that it’s an unweighted decision.

It is also not an unweighted, made-in-a-vacuum decision for Michael Pollan to throw around vague overgeneralized criticisms of feminists’ relationship to food, rather than to actually sit down and read a few more books and realized that a great many feminists, Second Wave to today, have written eloquently on the issues of labor, consumerism, and domesticity that are so dear to him.

Anyway, to end on a happier note, please enjoy the story of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation, which uses the conceit of a dinner party and dozens of unqiue hand-crafted ceramic plates to bring together hundreds of female artists, writers, scientists, politicans, and dieties, some of whom are still celebrated but most of whom were nearly lost to history. You know, celebrating women with food and conventionally feminine crafts. Trampling on sexist ignorance on the way back in the kitchen.


7 responses to “Dismantling a couple of strawfeminists in food discourse

  1. Good lord this guy. Good to know that feminist thought on cooking and home life began and ended with Betty Friedan, who he didn’t even bother to read. Also good to know that we have Michael Pollan around to mansplain to us silly womenz how we are ruining the world, conveniently ignoring the vast body of feminist writing that exists on these subjects.

    Good lord, this guy.

    • I know. This book made me start a file into which I can make notes on different works and writings that feminists have contributed to conversations about food, food labor divisions, food production, food distribution, etc. etc. . . Not a small task to compile, and not the focus of my dissertation writing, but it would be a resource worth eventually making public.

  2. Thanks for the review and follow-up post. I really enjoyed them–and then, what a delight to see a reference to The Dinner Party Project at the end! I was a Project volunteer and one of my favorite parts was our weekly potluck dinner in the studio. Yeah, those bad, bad feminists and their hatred of making food for other people.

    • Oh, susanewp, how exciting! I read so much about that installation–good and bad–in my art history classes before I ever saw it, but I was completely unprepared for the experience of walking into the Brooklyn museum and being in the same room with it. It’s so big. So packed with information and care and minute beautiful details! I had a notepad in my hand because I thought I might write a little about it in my dissertation, but it’s really too much to take in on one visit. I just had to walk and look.
      So cool to “meet” you. That’s a volunteer project that has had lasting impact, for sure!

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