While writing my food memoir, Tasting Home, I avoided reading anything analytical about women and food. (I had been a professor for most of my life and didn’t want to write an academic memoir.) Only after I finished the book, did I begin to read critical work on women’s culinary reflections. It was then I learned about “the new domesticity.”
Sometimes the new domesticity takes the form of women returning to the land, cooking from scratch, using organic and local produce, raising chickens, or canning and, in so doing, resisting and responding to traditional food practices, which emphasize profit over sustainability and promote unjust labor relations.
At other times, the new domesticity takes the form of rethinking and writing about domestic labor. One development in women’s studies, for example, has been the effort to reclaim the kitchen, and in, the process, to question and modify the tendency of some feminisms to define cooking and other forms of domesticity as inherently oppressive to women and as always enforcing a conservative status quo.
Many women of color, of course, have long seen cooking as a form of creativity and power and as a means of creating community solidarity in the face of ongoing struggles against racism. Now, white feminists are also writing about home cooking as a retreat from, but also an implicit criticism of, the uncaring values of the world of work.
Indeed, a “mindful cooking,” one that takes into accounts the values of sustainability, economic justice, community, and caring labor is being theorized as a crucial feminist activity. Even labor intensive and time consuming projects like fancy baking are being newly valued as a means of expressing or redefining the self, of bringing intensity and joy to living, and as a form of resistance to the rushed pace of life in the workplace and now, too often, in the home as well.
Janet L. Flammang’s TheTaste for Civilization gives home cooking an even broader social and political influence. Although Flammang recognizes that more men cook at home than ever before–a trend she would like to encourage– she rightly points out that home cooking is still largely the province of women in this country and around the world. While restaurant cooking, a field dominated by men, is lauded as art, as heroic performance, and as worthy of historical attention, domestic cooking, traditionally associated with women, has largely been invisible, regarded as insignificant, or dismissed as what “real” history is not about.
Yet, cooking the family meal, Flammang argues, has enormous historical importance in that it lays groundwork for civil society itself. Home cooking, for example, has characteristically brought people together, involved them in daily expressions of generosity and care, and maintained a continuing expectation that dinner conversations will be civil, that individuals will not just put their own needs above those of the group.
Cooking for, and eating with others, produces a sense of common cause and creates reservoirs of good will which groups can draw on later in times of stress. Cooking and dining with others trains us in modes of feeling and behavior that are the foundation for democracy itself.
Flammang cites Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from the Delicious Revolution, as an example of women’s food writing which recognizes this relation between food and civil society and which proposes to improve both. Waters, for example, writes that the pleasure of delicious food can bind you to values that make for a better world—because delicious food means food that is fresh, unpolluted, and easy on the environment, means food that sustains local producers: “If you eat two or three meals a day, in a very specific way with those values associated, it begins to change your life.”
The food movement, which Waters helped to initiate, provides an example of this theory in practice. The movement’s communal gardens, farmer’s markets, school lunch programs, prison outreach, and deliberate acts of cooking and dining together are bringing people together across the divisions of race, class, and gender and also prompting them to consider far reaching forms of social change.
When women and men writing about food call attention to its political potential in this way, they define themselves as more than individuals, as more than members of a particular community. They define themselves as part of a larger human society and as part of a struggle for thorough-going social change.
Such writing invites readers to the table and to a civil conversation. How do we help create a better world through just and thoughtful practices in growing, preparing and consuming what we eat?