Barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen… the iconic image of a woman in need of feminism. Interesting to me that we say “in the kitchen.” “Barefoot” is self-evident, as is “pregnant.” “In the kitchen” is oddly coy. What is she doing in there? Well, she could be doing a lot of things, just as I do: washing dishes, paying bills, chatting with a friend. Doing a science experiment with a child. Heck, she could be sitting at the counter with The New York Times and a cup of coffee.
But we know that’s not what she’s doing. We know she’s cooking.
Recently, three sociologists at North Carolina State University published a study entitled “The Joy of Cooking?” pushing back against the narrative that a home-cooked meal is an essential part of familial harmony and a key step in reforming the food system. “The message that good parents — and in particular, good mothers — cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” This ideal, they argue, serves only to push working women back into the kitchen, where they find cooking unfulfilling. Moreover, their efforts are often met by family members with disinterest or complaints. Cooking, they assert, only continues to oppress women.
A few writers picked this up, including Amanda Marcotte in Slate and Anna North in The New York Times. Predictably, a conservative in “The Federalist” responded: “It’s I guess what you can expect from feminists — sniping that the stress for women of at-home cooking isn’t worth the benefits.”
So is cooking anti-feminist?
I have certainly had my share of family meals where I have labored over the actual cooking — never mind the shopping beforehand — for at least an hour, only to have my efforts rebuffed by my kids. I have certainly experienced my share of anger and frustration over it, seasoned with the peculiar bitterness that comes from the ingratitude of children. I actively dislike cooking with my kids, because it takes twice as long, and the resulting mess is twice as big. I am a work-at-home mother, which means that my work hours end when school does, and shopping and food prep, tasks I accomplish faster and more easily without offspring, take a bite out of my precious work day.
Yet I am not ready to concede the kitchen.
What makes cooking oppressive? The authors detail the challenges facing the women they interviewed: unpredictable work hours, long commutes, difficulties procuring fresh foods and using them before they spoil. Cooking, they argue, is an unnecessary stressor in these women’s already-overburdened lives, so why not just taking cooking out of the equation?
The irony is that at least two of the women, Wanda and Leanne, work in fast food, as does Wanda’s husband, while another, Greely, has her own catering company. They can’t cook at home because, between work hours and commuting, they are too busy providing food for other people — perhaps some of them overburdened parents like themselves without time to cook.
The line between domestic work and wage work is highly charged for women, and is further tangled up in class and race. A century and more ago, upper-class women, usually white, were expected to eschew all forms of work. “Housekeeping” for these women meant managing the servants, who performed all the actual labor of domestic tasks. In contrast, middle-class women handled much or all of their own domestic work. Their exemption from wage work delineated their difference from lower-class women. For women of the lower classes, of all races, domestic work was wage work. One glaring exception, pre-Civil War, was enslaved women, who received no wages at all for the tasks they performed, either in the house or in the fields. African-American women who were freed still performed domestic tasks, but freedom made the difference in doing the work for nothing versus doing the work for pay.
During the first and second waves of feminism, many white women agitated for the right to work; many women of color, on the other hand, wanted the right to leisure. Since then, women have gained the right to wage work — if not to pay equity with men — but the right to leisure remains elusive for many in the United States, women and men.
Is cooking work or leisure? It can be hard to say. For a cook at McDonald’s, providing food is her job. When she comes home, the pressures that spill over from her wage work — time constraints, financial limits, physical exhaustion — make cooking stressful and anything but leisurely.
What about a stay-at-home mother? For her, cooking might be a leisure activity and a pleasure, a domestic task she chooses to do. Alternatively, maybe she works — and cooks — at home because child care costs more than she would earn out of the house, and so economic necessity makes the choice for her. Either way, she does it and receives no compensation, even though the annual value of a stay-at-home mother’s labor is calculated to be $112,962.
When parents work outside the home, the family often outsources those jobs and pays for them. Restaurant workers (likely immigrants of both genders) prep and cook the food. Day care workers or nannies (usually women) care for the children. Maids (women again) clean the house. When these jobs are paid, they count as part of the GDP.
But to reduce cooking to labor is to collapse it into a singular, capitalistic dimension. Food and cooking have larger resonances than simply economics, however, as the study authors acknowledge when they discuss the ideological values placed on “the family meal.” Yet even this analysis is reductive and ignores the many other possible emotional and cultural dimensions of food, cooking, and the struggle for gender equity.
I grew up with three main parental figures in my life: my mother, my father, and my paternal grandmother. Their stories illustrate three very different narratives of gender and cooking.
My grandmother cared for me nearly every day after school and many weekends. In Armenian culture in general and for my grandmother specifically, food held a central place. She turned out traditional Armenian dishes — tas kebab, kefta, dolma, yalanchi — dishes that could take all day to prepare, without even calculating in the time to grocery shop and clean up. She also made decent American fare: spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken marinated in red wine, garlic, and a little brown sugar.
Both of my parents could count on her to feed me if they were unable to pick me up before dinnertime. She would call me to the table; when I lagged, she would inevitably chastise in her Long Island accent, “Anoosh, it’s gettin’ cold!” Obviously, my grandmother could cook like this, and care for me, because she was a housewife. For her, this represented a step up from her pre-married life, when she worked to support her parents and younger brother during the Depression and World War II.
My mother, on the other hand, held a full-time job as a middle- and high school teacher at a K–12 private school. On the nights she fed me dinner, we ate primarily what I call insta-food: buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken, packets of ramen embellished with chopped scallions and cubed spam, frozen fish fingers. I remember my mother saying to me once with irritation that when she was married to my dad, he expected her to put on dinner parties. As with many second wave feminists, my mother embraced the life of a professional at the same time she rejected the foremost task of the domestic: cooking.
My father, on the other hand, had a reverse experience. Naturally, he had expected to lead a professional life. He had not, however, expected to find himself the sole caretaker of his child for half of every week. Raised on my grandmother’s cooking, he felt obligated as a parent to provide home-cooked meals. At a time when men were being encouraged to “embrace their feminine side,” my dad decided to learn how to cook. On weekends and when I was with my mother, he would put on an apron and cook up giant pots of staples like spaghetti sauce, black bean soup (a dish he’d eaten while in Peace Corps in Costa Rica), tas kebab, and adobo (a Filipino tradition from my mother’s family) and store portions in the chest freezer he kept in the basement. (He learned this from my grandmother, who likewise had a second freezer built like the obelisk from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Dinners at my dad’s were always a complete meal: protein, starch, and a vegetable.
When I reached high school, my dad made a new household rule: whoever cooked, the other person had to clean up. I had never felt particularly drawn to cooking, but I knew which side of that equation I wanted to be on. I pulled down cookbooks from the shelf over the telephone and started searching for easy recipes.
And I liked it.
Cooking took thought, but in a different way from, for example, writing an essay for an Advanced Placement course. I had the satisfaction of accomplishing something material, but without the drudgery and dirt of other types of housework. Cooking could be artistic, both in flavor and in visual appeal. It could be improvisational and experimental. And it created connection, whether it was simply a shared meal with my dad, or a batch of cookies that I gave out to friends.
In Part 3, I want to break down the argument presented in the study, “The Joy of Cooking?”, step by step. First, the authors assert that working mothers feel duty-bound to cook because of pressure from a traditional ideal of motherhood coupled with pressure from various “food gurus” who are advocating for Americans to cook more often at home. In the course of interviewing women to support this theory, they also uncover several barriers that make cooking difficult for their interviewees: poverty, work pressures, transportation, housing, child care. Finally, they propose a number of possible “creative solutions” to feed families without forcing mothers into the kitchen.
The authors of the study seem to contend that no working mother wants to cook, but does so due to external obligations. They write, “Mothers felt responsible for preparing healthy meals for their children and keenly experienced the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives.” Women are feeling even more pressure, they argue, because “modern-day food gurus” such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Rachel Ray, as well as political figures like Michelle Obama, “advocate a return to the kitchen.” (I’m just going to note here that Pollan’s book, Cooked, includes a gender analysis that demonstrates he is aware of these issues.)
Of course, the ideal of motherhood exists; of course, mothers constantly feel guilty for not living up to it. But to say that mothers are manipulated to this extent simply by unrealistic standards is to ignore the ways that we defy these standards on a daily basis. A search for “good enough mother” turns up the words of many mothers who are rejecting the ideal. Periodically, studies come out that “prove” that stay-at-home mothers are best for their children, or that day cares will damage children irreparably. Do working mothers feel horribly guilty when these studies come out? Yes. And then they go back to work, either by choice or by necessity, knowing that their work is helping their children by providing the financial support they need and by modeling working womanhood. (And those studies get refuted.)
So while I don’t deny that ideology is a factor in mothers feeling oppressed by cooking, I would add that to pin the blame solely on idealized motherhood and foodies is to miss the point.
If the ideal — and the sexism contained within it — is truly at issue, then how do partnerships that are less traditionally gendered look? I asked several mothers and fathers about how they divide cooking and other domestic work, and I received a range of responses. I heard from stay-at-home and work-at-home dads who actively enjoy and take pride in cooking. I heard from opposite-gender couples who split cooking 50/50. I heard from same-gender couples where one partner did most of the domestic tasks. I heard from single mothers who are struggling to do it all. From a small sample, I received a breadth of possible family configurations, each negotiating cooking and domestic tasks in their own way.
In the diversity of responses, one consistency stood out for me. Many women in opposite-gender couples, who had generally egalitarian relationships, said they cook because their male partners simply lacked know-how. No one had taught their men to cook when they were young. As adults, the men had little time or motivation to learn, so if their female partners wanted to eat decently, then they cooked.
If families abandon cooking entirely, then we lose one path to gender equity: men who cook. I am fortunate that my son loves to help me in the kitchen. I count teaching him to cook among my small, daily feminist acts. One day, after picking up my son from preschool, my daughter asked him, “Do you want to play ‘Frozen’?” “No,” my son replied. “I want to help Mama make dinner.” Heart cockles: warmed.
If gender dynamics and motherhood ideals can’t fully explain the problem of working mothers and cooking, what else is at play? One clue is revealed in this quote from Elaine, a white, middle-class married mother interviewed for the study: “When we get home it’s such a rush. I just don’t know what happens to the time. I am so frustrated. That’s why I get so angry! I get frustrated ’cause I’m like, I wanna make this good meal that’s really healthy and I like to cook ’cause it’s kind of my way to show them that I love them, ‘This is my love for you guys!’ And then I wind up at the end just, you know, grrr! Mad at the food because it takes me so long. It’s like, how can it take an hour for me to do this when I’ve already cut up the carrots and the celery and all I’m doing is shoving it into a bowl?” (emphasis mine)
Elaine says herself that she likes to cook, but she is frustrated that she doesn’t have the time to cook the way she wants to for her family. I hear her longing for a certain kind of connection that a home-cooked family meal can bring, but time pressures turn a leisure activity into a stressful obligation.
The study authors themselves name many of the barriers to cooking: food costs, particularly for healthy foods; basic food insecurity; long work hours; unpredictable schedules; differing family schedules; inadequate transportation; and long commutes to work. Some mothers live in particularly dire situations: “During the month we spent with Flora, a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.”
Is cooking really the problem here?
Would Flora benefit more if she were released from a gendered obligation to cook? Or would she perhaps find more relief if her city had a program to house the homeless like Salt Lake City’s?
At the same time I read this study, which features at least four parents who work in the fast food industry, I also read William Finnegan’s article in The New Yorker about the efforts of McDonald’s workers to unionize and raise the minimum wage. Most of the workers he interviews have jobs at two different locations, if not three, and yet their hours are held under forty hours a week to keep them part-time. One mother who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years makes $8.50/hour, a 50 cent increase over the base pay — which is minimum wage — in a city where a living wage for a single parent with a child is calculated to be $30.02/hour. Finnegan writes, “American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance,” which includes food stamps.
Moreover, employees do not get regular shifts. Instead, every Saturday evening, hours are posted for the following week. Each worker receives a thin strip of paper with her or his schedule. Imagine what this unpredictability means for parents trying to arrange child care.
As if this level of exploitation isn’t enough, some workers don’t even get paid for the hours they put in. Finnegan reports, “Two former McDonald’s managers recently went public with confessions of systematic wage theft, claiming that pressure from both franchisees and the corporation forces them to alter time sheets and compel employees to work off the clock.”
This kind of treatment is inhumane, for parents and non-parents alike. And it isn’t just the fast food industry. American workers put in longer hours for less pay than their counterparts in other developed countries, and they also take fewer vacations. No legal limits exist to prevent American workers from answering e-mails and analyzing spreadsheets when ostensibly having family time at home.
Rather than an accusation against cooking for causing misery among working women, I would like to see an indictment of a brutal work culture engendered by skyrocketing inequality. I would like to see an examination of farm subsidies that make processed foods artificially cheap while making raw foods unattainably expensive. I would like to see a report on the economic conditions that create food deserts in certain neighborhoods when food is so abundant in others. I would like to see a denunciation of a political climate that makes raising the national minimum wage to a paltry $15/hour an impossibility. I would like to see rage against weak and ineffective initiatives to end poverty while the top 0.1 percent continue to attain new heights of wealth.
The study authors suggest in their conclusion a variety of “creative solutions” to feed families healthy meals without continuing to overburden mothers. They suggest town suppers and healthy food trucks, to-go meals that parents pick up at their children’s schools to heat up at home.
While I am interested in collectivist solutions, the logistics bring up more questions. Where would the food come from? Who would grow it? What food traditions would be represented? How would it all get funded? If families buy the meals, how could the meals be affordable yet made with good quality, fresh ingredients?
The main question I have is, who would prepare these foods? How much would they get paid? What hours would they work? Because I can imagine, all too easily, that these programs would rely on part-time workers juggling two jobs, some of them parents. Parents who would work long hours to prepare food for parents, who are working too much to prepare food. Alternatively, I can imagine stay-at-home moms being asked to volunteer their labor, just as they are tasked with filling in labor gaps in their children’s schools.
This isn’t a solution. It’s a displacement of the problem.
The answer to the question, “Why do working mothers find it so hard to cook?” is not an easy one, but cooking itself is not the problem. The way most Americans, not just working mothers, find it difficult-to-impossible to engage in one of the most fundamental human activities is but one symptom of a cancer in American culture.
So what can we do? We can insist on connection. We are all linked: the farmers who grow our food, the migrant workers who harvest it, the drivers who transport it, the grocers who stock it, the corner-store owners who sell it, the food workers who prep and cook it, the parents who bring it home, the children who either eat it or complain about it.
Cooking can be feminist or anti-feminist. But insisting on a more just and equal world is feminist to the core.