Michael Pollan: Cooking up a Sour Batch of Sexism

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My book club is comprised of liberal, middle and upper-middle class, professional, Jewish women. In July, we read Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food. Given that we are his target audience (people - some of whom are moms - who care about the environment and health, who have some means to be able to shop in ways that support sustainability), it seemed like we'd love the book. We hated it. As my friend Molly said, "He doesn't recognize that by romanticizing how food was prepared in the past, he ensures that women cannot have jobs outside of the home, whether they want them or not." We all agreed that his fixation on "mother knows best" when it comes to cooking was a positive, yet sexist stereotype.

His latest treatise on how the downfall of Western civilization (and all those we pollute with our culture) will be because we spend less time cooking and more time watching cooking shows ("Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch") was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine this past weekend. According to the article, if the world falls apart because people spend only 27 minutes a day preparing food, we can blame feminism. Seriously.

Pollan asserts that the decline in time spent cooking at home has several causes, one of which is "women working outside the home." Further:

Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as “housewives” — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “The Second Sex” that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts (féminisme, c’est bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.

Here is where Pollan trips over his own theories. If women can find a special satisfaction in cooking well - because "not everyone can do it: one must have the gift" - how is it feminism's fault that we acknowledge that (in Pollan's own words) that "for many people, women especially," the fact that cooking is no longer obligatory thanks to the availbility of other prepared foods "has been a blessing?" Because many women - myself at the top of the list - do not have "the gift" for cooking. I am grateful to feminism for saying that it is OK if I don't cook meals every day for my husband and then hate myself because, no matter how hard I try, they are inadequate. (Except for omelettes. I make very good omelettes.)

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My (organic, grass-fed) beef with Pollan is that he spends all his time lamenting the fact that no one cooks any more and that "feminism thoughtlessly trampled" any pleasure women might get from cooking, but no time exploring why, as women spend time doing other things, men who have "the gift" (or men in general) don't pick up the slack in the kitchen. This important omission goes straight to the heart of blaming women for all of the food related illnesses that plague modern society. Flat out, it is not the fault of feminism for encouraging women (and men) to pursue what interests them, but the fault of society for placing so little value on cooking for one's family that no one has interest in doing so any more. Honestly, why would any man - unless, like some women, he had a gift for cooking or really enjoyed doing so - pick up such a thankless task? We may pay lip service to the people who slave over a hot stove or oven, but in general it is not appreciated nearly as much as other work. Just like most traditional women's work is not valued. Small mystery, then, that when people have options, they chose not to do it.

I suspect that Pollan would disagree with my interpretation of his work; I don't think he intends to be sexist. (Or maybe I just want to believe that he doesn't intend to be sexist, since I think there are important aspects to what he is saying, so I try and ascribe good intentions to the bad parts of his theories.) However, since Pollan cannot look beyond the traditional scope of cooking, why it was done, and who prepared it and for what reasons, I have a very hard time reading his work without becoming enraged. My brother-in-law, who is a foodie, thinks I'm oversensitive and reading into Pollan's words. My husband thinks that Pollan is condescending to everyone, not just women.

I would say that maybe it is just me, but I have a whole book club of smart, reasonable women who turned up their nose at the junk theory he is serving us while saying it is a healthy dish. Until men's roles in cooking is added to Pollan's menu, I am sending the meals back to the chef with complaints.

Here's what other women bloggers are saying - good, bad, and a little of both - about Pollan, sexism, and feminism:

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in NYC.

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