Thursday, September 4, 2014

Home-Cooked or Take-Out

You would think that everyone knows how important family dinners are. Yesterday I posted about a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. It demonstrated that, for children, family dinners are a good antidote to bullying. Add to that the mental health advantages of family dinners and you would have a great deal of difficulty finding detractors.

Yet, detractors there are. The issue, as the detractors see it, is home-cooked meals. Apparently, these are a burden to women. Strangely enough, after four decades of feminism women are still charged with preparing meals.

Obviously, nothing says that family dinners must be home-cooked. Nothing says that the family dinner cannot be pizza or take-out Chinese.

Even if we accept that home-cooked meals are better for everyone’s health, one suspects that they are more economical than take-out.

Now, as though to provide grist for my mill, feminist zealot Amanda Marcotte has presented the case against home-cooked family dinners. What Marcotte really, really wants is more male participation in food preparation, but she does not consider the fact that when two people are in charge the process might become more chaotic and disorganized.

Marcotte seems unaware of the mental health benefits of family dinners. In this paragraph she presents her idea:

The home-cooked meal has long been romanticized, from ’50s-era sitcoms to the work of star food writer Michael Pollan, who once wrote, “far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention.” In recent years, the home-cooked meal has increasingly been offered up as the solution to our country's burgeoning nutrition-related health problems of heart disease and diabetes. But while home-cooked meals are typically healthier than restaurant food…sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton from North Carolina State University argue that the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.

To sustain their argument the North Carolina researchers paint a picture of America as a third-world country. Reading it you wonder how all of that food stamp money is being spent.

In Marcotte’s words:

Low-income women often don't have the money for fresh produce and, in many cases, can't afford to pay for even a basic kitchen setup. One low-income mother interviewed “was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds,” and was left to prepare “all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.” Even when people have their own homes, lack of money means their kitchens are small, pests are hard to keep at bay, and they can't afford “basic kitchen tools like sharp knives, cutting boards, pots and pans.”

One might suggest that the breakdown of the traditional family structure, the rise of matricentric families, of families without fathers, might have something to do with said living conditions, but Marcotte does not go there.

When men are around, they are, according to the researchers and to Marcotte, a bunch of whiners:

The women interviewed faced not just children but grown adults who are whiny, picky, and ungrateful for their efforts. “We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn’t complain about the food they were served,” the researchers write. Mothers who could afford to do so often wanted to try new recipes and diverse ingredients, but they knew that it would cause their families to reject the meals. “Instead, they continued to make what was tried and true, even if they didn’t like the food themselves.” The saddest part is that picky husbands and boyfriends were just as much, if not more, of a problem than fussy children.

One might imagine that these children, to say nothing of the adults, lack decorum and have never learned good table manners. The absence of gratitude is always demoralizing.

Once upon a time Betty Friedan launched second-wave feminism by comparing suburban homes to “comfortable concentration camps.” It was an idiotic analogy, one that Friedan eventually walked back.

But apparently, the notion that feeding your family healthy foods is akin to being imprisoned in a concentration camp lingers in the shadows of some feminist minds.

I accept that in families where people have not learned any manners and where they believe that they should express their feelings openly, honestly and shamelessly dinner verges on anarchy. But if we are to blame unruly children and whiny husbands let’s also understand that women have been led to believe that preparing a meal for a family is a form of domestic servitude. It might be the case that they complain about their roles.

Feminists are within their rights to call out bad behavior in men and children. But they should also think about their own role in this supposed debacle. Didn't they want to make the kitchen into place for class struggle in the culture wars? They are not quite as saintly as Marcotte would like.

And yet, in the study I cited yesterday families did manage to have family dinners. And these dinners were apparently sufficiently civil to provide a measurable psychological benefit for children.

The study Marcotte cites suggests otherwise, but one suspects that its evidence was selected to buttress an ideology and to give women a reason for more righteous complaining. 


Lindsay Harold said...

Are these feminists of the opinion that cooking home-cooked meals must involve many fancy ingredients, fresh produce, a wide variety of utensils and cookware, and large amounts of counter space? It seems so. Apparently, having never actually cooked a meal, they think it is like the professional chefs do on tv cooking shows.

In reality, it doesn't take nearly the effort, knowledge, or finesse of a professional chef or the fancy kitchen and exotic ingredients either. Making homemade, healthy meals can be done quite simply and quickly with basic ingredients. It's not nearly the burden (or impossibility) that they try to pretend it is. They pretend that something cannot be done when they simply do not want to do it. Exaggerate the difficulties and ignore or downplay the benefits so that no one will require any little bit of effort from you that you do not want to do.

Funny how they laud themselves for overcoming difficult obstacles in every other instance and pat themselves on the back for their girl power and ability to do anything they set their minds to. But making a meal for their own family? That's just too much to ask of a woman. She just can't do everything.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Lindsay, for a great comment!!!

Patricia K. said...

It is entirely possible to make home cooked meals on an extraordinarily limited budget. These women could be taught how to do so.
At the risk of sounding too self congratulatory I am going to say how I overcame those supposed obstacles for twenty years and made home cooked meals for my two sons and myself.

I bought reduced produce, meat that was reduced because it had to be sold that day, deli meat and cheese "ends", day old bread and staples when they were on sale. I made basic things such a salad dressing and baked goods.

I found second hand things and have a well outfitted kitchen with excellent cookware, dishes, utensils and excellent knives.I only had 13 inches of counter space but tables and other surfaces help.

I made enough for more than one meal so I could freeze some or have leftovers.

I found interesting "ethic" foods that are not expensive but are interesting and fun to both make and eat.

I got my sons involved in the cooking and had them eat at least two bites of everything served. To allow for personal taste they were allowed to choose two foods that they didn't have to eat at all but if they wanted to switch it they had to eat some of the one taken off the short list before adding a different one. They were taught basic manners which is really just being kind and considerate of others - including thanking the person who made the meal. We'd often do a critical analysis of what we made so we could improve upon it but it wasn't unkind.

I rarely used convenience foods or take out foods.
My sons are grown now and have more money but they eat similarly to how they were raised and have thanked me for training their tastebuds in that fashion. They both live in NYC and have taken the ethnic food tasting to new heights and both are excellent cooks.

I do wonder if some women truly don't know the basics about cooking, nutrition and how to stretch a dollar. It can certainly be learned though.

Lindsay, your comment is excellent and Stuart, your column - as always, is excellent.

Charles A Pennison said...

Both my mom and dad worked, and they both cooked our meals. We ate as a family unit for dinner, and everyone helped clean the kitchen and table after the meal.

Apparently, I grew up in a strange family.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Lindsay and Patricia: Thank you. Thank you for the wonderful sensibility you've shared here, and what you do for your families. The idea you don't have to have saffron threads in some exotic macaroni and cheese recipe, nor do you have to serve free-range rib eye steaks on a Tuesday night, is all so efficient and well-considered. I also suspect such thinking would be novel to many families. Food doesn't have to be professional grade and ever-scrumptious to provide the kind of fellowship and intimacy human beings truly desire.