On The Realities of Home Cooking

I have always hated cooking and meal prep. It always seems no matter how hard I try and how perfectly I follow a recipe, it just doesn’t come out well. On top of that there is always some distraction that gets in the way that prevents me accomplishing my cooking goal. My overall feeling is that the cost/benefit of it all just isn’t worth it. It stresses me out and raises my anxiety and often will cost more than a take-out meal, especially if you consider that your time is valuable and I certainly do. 

Probably what really made me hate cooking was the pressure I use to feel among a community of Christian women who all prided themselves in being perfect, submissive housewives (I tend to refer to them as “godly women”). The idea of not cooking your man a meal every night was basically a sin and if you admitted you don’t do that (even if your husband doesn’t want you to do that) then you are a disgrace to womankind and a rebellious feminist. Sounds crazy, right? But that is really how this group of ladies think. 

With that said, I was delighted to come across this article. It is so refreshing and says something I think is on a lot of mom’s minds.

In Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, the anthropologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott do not deny the value of healthy, home-cooked dinners. Instead, they argue that the way our food gurus talk about dinner is fundamentally disconnected from the daily lives of millions of Americans, especially but not exclusively low-income Americans. This discrepancy matters, the authors insist. When Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver preach their influential, well-compensated sermons about how you—yes, you!—can (and should) improve your family members’ lives by buying healthier food and preparing it at home, they implicitly frame the quality of our dinners as something over which we all wield a considerable degree of control. If you aren’t doing dinner right, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough for your family: not shopping smartly enough, not doing the right prep work, not using the best recipes. In addition to creating a lot of angst and guilt whenever we fall short, this censorious approach shifts our collective attention away from the bigger forces shaping our lives and meals, blocking the way to more realistic solutions located beyond the kitchen.

This point of “if you aren’t doing dinner right, it because you aren’t trying hard enough for your family” is exactly the sort of pressure the Christian women use to put on me. In the end, its always the woman’s fault even though there are so many outside factors that can affect what a woman can accomplish. 

Over a period of five years, Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott interviewed over 150 mothers and grandmothers, mostly low-income, who were primary caregivers for young children in North Carolina. (Though men are pitching in more with grocery shopping and meal preparation, the majority of both chores is still done by women—which, if you are a woman, you surely already know. The top tier of food punditry and celebrity chef-dom remains overwhelmingly male.)

Yes, I’ve thought that is an interesting point. On the homefront women are expected and pressured to be the family chefs, but out in the world it is men who are the chefs and seem even respected more because of it. Cooking for you family is often a thankless job, but do it professionally and you get respect.  Is it any wonder why so many women are discontent in the home and want to work in the professional world? Sigh….that is a rant for another day. 

The authors asked these women detailed questions about what they serve their children, who shops for food, who cooks it, and how it all feels. With 12 families they went deeper, tagging along on shopping trips and food-pantry runs, hanging out in the kitchen and dining room, watching dinner get made and eaten. The authors cannily juxtapose these dense, closely observed scenes with quotes from the likes of Pollan and Bittman, drawing attention to how wildly out of touch much of their advice is with minute-to-minute existence in wide swaths of America.

All of the women profiled here have an intense desire to give their families the best dinners possible. All of them experience some variety of guilt that their dinners aren’t as good as they could be and that their families are suffering for it. They want to buy the freshest, healthiest food possible but have to stick to strict budgets. They want their kids and spouses to eat healthy and try new things, but also want to honor cultural culinary traditions, give their families pleasure, and avoid end-of-day conflicts over novel dishes. They can’t afford to throw out their mistakes and order a salad or pad thai from Grubhub. They’d like to do efficient meal prep ahead of time, but often have little or no control over their work schedules; the free time they have is scattered throughout the day and can be hard to take advantage of. They can’t afford Blue Apron or the pre-prepped veggies from Whole Foods. They take pride in feeding their families but are almost constantly stressed by how hard it is. They make meal plans, only to have them undercut by transportation hassles, SNAP card malfunctions, unexpected bills, and price fluctuations at the grocery store—forces that we can’t realistically fix simply by telling individuals to try harder.

The words I bolded ring so true to my heart!  Even with time saving devices like slow cookers and instant pots, it can still be a real struggle to assemble the ingredients and  even remember to start the dang thing. And yes, you get one chance for success then often you simply can’t afford to buy the fresh or the organic ingredients again.  All it takes is for one screaming toddler to make you forget a critical step or to make you not hear the beeping of the oven and just like that dinner is ruined.  The godly women response to this I use to receive absolutely would have been –try harder.

Here is a story that relates- there is one meal I make that has fresh basil in it.  I got all the ingredients one day and really felt on top of my game. Then I got the call that my man had another work crisis and he wouldn’t be home until after 9:00 pm. That punch in the stomach sucked out all my energy that motivated me to make dinner.  I wasn’t going to cook four chicken breasts just for me (since the oldest kid is a picky eater and the toddler would just throw it on the floor). So, I canned the idea until the next night’s dinner and grabbed a frozen meal.

Come the following night, lo and behold somehow the fresh basil went bad. I was not in a position to go back to the store, especially with a fussy toddler in the rain just to get one thing! So, once again dinner scrapped. I put the chicken breasts in the freezer and decided to just try again next week when I go to the store again. Having the best of intentions means nothing when it comes to making dinner. All the stars truly have to align to have a yummy, healthy, hot meal served on time.  This is a real struggle for us moms out there who are still figuring out how to shower AND shave our legs before a child needs us. 

Twice, while working on this review, I wandered into my local bookstore to browse the latest home-cooking how-to manuals. These books are full of delicious-sounding, nutrient-rich meals, plus tips and shortcuts for making their preparation as efficient as possible. But they are completely divorced from the texture of real life and its daily challenges that runs through every page of Pressure Cooker. In an ideal world, this book would be required reading for every food pundit and cookbook author.

Much like the way the suggestions of godly women are divorced from real life. My experience with godly women is the live in a bubble that is completely out of touch with reality. Further, they are blinded in a strong assumption that because something works for them, it must work for everyone. It seems this is much how the food industry works too. 

I suspect much like self-help book, its not the authors and chefs behind these books that really want to help people in as much as they want to sell, sell, sell. And promises and shortcuts of how you too can feed your family of five for $10 in less than 30 minutes–sells.  The godly women do this too. Everyone wants to promote their snake oil. 

Often, the way we talk about food makes it sound like fixing our meals will fix everything else: heal our bodies, save the environment, restore our family bonds. The proposed solutions in Pressure Cooker flip this equation on its head: Fix the big stuff—reduce poverty, recognize food as a human right—and families will figure out their own dinners just fine. In the meantime, the authors suggest that local schools, daycares, and churches with commercial kitchens start preparing healthy, affordable dinners that are easily re-heatable. They also nod to the promise of community dinners, where customers of all incomes, paying on a sliding scale, gather to share food and stories.

This is nice idea but sadly just won’t happen. There are two stores/restaurants in my area where all they do is prepare healthy meals for pick up and reheat.  It really is a good option that doesn’t fall under take out and is still reasonably priced. The one place though, closes at 7:30 and I find that incredibly early. After commute times that is when a lot of people just begin to think about dinner. In that regard, they aren’t quite understanding how food fits into the modern’s person’s life either. There just simply is no magical, one-size fits all answer to this problem. 

It gives me no pleasure to admit that I have a hard time imagining such initiatives becoming a significant nationwide trend anytime soon, not least because no one stands to make a bundle of money from implementing them. I hope I’m wrong—and not just because, at 33, as I ponder becoming a parent, my wife and I already find ourselves stressed out by the prospective challenge of feeding our family right. But who knows what is possible? After all, it was not so long ago that we were all serving dinner at midday.

Exactly. There has to be money in it to motivate people. I suspect really what we are becoming as a society is “every man for himself” for dinner time.  The pace of our lives is just so hectic and its not as simple as “cutting out this or that” or “slowing down”. Especially when you have small kids, its easier herding cats for meal time. See my post here for more talk on family meal time. 

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