Not Julia or Julie

I write a lot about incorporating healthy cooking and eating into the lives of working parents, and I’m all in favor of finding alternatives to processed and pre-packaged “convenience” foods.  But I was a little conflicted about Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times Magazine article on the decline of home cooking.  On one hand, I agree with much of what he says about the damaging effects of industrial food.  On the other hand, Pollan implies that women — both working and non-working — are at fault, saying:

The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965…Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.

On some level what Pollan says here is true: women of many stripes cook less.  But his discussion of women’s role in food preparation doesn’t tell the whole story.  Women work longer hours in larger numbers than ever before, yet men haven’t stepped in to help carry the burden of housework and family.  Study after study has shown that married women do more than twice as much housework as their husbands.  And while Pollan does conclude that “women and men [must be]…willing to make cooking a part of daily life” for our food system to change, he simply doesn’t hold men accountable in the same way he does women.

Furthermore, Pollan doesn’t offer meaningful solutions for working families.  In fact, the piece leaves you with the idea that “real scratch cooking” needs to involve Julia Child-like heroics — “the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream” or making your own flaky pastry dough.

Of course, there is plenty of real scratch cooking to be done in less than 30 minutes that doesn’t involve these athletics; cooking that is realistic for an exhausted mother of father at the end of a long workday.   This is the lesson we need to share.  Some people enjoy cooking on the primal level that Pollan does, others do not, and would rather spend their discretionary time doing other things.  Either way, cooking fresh food need not be significantly time-consuming or difficult.  We need to give people the tools and education to make healthy choices that work for their life-styles, not just for Julia and Julie.

Despite Pollan’s disdain, “short-cuts and superconvenience” need to be a part of the reintroduction of cooking in homes.  Gone are the time when parents worked fewer hours, and most mothers could afford to stay home if they chose.  Gone are the days when women had to spend hours cooking, whether they liked it or not.  But that doesn’t mean we need to rely on processed or prepared foods; there are plenty of “convenience” options that don’t require a trip to the frozen foods aisle.

A regular Times contributor, Mark Bittman, epitomizes this kind of education week after week in his blog, Bitten, and The Minimalist column.  His posts and his cookbook, How to Cook Everything, offer suggestions for daily cooking — not Chicken Kiev that needs to be stuffed and rolled and fried, like Pollan’s mother used to make — but simple salads, stir-fries and stews that use easily substitutable ingredients.  Bittman understands that we don’t need to cook our way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking to prepare delicious and healthy meals at home.

As much as I believe in the slow food movement, I’m getting a little tired of the articles bemoaning the state of American cooking without recognizing that people live very different lives today than they did 30 years ago.  We can’t go back to those days — nor should we want to — but we can find a new paradigm that promotes healthy cooking and eating for all families, especially those who spend long days at work.

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Filed under Cooking, Happiness, Health, Politics

6 responses to “Not Julia or Julie

  1. Tricia

    While I enjoyed Pollan’s article very much, I had a similar thought: I’m a working mother (with a working spouse) who cooks a scratch dinner every single night (Pollan’s definition of “scratch,” not the food industry’s). Do I consider it a shame that I can get dinner on the table in 30-45 minutes? (Let’s be honest, that’s how long even “30-Minute Meals” take) No! It’s a huge accomplishment.

    I wish I remembered numbers, but there was a study within the past couple of years that showed that families who ate primarily scratch meals spent only a couple minutes longer in the kitchen than families who ate convenience foods. And the convenience food meals were bigger, included more side dishes, and higher in calories.

    I like to Julia it up on the weekends, but I know plenty of tricks for moving quickly during the week that don’t involve cans or boxes. Some of them, I even learned from the Food Network–before they eliminated all their evening cooking shows, that is.

  2. Tricia

    I just now saw this:

    “See comments on the Pollan article at the Times Well blog; amazing how many people feel the need to write that they cook at home, from scratch, every night. Maybe they think someone at The Times is giving out gold stars?”

    May I have my gold star, please? :)

  3. Holly

    Thank you so much for pointing this out. This was my reaction to the article as well, and in fact my reaction to Pollan’s previous work. I love the idea of doing more home cooking, and I love the idea of having more locally grown organic food in our diet, but I have not heard anyone articulate how working moms are supposed to actually do this. I agree, Bittman does a good job with the cooking part.

  4. Donna

    Great post. I have 2 boys (2 and 4) and live in California. We spend our evening playing outside (alot). I find it challenging to cook and watch my kids. I remember my mom cooking every night but, we were unsupervised most of the time. I know my helicopter parenting style makes it hard to cook (while my kids are little). I try to cook every night. Some nights its convenience foods and some nights from scratch. It’s a trade-off and I’m okay with it. On daddy night, they eat fast food. I’m still working on that one.

  5. Nice piece. I recently did an entry (rant, even) about Pollan’s article and, in particular, his scapegoating of feminists. Lame. You can read my thoughts on it here:

  6. Pingback: Making Cooking Work Every Day « The Mama Bee

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