Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Is Family Dinner an Injustice?

Everyone complains about family dinner. So says Sarah Bowen in a study that tries to show how unrealistic it is for anyone to expect that women (or anyone) would be sufficiently competent to prepare family dinners on a daily basis.

Bowen is the researcher whose study into the “burden” of feeding a family has warmed feminist hearts and minds.

Note that the question, as Bowen framed it and as Amanda Marcotte and now Anna North articulated it, always revolves around an injustice. Women are unduly burdened with the responsibility for preparing family dinners. Men barely contribute. Children are ungrateful wretches who are always complaining. Obviously, the situation calls for government intervention.

Did it strike anyone that Bowen’s study, to say nothing of the feminist cheerleading it inspired, is one large complaint. If you ask where children learned to complain, you do not have to look very far.

But, more importantly, the feminist critique of the injustice of family dinner leaves out one crucial element. It ignores the many studies that show family dinners to be of enormous benefit to a child’s psychosocial development.

Why is this not relevant? Why is the well-being of children so easily tossed aside in favor of a perceived injustice?

Why, pray tell, does that not provide a sufficient motivation for these modern superwomen to get their acts together and put something nourishing on the table each night? In most families, it does not even matter that it is all that nourishing. When it comes to food children are notoriously easy to please.

If, however, a modern woman is following Michelle Obama’s nutritional guidelines in her home cooking, she is likely to meet with resistance.

If a woman decides that every family dinner must be a gourmet extravaganza or even a vegetarian delight she will be misreading her family. Most families do not require a grand production. Most children prefer Big Macs to carrot sticks.

As for Bowen’s whine about how expensive fresh produce is, she should try Walmart. Besides, frozen produce is often better than fresh, anyway. Vegetables that are flash frozen when harvested are probably fresher than the ones that were trucked cross the country in refrigerated containers.

To her great credit Anna North balances her report on Sarah Bowen with some real-life reports about family dinners in poor families.

In her words:

The poet Kima Jones recently conducted her own survey of family food traditions: For an essay at Scratch, she asked 29 poets, “What did your mother teach you to always have in the house in case of hunger and no money?” The answers she got ranged from bologna to cassava bread to “Savings. You can always turn that into food.”

Many of the poets she talked to grew up poor, but her survey painted a more optimistic picture than Ms. Bowen’s research. She told Op-Talk that a lot of the stories she heard involved extended families coming together — the poets “talked about their grandmothers, their aunts, their uncles. There were always these reservoirs to tap into and this community where, we don’t have a potato, but we have some rice, some string beans, we have some stew meat, and we’re going to make a meal out of this.”

Growing up, she said, “I don’t remember ever not eating and not eating well, even though we were definitely working poor.” Now she lives far away from her mother, and eating dinner with her “is the thing I miss most.” And when she visits her mother in New York, she never eats out: “As long as my mother’s on the face of this earth, and as long as she’s making dinner, I’m eating dinner.”

Nuf said….


Ares Olympus said...

There are wider virtues, as expressed in an essay from Wendell Berry, and not just to help young children see what good home economics looks like, but how to live responsibly. Berry's a Democrat, but a social conservative in his own way. Of course our modern GNP will never measure this sort of thrift.
From essay "The Pleasure of Eating", 1989 by Wendell Berry

... Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. This simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship. What can one do?

Here is a list, probably not definitive.

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.

2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the art of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of "quality control": you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.

3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.

4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. in addition, by such dealings you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producer and consumer.

5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?

6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.

7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

The last suggestion seems particularly important to me. Many people are now much estranged from the lives of domestic plants and animals (except flowers and dogs and cats) as they are from the lives of wild ones. This is regrettable, for these domestic creatures are in diverse ways attractive; there is much pleasure in knowing them. And farming, animal husbandry, horticulture, and gardening, at their best, are complex and comely arts; there is much pleasure in knowing them, too.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Hasn't he redefined dinner in terms of each individual's relationship to food products and not in terms of each individual's relationship to other individuals.

To have as much specialized knowledge as he does would take up a great deal of time and energy. I think that the studies that emphasize the value of family dinner are concerned with the social ritual. It is fair to say that food production is also ritualized, but that does not required that we each become farmers.

Ares Olympus said...

Yes Stuart, you're right, his starting point is to show there is an art to living with a closer relationship to our food, and you're right that it would require a great deal of time and energy, and perhaps that's where the social aspects arise.

Nuclear families of 2.5 people may not have the time and energy to do any fraction of this, but perhaps more old fashion households of extended family offer a bigger reason to put more time and energy into food.

Since Berry wrote there is a "slow food" movement that seems to attempt to rediscover the social aspects of food.

When I was in Mexico City a 6 years ago, staying with a family, I saw how they did their cooking.

The women designated Sundays for cooking, and 2 sisters and others all got together to do all the cooking for the week, and after sharing a large Sunday dinner, they'd bring home their portions for their families for the week,

So social rituals clearly have the possibility of softening the Feminist's projections of unwilling servitude.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Berry's full essay is online, but again, it focuses on household skills rather than the social skills to achieve it.

From his book, a collection of essays, "What are people for?"

n.n said...

My favorite was borscht. It still is. It's not expensive. It's not complicated to prepare. It is satiating and nutritious. Just add meat for full flavor. said...

I love hanging my white clothes on the "clothes line." One gets "whiter whites" when you cooperate with nature. Only problem, they don't allow clothes lines in yards in my suburb!

Anonymous said...

It is an injustice if served by this guy.