Magazine article Ms

Back to the Kitchen

Magazine article Ms

Back to the Kitchen

Article excerpt

Today's proponents of a natural-food "revolution" sometimes forget historyand return us to patriarchal fantasies of happy housewives at their hot stoves

URBAN GARDENS AND SUBURBAN CHICKEN coops; community-supported agriculture and home canning; farm-to-table restaurants and organic vegetables at Walmart - in the past 20 years, the natural-foods movement really hit its stride.

The latest food narrative critiques corporate food production, particularly since World War II, and champions local/organic agriculture and "slow" food. We know this story by heart: Every text or film about American food - The Omnivore's Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Fast Food Nation; Food Inc.; Super Size Me - agrees on the history behind the new food orthodoxy.

The problem is that although there are plenty of reasons to celebrate this trend in consumer awareness, it tends to simplify American history - returning us to patriarchal visions of women's place in die home. And the present-day natural-food pundits, who tend to come from America's largely white elite (JuUe Guthman, in her 201 1 critique of the alternative-food movement, Weighing In, describes this cultural cohort as "white, educated, urbane and thin"), assume that everyone - given enough information - will share their perspective on right eating and right living.

But maybe not. Instead, it's time to examine some of this new food thinking with a feminist lens.

Mother's not baking bread!

As the story is told by Michael Pollan in his popular Omnivores Dilemma (2006), the "industrial revolution of the food chain" after World War II, and continuing to the present, has created "our national eating disorder." For contemporary food critics such as Pollan, factory-created food broke the back of the family farm. And it pushed mother out of the kitchen, where she had faithfully tended to her brood with a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and grandmother's handed-down recipes.

There is no question that, from the 1940s on, the rate, quantity and kinds of agricultural chemicals used dramatically increased in comparison to prewar chemical treatments. However, fairly widespread arsenic-based pesticide use, supported by federal and state agricultural agencies, began much earlier, in the mid- 1800s - the very period that the current foodirati see as the "natural farming" past. It's not that Pollan is wrong; it's that he abridges the story and thus encourages readers to imagine a pure pre- 1950s food past.

Back in the 1970s, natural-food advocates imagined a similar period of decline. In 1972, Vegetarian Epicure author Anna Thomas advised her cookbook readers, "In these strange 1970s, ominous and dramatic new reasons are compelling people to reexamine their eating habits... [with] more and more foods becoming the products of factories rather than farms." Thomas argued that vegetarian natural foods would revive a confessedly "romanticized" vision of "old world" ways, with "kitchens filled with the rich fragrances of foods prepared slowly and lovingly - before the time of instant no-mess, no-fuss, no-meal packages."

If we stroll back to the early 1800s, we find health reformers such as William Alcott, Catharine Beecher and Sylvester Graham were similarly preoccupied - but pining for an even earlier foodscape, in the colonial era. Antebellum crusader Graham, in his 1837 Treatise on Bread and Bread Making, wistfully yearned for the "blessed days of New England's prosperity and happiness, when our good mothers used to make the family bread." For Graham, bread would reconnect mothers to their children and save America's ruling class from its habits of overindulgence.

Mother's using canned foods!

The post-war proliferation of kitchen conveniences cannot be denied. But history shows that modernization and science charged into middle-class kitchens not in the feminist 1960s, or the processed-food 1950s or even the dawning consumerist 1920s - but in the mid- 1800s. …

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