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23.9.10

Have patriarchy and capitalism killed the art of home cooking?

I'm a bit late to the party on this deliberately provocative article, "Has feminism killed the art of home cooking?" But since I haven't posted in a month, I figured it was a good way of getting back into things.

The first problem with the article is its thesis. Author Rose Prince praises the tradition of "caring" food preparation that she recalls from her foremothers, and blames its demise on feminism's push for women to enter the paid workforce. I agree that "caring food" is a good thing but one that's more difficult to achieve in the modern world, and I appreciate her emphasis on how "caring food" is about the social context in which the food is prepared and served (thus avoiding a simple dichotomy between fast mass-produced food versus fancy artisan food). I'll cut her some slack on the implication that "caring food" is an objectively better culinary way of life as opposed to merely one that many of us would like to practice, as well as on the romanticizing of past "caring food."

But to blame feminism for the difficulty of achieving "caring food" gets it backward. And I think Prince actually knows this on some level, though she tries to suppress that realization in order to make the article more provocative. She says early on that feminism condemned cooking as drudgery and insisted that women should give it up in order to enter the rat race. Yet she acknowledges later on that even very mainstream feminists like Germaine Greer lamented the trend of just letting women do man stuff, seeing it as an incomplete form of feminism. Insofar as self-described feminists worked for such a narrow goal, they were compromising their feminism to limit its challenge to patriarchy and modern capitalism.

Feminism is responsible for there being more "caring food" in my household than there would be otherwise. Simply put, I enjoy creating such food, while my wife entirely lacks the skills and disposition to do so. And it's feminism that makes it OK for us to switch the traditional gender roles around. If that side of feminism -- the one that demands and encourages men's assumption of greater responsibility for traditionally female "caring" tasks -- had been more successful, we wouldn't find so many people who want "caring food" but are unable to make it part of their lives. Unfortunately, that side of feminism posed a more fundamental challenge to the patriarchal capitalist system, and so it has not made as much headway. Here again, Prince seems to recognize that this is true, but suppresses it to make her thesis more provocative -- she starts off the article insisting that "caring food" is an inherently feminine practice, but by the end seems to soften up about the actual gender of the person cooking it.

The second problem with the article is the proposed solution. In one sense it's unremarkable that a misdiagnosed problem will result in an inappropriate solution. But in this case the solution highlights an additional important issue. The problem with Prince's solution is that it is entirely individualistic. She calls on people to make more time for "caring food," and to listen more to our anonymous foremothers than to hyper-competitive (and usually male) celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver. That's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't get at why so few people have taken up such advice. There are serious structural barriers to "caring food" that have to be addressed.

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