By Emily Matchar, Salon.com
My mother, a busy working baby boomer, was a serviceable cook who mostly just wanted to get something healthy into her three kids’ bellies before bath time. This meant lots of cheese quesadillas, rotisserie chickens from the Kroger, and “face plates”—slices of banana, mini chicken sausages, olives, and the like, arranged like smiley faces. We loved those. Now divorced and in her 50s, she says she’s “done” cooking and happily subsists on granola bars and apples and hard-boiled eggs.
As for me, I’ve been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmers market.
My grandmother, were she not dead (the cigarettes), would no doubt look at me like I’m crazy.
“Don’t you know that you can buy that stuff ?” she would ask.
But it’s not about buying stuff these days, it’s about making it (if you’re middle-class, liberal, and white, that is). Homemade, from scratch, DIY, straight from the backyard, fresh baked, artisan.
On a recent fall evening in Saratoga Springs, New York, I attended a “food swap” held after hours in a knitting shop (owned, appropriately enough, by a young ex-urban planner looking for a more satisfying line of work). Homemade food, brought by the participants to trade with one another, lined several long tables squeezed in among the racks of colorful yarn. There were loaves of fresh egg bread, Ball jars of zucchini relish and carrot-ginger soup, baggies of hand-cured beef jerky and fruit leather, take-home portions of vegan cookie dough.
The attendees, mostly 20- and 30-something women, were members of the From Scratch Club, a group of women in the Albany area who get together to share their love of handmade and locally sourced foods. The From Scratch Club also runs a “DIY School” with courses on topics like making homemade baby food, curing bacon, and baking homemade bread.
Listening to the From Scratchers chat was a borderline-comical sampler of the received wisdom of the 21st century middle class regarding food:
“The meat industry in our country is completely screwed up.”
“People have become very disillusioned with where their food is coming from, especially once they have kids.”
“My mom said I should be a farmwife.”
“I always make my own English muffins.”
“I want to teach inner-city kids about where veggies come from.”
Though it’s easy to mock this kind of thing as the twee preoccupation of the privileged classes, it’s much deeper than that. These women are part of our country’s burgeoning new food culture, a culture that places an immense amount of faith in the idea of food as a solution for a variety of social ills, from childhood obesity to global warming to broken families to corporate greed.
In this culture, canning your own jam is the height of hipness, the origin of your pork chop is a matter of common concern, and no less a person than the president’s wife has made healthy eating the core issue of her tenure as First Lady.
Welcome to the world of hardcore foodism, New Domesticity-style. In this culture, I’m a mere chipper, a dilettante hobbyist who bakes bread on the odd weekend and eats Skippy peanut butter off the spoon the rest of the week.
Food Is More Important Than Ever
In progressive, middle-class circles these days, there’s the overwhelming sense that procuring and cooking the freshest, healthiest, most sustainably sourced food should be a top priority for any thinking person.
Food choices have become important political acts, with deep moral and environmental consequences. As self-righteous and irritating as this attitude can sometimes feel, it’s still speaking to a very real and scary truth. With rising obesity rates, a destructive system of factory farming, and terror-inducing 24/7 news stories about antibiotics in chicken and E. coli in spinach, many people have come to feel that their own food choices are among the most meaningful life decisions they can make.
I recently saw a video of a speech by celebrated food writer Mark Bittman, in which he alternated a picture of a cow and a picture of an atomic mushroom cloud to illustrate his point: Poor food choices equal environmental destruction, pesticide poisoning, global warming, death. This is not a subtle message, and people—specifically the educated middle class—are receiving it loud and clear.
People are cooking more, for health, economic, and environmental reasons. At the start of the recession, in 2008, 60 percent of Americans said they were cooking more than they had previously; by 2012, 37 percent of Americans said they were cooking more than the previous year. And people who can afford it are willing to spend more money to buy organic, sustainable food—despite the recession, profits at Whole Foods, that palace of organic tomatoes and free-range chicken, jumped 31 percent in the first quarter of 2012, the best quarter in the company’s32-year history.
Intensive, old-fashioned, from-scratch cooking—the kind of stuff not much seen since the 1930s—has exploded. Home canning, once the dying art of rural grannies, has gone viral as foodies have come to see home preserving as a way to control the food they eat. Sales of canning supplies have risen 35 percent in the past three years; sales of the classic Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving have doubled over the past year. And these new canners are not grannies, either—43 percent are between 18 and 34.
Chicken keeping, scoffed at by Slate in 2009 as a media-invented “bogus trend of the week,” is, in fact, very real. When the magazine Backyard Poultry came out with its first issue six years ago, it printed 15,000 copies. Today it prints 113,000. In response to the popularity of urban chickens, cities across America (including mine, Chapel Hill) have passed ordinances in the past year or two to legalize urban chicken keeping.
In 2011, food industry analysts proclaimed “food vetting”—the act of finding out where your food came from, whether you’re buying it directly from a farmer or growing it yourself—the top food trend of the year. Shelves at bookstores overflow with books on DIY cheese-making and rooftop beekeeping, most with hip graphic covers aimed at a young, educated demographic.
Bestselling books like Barbara Kingsolver’s homesteading memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007), Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2002) have raised awareness of how food impacts our health and the environment, as have films like Food, Inc. (2008).
Locavorism—eating only or mostly local foods—has become such a buzzword even massive supermarket chains now proudly label their locally grown produce with mini state flags. Slow food, a philosophy of regional, sustainable, from-scratch eating, has become massively popular—there are now 225 Slow Food USA chapters, and 2008’s inaugural Slow Food Nation festival in San Francisco was the largest American food festival in history.
People are increasingly aware of and concerned about specific ingredients—high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified soybeans, “pink slime” beef by-products, high-arsenic-level chicken, all of which have been the subject of grassroots campaigns. Nearly 60 percent of Americans now say they’re worried about the safety of their food.
Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops. Others are food blogging, lovingly photographing and describing their gluten-free muffins or home-grown tomato salads to an appreciative community of other (mostly female) food bloggers and readers. Some are simply spending more time and thought shopping for and feeding their families.
Though restaurant kitchens are still heavily male (93 percent of executive chefs are men), women are disproportionately represented in the unique-to-the-21st century worlds of artisan food businesses, urban homesteading, food activism, and food blogging. Women also continue to cook the vast majority of home meals, as they’ve done since time immemorial—American women cook 78 percent of dinners, make 93 percent of the food purchases, and spend three times as many hours in the kitchen as men.
And among those attempting to adhere to the slow food or locavore ethos, these meals have the potential to be much more complex and time-consuming than the rotisserie-chicken-and-frozen- veggie meals our own mothers served for us.
“The return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America,” says Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on food culture. “We’ve lost our connection to traditional handmade cuisine, kids could have shorter life spans than their parents (because of obesity and poor diet), there’s global warming. This new food culture is a response to an industrial model that’s not working.”
Our country is clearly in a dire state when it comes to obesity and the environmental impact of factory farming, so the fact that more people care about food is terrific. But the kitchen’s always been a fraught place when it comes to gender and class, and the 21st century is shaping up to be no different. For some, the new cooking culture is incredibly empowering. Others are finding themselves tied up in apron strings all over again.
The Femivore Phenomenon: Cooking As Creative Homemaking
For young stay-at-home parents, a deep involvement in cooking and sustainable food culture can be a very 21st century way of avoiding the notorious “just a housewife” trap. In 2010, writer Peggy Orenstein coined the term “femivore” to describe a certain breed of stay-at-home mom whose commitment to providing the purest, most sustainable foods has become a full-fledged raison d’être. These are the women who raise backyard chickens, grow their own vegetables for their children’s salads, join raw-milk clubs to get illegal-but-allegedly-wholesome unpasteurized milk.
“Femivore” is an infelicitous-sounding term (do they eat women?!) but an on-target concept. Femivores, Orenstein says, use food as “an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.”
As Orenstein describes it, femivorism helps give social legitimacy to stay-at-home motherhood, which is something we see in many facets of New Domesticity. She writes:
“Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place. Given how conscious (not to say obsessive) everyone has become about the source of their food—who these days can’t wax poetic about compost?— it also confers instant legitimacy. Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?”