Why I’m So Annoyed by the Recent Debate Over Home Cooking

Last week a debate over family dinner and home cooking erupted in the blogosphere -- and I'm here to tell you that just about everyone involved is ticking me off.

The scuffle began last week when Amanda Marcotte of Slate's XX Factor blog wrote "Let's Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner," a post that went viral and also prompted a heated rebuttal from Joel Salatin, writing for Mother Earth News.  (Salatin, for those unfamiliar with him, is a farmer, writer and speaker who promotes sustainable farming and was extensively profiled in The Omnivore's Dilemma.)  But although Salatin turned his ire on Marcotte, her post did little more than recap a new article by three North Carolina State University sociologists entitled "The Joy of Cooking?"  So let's go right to the source of the controversy.

The upshot of "The Joy of Cooking?" is that we've all been fed an overly-romanticized view of home cooking by people like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, but this "emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist."  In the real world, according to the authors, mothers who cook family dinner are uniformly beleaguered and exhausted, challenged by lack of time, high food costs, ungrateful family members, picky children and, in some cases, the lack of cooking facilities or even household pests.

As a five-night-a-week slinger-of-the-family-hash, I can certainly relate to many of the complaints relayed by the women interviewed for the article, and I also agree that sometimes the experts urging us to cook conveniently gloss over some of the drudgery involved.  For example, back in 2011 I was annoyed when Jamie Oliver "demonstrated" to a family on his television show that cooking a meal at home is quicker than going out for fast food.  That's true, up to a point, but Oliver omitted the considerable time it takes to go through recipes, write up a shopping list, buy all of the groceries (we won't even count the inevitable second trip to the store for that one forgotten but critical ingredient) and then clean up after the meal.  When you add up all of that time, the allure of a trip to Pizza Hut is far more understandable.

But even though I thought "The Joy of Cooking?" made some fair points along these lines, it's abundantly clear that the researchers went into this project with an agenda -- and it wasn't just finding out what home cooking is like for many American women.  Rather, they seem hell-bent on painting people like Pollan and Bittman as snobby, out-of-touch elitists, illustrated by the fact that they snarkily refer to Pollan not as a "journalist" or "writer," but instead as "America's most influential 'foodie-intellectual."  

In fact, "foodie" is used throughout the piece (which is rather jarring in a supposedly academic work) to describe those who promote family dinner, implying that their view stems from self-indulgent "food hobbyism" instead of reasoned analysis about how widespread home cooking might affect our food system.  The article is also illustrated with lots of 1950s homemakers in their gleaming kitchens -- a device I, too, once used to poke fun at elitist thinking applied to real world problems.  

But the real evidence of the authors' agenda is their definition of "family dinner," which completely stacks the deck in favor of the grim conclusions they reached, conclusions which are then used to supposedly knock experts like Pollan and Bittman off their pedestals.  They write:
"Though the mothers we met were squeezed for time, they were still expected to produce elaborate meals cooked from scratch." [Emphasis mine.]  

In another instance they write:

"Being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal. The ingredients that go into meals considered to be healthy --fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats -- are expensive." [Emphasis mine.]

But who says family dinner must be "elaborate," "from scratch" and/or a "foodie-version of a home-cooked meal?" Are we to believe that when the researchers asked their "150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life" about "family dinner," all of them  -- right down to the woman living with three other people in a flea- and roach-infested, kitchen-less motel room -- were thinking "Martha-Stewart-worthy meal," instead of, say, a humble box of spaghetti and jar of sauce?  

Or did the researchers first plant the notions of "from scratch," "elaborate," "fresh" and "whole grain" into their conversations, subtly or overtly, and then predictably find that many women find it hard to prepare meals reaching that high bar?  G
iven that the authors (1) don't share their questioning methodology; (2) offer us only a few choice anecdotes instead of hard data; and (3) have a clear anti-"foodie" agenda, I have no choice but to be skeptical of their sweeping conclusions about women's dislike of cooking.

But now let's turn to Salatin. After getting so riled up by "The Joy of Cooking?," I was just itching for his rebuttal -- but I wasn't expecting Salatin to get on such a high horse to deliver it that it's a miracle we can hear him from up there.

Salatin kicks things off by positing that "the average American" is "probably far more interested and knowledgeable about the latest belly-button piercing in Hollywood celebrity culture than what will become flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone at 6 p.m." whereas "In the circles I run in and market to, the home-cooked meal is revered as the ultimate expression of food integrity."

In the circles I run in, snootily bashing the very people you're trying to educate is not such a great tactic.  But I digress.

Salatin goes on to weigh down the poor family dinner with such profound significance that it would break the average dinner plate:
The home-cooked meal indicates a reverence for our bodies' fuel, a respect for biology, and a committed remedial spirit toward all the shenanigans in our industrial, pathogen-laden, nutrient-deficient food-and-farming system.

All kidding aside, I don't disagree with Salatin here, but if the NC State researchers' offended me with their anti-elitist bias, it's almost perfectly mirrored by Salatin's scathing antipathy for middle America in his piece:
Why doesn't Marcotte, rather than whining about unappreciated women, write instead about families who seem to think sports leagues and biggest-screen TVs are more important than health? . . . .

Here's the question I would like to ask these families: "Are you spending time or money on anything unnecessary?" Cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, lottery tickets, PeopleMagazine, TV, cell phone, soccer games, potato chips . . . ?  Show me the household devoid of any of these luxuries, then let's talk. . . .

Soccer moms driving their kiddos half a day one way to a tournament, stopping at the drive-by for "chicken" nuggets, and then dismissing the kitchen as "too stressful" is an upside-down value system. And how many of the men whining about not liking what they're being fed spend their Saturdays on the riding mower managing a monoculture, fertilized ecological-dead-zone of a suburban lawn, rather than using their resources to grow something nutritious for their families and wholesome for the planet? When do we start talking about them? Hmmmmm?

Isn't there a way to say that families short on time or money for cooking might find those resources if they rejiggered their priorities, without letting your obvious contempt for those priorities virtually drip off the page? Meanwhile, someone really needs to tell Salatin that asking Americans to trade in their cell phones for anything is a guaranteed lost cause.

So if the NC State researchers and Salatin both annoyed me in this debate, who comes out smelling like a rose?

That would be Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg opinion columnist who has her own issues with "The Joy of Cooking?" and takes them on with terrific writing, a lot of humor -- even a few recipe ideas. I hadn't heard of McArdle before Michael Pollan tweeted her piece over the weekend, but I might just have a new girl crush.

Check out McArdle's "Feminism Starts in the Kitchen" and see what you think.

This post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.