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Rethinking Work: cooking as labor

Food politics are sweeping the United States. The local food movement, the slow food movement, all of it embodied in periodic sweeping pieces from lead guru Michael Pollan, whose writing is lush and pretty enough to make you feel the sensual pleasure he takes in his food—from procuring to cooking to eating, though rarely growing/killing.

Pollan and other foodies want to return to a world where cooking isn’t just an afterthought or something we pay others to do. But too often these food evangelists forget a couple of important factors. One of them being that cooking is work.

In a mostly-lovely New York Times Magazine piece last summer, Pollan sang the praises of Julia Child (revived by the Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia”). He wrote:

Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles.

Kate Harding noted Pollan’s call for a return to cooking, though, sounds an awful lot to some of us like a call for women to get back in the kitchen. His acknowledgement of cooking as work that could be satisfying, in other words, leaves out the fact that it is also work that many people hate. She suggests:

I wasn’t around in the ’60s, but I’m guessing [feminists] made ridiculous, man-hating arguments like, “Dude, Julia Child gets paid to cook.”


And for women, having the option of feeding ourselves and our families without working pro bono all day is part of what allows us to function as (mostly) equal citizens.

Pollan may not have been making an explicitly gendered argument toward people getting back in the kitchen, but he did note that televised cooking has shifted from Julia Child’s glamorous-yet-comforting how-to style to daytime “dump ‘n’ stir” and nighttime competition that moves at a breakneck pace—and is made to appeal to men.

It’s been an argument made for years that cooking, when it is glamorous and well-compensated, is something for men. Chefs are male, but the everyday cooking in the household is something for women to do. When men do the work, in other words, it is labor to be compensated (if chefs do often make very little in comparison to the waitstaff at fancy restaurants) and congratulated; when women do it, it is part of everyday life.

Out of the kitchen and into the workforce arguments always had a class (and race) division to them: many women had already been working and didn’t find it particularly liberating. Many of them, often women of color, worked as domestic laborers as well—getting paid, if not very well, to do the same work they then did for free at their own home. Well-off women were already recognizing in their own way that cooking was work, and we still recognize this when we watch cooking shows on TV or go to restaurants, fancy or otherwise.

Now back-in-the-kitchen arguments have their own class dimension. They imply the time to spend in the kitchen as well as the money to buy fancy ingredients. Ethically produced local food tends to be more expensive partly because the people who produce it are being paid decently, so despite the lack of middlemen we pay much more for organic produce from the farm around the corner.

More at Global Comment.

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