“Cooked”: Is Fast Food Feminism’s Fault?

41p4p-s8NCL._SY300_Michael Pollan, the food guru who gave us The Ominivore’s Dillemma, has a new book out this week. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, is an exploration of how earth, fire, water, and air eventually result in food — real food, not the “food-like products” found on supermarket shelves that make us all fat, sick, and dead tired.

By now we all know that white flour, sugar, and salt — the main ingredients in processed foods — contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But what started this stampede toward faux food oblivion? Was it the feminists, who under Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique manifesto abandoned the kitchen (and symbolically their families) in droves? After all, cooking was solitary drudgery, and the work wasn’t over when the food hit the table. While Dad and the kids went off to watch Father Knows Best, mom put in another solid hour cleaning up the mess. No wonder women wanted out.

So is fast food feminism’s fault? Pollan makes a brief but convincing case that the answer is no. Beginning in the 1970s women did go to work outside the home in unprecedented numbers. But that was as much because it took two incomes to keep the family afloat as it was about a desire to escape the suburban kitchen.

With everyone at work, who was left to cook? Nobody. It was Big Food corporations to the rescue! A generation later, new so-called “foods” — like breakfast bars coated with sugared frosting to be devoured in the car on the way to school — are invented everyday. Pre-mixed, pre-cooked, and pre-stripped of nutrients, we now have more fake food than ever to choose from.

And oh yeah, all the marketing is aimed at women — especially moms. Our culture is stuck in the ’50s when it comes to feeding the family. It’s still her job, even if it now means picking up a pizza, or microwaving frozen concoctions that taste like the cartons they come in. Pollan urges both women and men — along with their kids — to get back in the kitchen, chopping onions and baking bread. A nice idea. But it ain’t gonna happen.

Cooked won’t teach you how to cook — but it will teach you how to learn how to cook. If, that is, you have the money to travel and spend time with the high priests of barbeque, homemade cheese, kimchi, and artisanal bread. And it helps to live in a city where access to fresh ingredients is a given, and also to have a job only steps from your kitchen, where you can take a break any time you want to check on the progress of the sourdough or simmering cookpot.

Pollan tells us that in the 1970s KFC marketed its chicken buckets with the slogan “women’s liberation.” In today’s fast food nation, adult women are now the majority of minimum wage workers, and many work two jobs to make ends meet. What we need is a new liberation — from the low-wage treadmill that keeps us working 167 more hours per month than we did in the 1960s when people actually cooked. Until then, at least for the majority of women, going back to the kitchen to bake your own bread and lovingly prepare a multi-stage home-cooked meal (even with cooperative family members as sous chefs) will remain as illusory as the smoke over those back-to-basics barbeque fires Cooked so painstakingly extols.

Listen to Martha’s commentary here. In addition to hosting her radio show, guest contributor Martha Burk is the author of Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics and the Change We Need! and Cult of Power: The Inside Story of the Fight to Open Augusta National Golf Club, and How It Exposed the Ingrained Corporate Sexism That Kept Women Down.

Image via Amazon.com

  • Martha, I saw Pollan interviewed on either Colbert or Jon Stewart the other night. He was extremely interesting. I think you can lay some of this at the feet of the American government and particularly former Sec of Agriculture Earl Butz who traded corn to Malaysia for our first cheap transfats in the 1970s. Once we Americans got the taste of foods with transfat in them, we couldn’t stop. Now we are all having to relearn to “Cook” as Pollan’s book suggests. I could not imagine when I was a young woman scorning my grandmother for canning in old-fashioned Ball jars, that I would one day make my own spaghetti sauce and salsa, simply to reduce the processed foods we eat. Excellent essay.

    • Gail

      Our first cheap trans fats did not come to us in the 70’s from Malaysia. They are home grown, and came into our kitchens in the early 1900’s.



      • It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the book, and I can’t remember the specifics about trans fats, but I think Pollan gets it right that they came our of a desire to do something with a byproduct of cheapening commodities by the U.S. government. We still have a problem with the tremendous subsidies from corn (which causes so much high fructose corn syrup to go into our food) and soybeans.

        I don’t disagree with Pollan on food policy. I just think he’s very unrealistic if he thinks most people have the money and more importantly access to wholesome food products. i was on a road trip recently and stopped in a mid sized town of about 30,000. The only “food” was a quickmart gas station. The nearest grocery was over 50 miles away.

  • Whew. I am glad it is not our fault.. 🙂 Everything else is! I am always surprised by the people who don’t cook or are afraid to cook. The dinner table was sacred in my house–as a mother I cooked almost every night, fresh food made from scratch. I felt it was a duty to my kids as much as reading to them and talking to them and keeping them safe. I know it doesn’t take much longer to put a decent meal on the table than it does to drive through a fast food place, even though people think it does. I think cooking scares people; it doesn’t seem “natural” as it did even a generation ago. I am glad it is coming back into vogue, as it seems, and hope that both mothers and fathers learn to cook and teach their children of both sexes. My son, who couldn’t make a sandwich (my fault, I guess) took a job in a restaurant cooking while in college and now he is a real foodie. My daughter is a vegetarian and can make a meal for herself but she is no cook. But I do think they get the value of clean eating. We need to wean people off the fake stuff and on to real food. But, of course, there is always the poverty issue and the availability issue–both complex and both need to be factored in. It IS possible, though, to eat better at home, with just a little more effort, than it is to go out all the time or resort to everything processed. I say: one meal at a time.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    While some women desire to work outside the home the biggest factor in needing the extra income appears to be greater expectations about what is needed to make the family happy. We watch endless commercials about all the nice things we must have to be happy and fail to be content with much less. I regret I have no solution, but recognizing the situation might be a first step to alleviating the problem.
    Also, the single-parent home is the most likely to find itself in poverty. Marriage before bearing children is a sure step for many to living more comfortably. Sticking with a marriage that was not “made in heaven” (unless there is blatant abuse) and working through the issues that are bound to arise when two people seek to live in harmony will bear wonderful fruit in the long run.

    • Beverly, while you make some good points I think the idea of the one income family is limited to those fortunate enough to have one GOOD income. I always worked. My husband is an educator in a private school and without my income we would have been on government cheese and in an apartment in a school district we didn’t want to be in, in a very small space. In our situation, my working to help provide a home in a decent neighborhood may have been a choice, but the alternative was worse. This of course is an anecdotal situation, but I think many people don’t have the choice, especially those individuals who don’t have education beyond high school. The cost of everything is so high. Most young people have to “go where the jobs are” and that is often a city if one comes from the suburbs or country.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    I would like to put my photo in place of the graphic, how do I do this?

    • Beverly Uhlmer

      I am not talking about a house; I am referring to designer clothes, wide screen TV’s, a computer for each child, etc., etc. This isn’t always the case but can be problematic when the family feels they need goodies more than they need to have Mom at home. I discovered the cost of going to work was nearly negated by being pushed into a higher tax bracket plus the cost of child care, proper attire, transportation costs… There are many factors that need to be weighed. I am glad you love your job and that working outside the home is good for your family. Best wishes to you.

      • Your reasoning is flawed for a couple of reasons. Adult women are the largest group working for minimum wage. These families, many headed by single women, need the money for food and shelter and clothing — not flat screens. Your point about tax brackets is an example of how government policy constrains women by giving a “marriage bonus” in the tax code to heterosexual married one-earner families. But more fundamentally, you are assessing ALL of the costs of working outside the home against the woman’s earnings. Why not do family accounting in a way that divides and assesses the child care, transportation, etc. against both incomes? Fair and liberating to women (who deserve fulfilling outside jobs as much as men). BTW I was a stay at home mom for years and it was not enough for complete fulfillment. I loved my kids, but still feel this way.

    • Beverly, I think you have to find a WordPress program and sign up for that. We can’t add that through the blog

  • I think there is a common misconception that our choices are either to grab fast food and off the shelf food products, OR raise our own chickens and bake our own bread. That’s not the case. Cooking real food can be a simpler matter.

    Of course, one needs access to whole foods, but at the very least there are fairly quick recipes that can be made with grocery items such as fresh produce, grains, beans, meats, and other common ingredients. Take several hours once a month to seriously stock the larder so it’s not an ordeal to start cooking. (Spending a lot at once may not be possible for low-income people, but buying in bulk makes sense for everyone, if you can.)

    Foodnetwork.com has a recipe generator where you can specify ingredients at hand and how fast you need to prepare it. And everyone (men and kids over 5) should be pitching in or taking turns planning and cooking, not just good ol’ Mom.

  • DHM

    We raised our 7 kids while my husband was an enlisted man in the Air Force. That’s not a huge salary. It’s far more doable than many people are willing to believe. I baked my own bread in our small apartment kitchen back in the 80s, as well as in a trailer in a trailer park. Basically, everything this author seems to suggest is impossible is something we’ve been doing on a small income for decades.

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