Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?

"Femivores" have made DIY domesticity cool. But critics who blame feminism for obesity and fast food have it wrong

Published April 28, 2013 1:00AM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity"

My grandmother, a 1960s housewife of the cigarette-in-one-hand-cocktail-in-the-other variety, thought a slab of frozen Sara Lee pound cake was a totally appropriate breakfast for her children. My mother, a busy working baby boomer, was a serviceable cook who mostly just wanted to get something healthy into her three kids’ bellies before bath time. This meant lots of cheese quesadillas, rotisserie chickens from the Kroger, and “face plates”—slices of banana, mini chicken sausages, olives, and the like, arranged like smiley faces. We loved those. Now divorced and in her fifties, she says she’s “done” cooking and happily subsists on granola bars and apples and hard-boiled eggs.

As for me, I’ve been learning to can jam, bake bread from scratch in my Dutch oven (though my husband is better at it), and make my own tomato sauce from a bushel of ugly tomatoes I bought at the farmer’s market.

My grandmother, were she not dead (the cigarettes), would no doubt look at me like I’m crazy.

“Don’t you know that you can buy that stuff ?” she’d ask.

But it’s not about buying stuff these days, it’s about making it (if you’re middle-class, liberal, and white, that is). Homemade, from scratch, DIY, straight from the backyard, fresh baked, artisan.

On a recent fall evening in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I attended a “food swap” held after-hours in a knitting shop (owned, appropriately enough, by a young ex-urban planner looking for a more satisfying line of work). Homemade food, brought by the participants to trade with one another, lined several long tables squeezed in among the racks of colorful yarn. There were loaves of fresh egg bread, Ball jars of zucchini relish and carrot-ginger soup, Baggies of hand-cured beef jerky and fruit leather, take-home portions of vegan cookie dough.

The attendees, mostly twenty- and thirtysomething women, were members of the From Scratch Club, a group of women in the Albany area who get together to share their love of handmade and locally sourced foods. The From Scratch Club also runs a “DIY School” with courses on topics like making homemade baby food, curing bacon, and baking homemade bread.

Listening to the From Scratchers chat was a borderline-comical sampler of the received wisdom of the twenty-first-century middle class regarding food:

“The meat industry in our country is completely screwed up.”

“People have become very disillusioned with where their food is coming from, especially once they have kids.”

“My mom said I should be a farmwife.”

“I always make my own English muffins.”

“I want to teach inner-city kids about where veggies come from.” Though it’s easy to mock this kind of thing as the twee preoccupation of the privileged classes, it’s much deeper than that. These women are part of our country’s burgeoning new food culture, a culture that places an immense amount of faith in the idea of food as a solution for a variety of social ills, from childhood obesity to global warming to broken families to corporate greed. In this culture, canning your own jam is the height of hipness, the origin of your pork chop is a matter of common concern, and no less a person than the president’s wife has made healthy eating the core issue of her tenure as First Lady.

Welcome to the world of hard-core foodism, New Domesticity-style. In this culture, I’m a mere chipper, a dilettante hobbyist who bakes bread on the odd weekend and eats Skippy peanut butter off the spoon the rest of the week.

Food is more important than ever

In progressive, middle-class circles these days, there’s the overwhelming sense that procuring and cooking the freshest, healthiest, most sustainably sourced food should be a top priority for any thinking person.

Food choices have become important political acts, with deep moral and environmental consequences. As self-righteous and irritating as this attitude can sometimes feel, it’s still speaking to a very real and scary truth. With rising obesity rates, a destructive system of factory farming, and terror-inducing 24/7 news stories about antibiotics in chicken and E. coli in spinach, many people have come to feel that their own food choices are among the most meaningful life decisions they can make. I recently saw a video of a speech by celebrated food writer Mark Bittman, in which he alternated a picture of a cow and a picture of an atomic mushroom cloud to illustrate his point: poor food choices equal environmental destruction, pesticide poisoning, global warming, death. This is not a subtle message, and people—specifically the educated middle class—are receiving it loud and clear.

People are cooking more, for health, economic, and environmental reasons. At the start of the recession, in 2008, 60 percent of Americans said they were cooking more than they had previously; by 2012, 37 percent of Americans said they were cooking more than the previous year. And people who can afford it are willing to spend more money to buy organic, sustainable food—despite the recession, profits at Whole Foods, that palace of organic tomatoes and free-range chicken, jumped 31 percent in the first quarter of 2012, the best quarter in the company’s thirty-two-year history. Intensive, old-fashioned, from-scratch cooking—the kind of stuff not much seen since the 1930s—has exploded. Home canning, once the dying art of rural grannies, has gone viral as foodies have come to see home preserving as a way to control the food they eat. Sales of canning supplies have risen 35 percent in the past three years; sales of the classic Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving have doubled over the past year. And these new canners are not grannies, either—43 percent are between eighteen and thirty-four. Chicken keeping, scoffed at by Slate in 2009 as a media-invented “bogus trend of the week,” is, in fact, very real. When the magazine Backyard Poultry came out with its first issue six years ago, it printed 15,000 copies. Today it prints 113,000. In response to the popularity of urban chickens, cities across America (including mine, Chapel Hill) have passed ordinances in the past year or two to legalize urban chicken keeping. In 2011, food industry analysts proclaimed “food vetting”—the act of finding out where your food came from, whether you’re buying it directly from a farmer or growing it yourself—the top food trend of the year. Shelves at bookstores overflow with books on DIY cheese-making and rooftop beekeeping, most with hip graphic covers aimed at a young, educated demographic.

Best-selling books like Barbara Kingsolver’s homesteading memoir "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (2007), Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" (2006), and Eric Schlosser’s "Fast Food Nation" (2002) have raised awareness of how food impacts our health and the environment, as have films like "Food, Inc." (2008). Locavorism—eating only or mostly local foods—has become such a buzzword even massive supermarket chains now proudly label their locally grown produce with mini state flags. Slow food, a philosophy of regional, sustainable, from-scratch eating, has become massively popular—there are now 225 Slow Food USA chapters, and 2008’s inaugural Slow Food Nation festival in San Francisco was the largest American food festival in history. People are increasingly aware of and concerned about specific ingredients—high-fructose corn syrup, genetically modified soybeans, “pink slime” beef by-products, high-arsenic-level chicken, all of which have been the subject of grassroots campaigns. Nearly 60 percent of Americans now say they’re worried about the safety of their food.

Many smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid, are now immersed in grassroots food organizing, planting community gardens and turning their own homes into minifarms complete with chicken coops. Others are food blogging, lovingly photographing and describing their gluten-free muffins or home-grown tomato salads to an appreciative community of other (mostly female) food bloggers and readers. Some are simply spending more time and thought shopping for and feeding their families.

Though restaurant kitchens are still heavily male (93 percent of executive chefs are men), women are disproportionately represented in the unique-to-the-twenty-first-century worlds of artisan food businesses, urban homesteading, food activism, and food blogging. Women also continue to cook the vast majority of home meals, as they’ve done since time immemorial—American women cook 78 percent of dinners, make 93 percent of the food purchases, and spend three times as many hours in the kitchen as men. And among those attempting to adhere to the slow food or locavore ethos, these meals have the potential to be much more complex and time-consuming than the rotisserie-chicken-and-frozen- veggie meals our own mothers served for us.

“The return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America,” says Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on food culture. “We’ve lost our connection to traditional handmade cuisine, kids could have shorter life spans than their parents [because of obesity and poor diet], there’s global warming. This new food culture is a response to an industrial model that’s not working.”

Our country is clearly in a dire state when it comes to obesity and the environmental impact of factory farming, so the fact that more people care about food is terrific. But the kitchen’s always been a fraught place when it comes to gender and class, and the twenty-first century is shaping up to be no different. For some, the new cooking culture is incredibly empowering. Others are finding themselves tied up in apron strings all over again.

The femivore phenomenon: Cooking as creative homemaking

For young stay-at-home parents, a deep involvement in cooking and sustainable food culture can be a very twenty-first-century way of avoiding the notorious “just a housewife” trap. In 2010, writer Peggy Orenstein coined the term “femivore” to describe a certain breed of stay-at-home mom whose commitment to providing the purest, most sustainable foods has become a full-fledged raison d’être. These are the women who raise backyard chickens, grow their own vegetables for their children’s salads, join raw-milk clubs to get illegal-but-allegedly-wholesome unpasteurized milk.

“Femivore” is an infelicitous-sounding term (do they eat women?!) but an on-target concept. Femivores, Orenstein says, use food as “an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.”

As Orenstein describes it, femivorism helps give social legitimacy to stay-at-home motherhood, which is something we see in many facets of New Domesticity. She writes:

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place. Given how conscious (not to say obsessive) everyone has become about the source of their food—who these days can’t wax poetic about compost?— it also confers instant legitimacy. Rather than embodying the limits of one movement, femivores expand those of another: feeding their families clean, flavorful food; reducing their carbon footprints; producing sustainably instead of consuming rampantly. What could be more vital, more gratifying, more morally defensible?

Many of the women at the From Scratch Club fit this description.

Erika, thirty, couldn’t look less like Betty Draper. With her magenta hair, dramatic makeup, and star tattoo on her wrist, she looks like she’d be at home behind the bar of a hip nightspot.

Raised in Phoenix, Erika was always an intellectual and a bit of a rebel. She was an English major at Fordham University in New York and interned at Bust, the punky third-wave feminist magazine. In her twenties, she had a “hard-core corporate life” managing a Calvin Klein store in Washington. Though she worked crazy-long hours, she loved her job. When she got pregnant with her son, now seven, she wanted to go back to work as soon as possible.

But when she and her husband, a navy mechanic, moved from Washington to upstate New York, she couldn’t find a job that would pay enough to cover day care costs for her son. So she ended up nannying to make ends meet.

Bored, she decided to try her hand at cooking from scratch and found it “really, really easy.” Slowly she got more and more involved in DIY— growing a massive garden, making her own laundry detergent, learning to can. She began volunteering on a local farm and started blogging about her adventures in DIY cookery. Later, she decided to begin homeschooling her son—regular school “wasn’t jibing with his personality,” she says.

“I never in a million years would have thought I’d be a homeschooler or a stay-at-home mom,” Erika says, widening her eyes.

But she realized that modern homemaking could be creatively fulfilling in a way she’d never imagined. Unlike previous generations of housewives, who Erika imagines were bored and dissatisfied, Erika says women her age treat the duties of the home as outlets for their creativity. “The fact that I’m not career driven makes some people say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re a lazy sellout,’” she says. “But they don’t realize how much work her DIY lifestyle is.

“Now to be a stay-at-home mom doesn’t just mean you’re playing with your kids all day and not fulfilling your passions,” she says.

The way food used to be: The myths of foodie nostalgia (Or is Michael Pollan is a sexist pig?)

It’s clear that the Standard American Diet of the twenty-first century isn’t doing us any favors, health-wise. So it’s not surprising that people are turning to the past for tips on how to live better. Food writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan entrance readers with their rhapsodies on the Way Food Used to Be, memoirists enthuse about trading their busy urban lives for a more “authentic” existence on a farm, while the official manifesto of the Slow Food movement cries for us to return to our preindustrial roots:

Born and nurtured under the sign of Industrialization, this century first invented the machine and then modelled its lifestyle after it. Speed became our shackles. We fell prey to the same virus: “the fast life” that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest “fast- food.”

Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the “velocity” that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of “the fast life” with tranquil material pleasure.

These narratives appeal to our collective sense of nostalgia: pink-cheeked farmwomen kneading homemade bread, mothers and daughters shelling sun-warmed peas on country porches, and multigenerational families gathered happily around the dinner table to tuck into Grandma’s hand-plucked roasted chicken. As the oft-quoted Michael Pollan saying goes, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (in my case, that would mean a steady diet of pierogies and cabbage).

Unfortunately, this cozy vision obscures the often-grimy truths about what cooking was really like for our foremothers and -fathers in the preindustrial, preconvenience era.

Contrary to the myth of the happy, apple-cheeked great-great-grandmother, cooking has rarely been seen as a source of fulfillment, historically speaking. In Colonial America, kitchen work was viewed as a lowly chore, often farmed out to servants (who, needless to say, did not spend a lot of time exulting in the visceral pleasures of pea shucking). In the 1800s, middle-class women supervised immigrant kitchen maids (or slaves), while pioneer women and rural housewives sweated over wood fires and heavy iron pots. (Fun fact: until the mid-1800s, many large households employed a small dog called a “turnspit dog” for the unpleasant task of turning the roast over the fire.)

“People were happy to work in factories and get off the farm!” groans Chris Bobel, a women’s studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “The factory girls from Lowell [Massachusetts, one of the earliest textile mill towns], it was esteemed work, to be able to put on shoes and go sit at a sewing machine all day.”

And while there are genuine problems with today’s industrialized food system, the idea that food was purer and more wholesome in the past is also pure fiction.

“The media has done a good job of convincing people that their food isn’t safe, when almost certainly the opposite is true,” says Rachel Laudan, a food historian. Laudan points out that eating has always been an inherently dangerous enterprise, but one that has gotten progressively safer over the years with the rise of better sanitation and government standards.

Prepasteurization, children frequently died from cholera, listeria, or bovine tuberculosis after drinking tainted milk. Butter was often rancid or adulterated with anything from gypsum to gelatin fat to mashed potatoes. Until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, penny candy might be colored with lead or arsenic, pickles with copper compounds. Malnutrition was endemic well into the twentieth century, especially in the parts of rural America we like to imagine as pastoral paradises.

Yet, due to the pervasive romanticization of the preindustrial family farm, today only 60 percent of Americans say they believe they’ve benefited from modern food technologies (including pasteurizing, fermenting, drying, freezing, fortification, and canning). Of the 60 percent who believe there are benefits to modern food technology, only 30 percent say modern technologies have increased food safety. In reality, we’ve all benefited vastly from these technologies, and many of us would actually be dead without them.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the narrative of the Way Food Used to Be is where the blame is placed for the downfall of the family dinner: squarely on the shoulders of Betty Friedan and co.

Right-wing The Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan describes feminist-run 1970s households thus: “There would be squalor beyond reckoning in the kitchen . . . Cooking nourishing dinners was an oppressive act.”

Okay, that’s an extreme thing to say, but Caitlin Flanagan is a notorious conservative rabble-rouser who adores baiting feminists and other liberals. Of course she’d say that.

Here’s another quote: “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.”

Flanagan again?

Nope, that’s Michael Pollan. Yes, that Michael Pollan, the demigod food writer and activist at whose feet so much of progressive America worships. "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," Pollan’s pro-local, pro-organic manifesto, spent years on the New York Times bestseller list, and Pollan’s motto of “eat food/not too much/mostly plants” can be heard murmured like a mantra in the aisles of local grocery co-ops nationwide.

Yet there he is again, in the New York Times Magazine, dismissing "The Feminine Mystique" as “the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” In the same magazine story, Pollan scolds that “American women now allow corporations to cook for them” and rues the fact that women have lost the “moral obligation to cook” they felt during his 1960s childhood.

Pollan is not alone in his assessment. Mireille Guiliano, author of the megabestselling diet book "French Women Don’t Get Fat," ratchets up the guilt by blaming feminism both for ruining cooking and for making women fat: “[Women] don’t know how to deal with stress, and they eat when they’re not hungry and get fat. They don’t know how to cook, because feminism taught us that cooking was pooh-pooh,” she says.

As sustainability advocate Marguerite Manteau-Rao writes:

[During the era of ] feminism, we, women made a bargain with the devil. Tired of being kept in the kitchen, we welcomed with open arms, promises from the food industry to make life more convenient for us . . . Of course there were compromises to be made, such as paying more for our food, and jeopardizing our health and that of our family.

“Yes, it’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity,” sniffs British celebrity cookbook author Rose Prince, who later defends herself by telling me the feminists didn’t intend to ruin cooking.

Comments like this make me—owner of not one but two copies of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma"—want to smack Pollan and the rest upside the head with a spatula. Claiming that feminism killed home cooking is not just shaming, it’s wildly inaccurate from a historical standpoint.

As should be obvious to anyone who’s peeked at a cookbook from the late 1940s or early 1950s that promotes ingredients like sliced hot dogs and canned tomato soup, we’ve been eating processed crap since long before feminism. Yet the idea of the feminist abandoning her children to TV dinners while she rushes off to a consciousness-raising group is unshakable.

The rise of convenience food has to do with market forces, not feminism. After World War II, food companies began unloading packaged food products developed for wartime use on the domestic market: frozen fish fillets, powdered coffee, tinned spinach. These foods were aggressively marketed as wholesome and modern, since housewives were initially suspicious of products like ham that came in a can. But lots of women, it turns out, were simply not so fond of cooking. The twentieth century’s two most popular pro-convenience-foods cookbooks, Peg Bracken’s cheeky 1960 "The I Hate to Cook Book," with its recipes like Skid Road Stroganoff (“Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink”), and Poppy Cannon’s 1951 "The Can-Opener Cookbook" were hits long before second-wave feminism was so much as a gleam in Betty Friedan’s eye. So why does Betty get blamed?

The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove. Since scratch cooking today is largely a hobby or a personal choice of the middle class, many of us wish we could spend more time in the kitchen. But it’s important to remember that this was not always the case.

It’s easy to forget, in the face of today’s foodie culture, that cooking is not fun when it’s mandatory.

When much-lauded food writer Michael Ruhlman writes, “I know for a fact [emphasis added] that spending at least a few days a week preparing food with other people around, enjoying it together, is one of the best possible things in life to do, period. It’s part of what makes us human [emphasis added]. It makes us happy in ways that are deep and good for us,” he’s writing from the point of view of a food writer, someone who enjoys cooking and has freely chosen it as his vocation. That’s a privileged position, and a frankly absurd one. To borrow Ruhlman’s wording, I know for a fact that plenty of people don’t like to cook and it’s not because they haven’t been properly educated or had the “revelatory” experience of eating an exquisitely ripe peach or a simple-yet-perfect slice of sole meunière. I know for a fact that plenty of people aren’t even that interested in the experience of eating, and I bet you do too: the absentminded friend who has to be reminded to bolt down a granola bar before heading to her after-work Italian class; the picky-eater sibling who, though grown, still happily subsists on spaghetti and bananas and diced red peppers. The term “foodie” was originally invented to describe people who really enjoy eating and cooking, which suggests that others do not. Yet today everyone is meant to have a deep and abiding appreciation for and fascination with pure, wholesome, delicious, seasonal, regional food. The expectation that cooking should be fulfilling for everyone is insidious, especially for women. I happen to adore cooking and eating, and nothing is more fun for me than sharing a home-cooked bowl of pasta puttanesca and a loaf of crusty bread with friends. Yet, I know for a fact that others would much rather go kayaking or read magazines or write poems or play World of Warcraft or teach their dog sign language. And, unlike Ruhlman, I don’t suspect them of being less than human.

Before she was a professor, Arlene Avakian, food studies scholar and professor emeritus at UMass Amherst, was a stay-at-home mom raising two young children in the early 1960s. She remembers a time when cooking was not fun or fulfilling at all. As a young wife, she was expected to cook nutritious meals day in and day out. She felt trapped, bored, and, as she says, she “began to go nuts.”

Avakian, for one, is tired of hearing people moralize about the joy of slow cooking. “There’s this romanticization of the family in which women do the nurturing, and Pollan is terrible about this,” she says. “Because it’s a very scary world, people want things to be the way they were. Or the way they never were.”

The historically inaccurate blaming of feminism for today’s food failings implies that women were, are, and should be responsible for cooking and family health. And, unsurprisingly, women are the ones who feel responsible.

Copyright © 2013 by Emily Matchar. From the forthcoming book "Homeward Bound" by Emily Matchar to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. 

By Emily Matchar

Emily Matchar is a Chapel Hill, NC-based writer whose work has appeared in Men's Journal, Gourmet, Babble and lots of others.

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