Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gifts that keep on giving

The latest in the NYT do-gooder-gifts series is from Mark Bittman. While it's closer to reasonable than the last installment, it has its own problems. Removing obstacles to home cooking sounds good in theory, but are "gifts" the way to approach this? As with all self-improvement-type gifts, there's a certain awkwardness. The famous luxury-anti-wrinkle-cream conundrum.

In terms of Bittman's list, it's hard to picture anyone responding well if you told them that not only are you going to take them to the supermarket and show them how to buy groceries, but this is your "big gift" for them for the holidays. If this is unsolicited - and of course if it's solicited, it's a lovely gesture - it's just a teensy bit patronizing. And the "Rice and Beans Pack," again, how would it not be offensive to receive this? It's a gift that says, 'not only do I suspect you're too inept to figure out how to cook really basic foods, and perhaps overweight from all that fast food you eat, but I also think you're too poor to make anything less feed-ish on a regular basis.'

And the CSA membership, that would be a gift that keeps on giving. It's entirely possible to like to cook, to go to farmers' markets, but not to want to be stuck with turnips for months because that's all there is. What if the crop the CSA has in great bounty is a food you don't even like? Wouldn't the end result be food waste or, if the recipient found a way to donate or otherwise pass along the turnips, massive inefficiency and likely resentment? Adults who don't cook don't want to cook. Adults who are not members of CSAs don't want to be members of CSAs. 

Then there's the elephant in the room: gender. Under what circumstances is it not problematic to give these "gifts" - unsolicited - to a woman? A woman who's expressed no interest whatsoever in putting on an apron?

Bittman introduces the column in a way that makes it seem - and I'm sure this isn't true - that he never considered where gender enters into it:

Americans spend less time cooking than anyone, and the amount we “cook” — some people count microwaving a pizza — has been on a long, slow decline. The reasons for this decline are varied and complex, but an increase in the average of both hours worked and television watched, coupled with the marketing of “convenience” foods, have turned cooking from a sometimes-pleasurable necessity into, for many people, an ominous-seeming choice.
Gar! It's not that Americans are cooking less than we used to. It's that American women aren't cooking so much these days. No one ever expected this of American men. It's just like when we hear about how these days, "people" are premarital sex like it's no big deal. When it's really that these days women are doing so - men have always done so, without this being much of an issue.


CW said...

To focus on the gender issue, I think American men are actually spending more time cooking than used to be the case. I spend more time cooking than the men from previous generations of my family, and I think that's common. Dad preparing dinner for the family is no longer a novelty reserved for rare instances when mom is out of town. That's not to say that American mem spend enough time cooking (either from a healthy lifestyle perspective or a gender equity perspective), but I think it reinforces your point that the reduction in time spent cooking is a reduction in the time spent by women.

Further, those who want to increase the amount of time spent cooking in America should put some of their efforts into encouraging men to continue to increase the amount of cooking they do. It is much easier to consistently put a home cooked meal on the table if that is a shared endeavor.

Phoebe said...


That all makes sense.

I think what happens is, food-movement writers mean well on this front, and genuinely do want to see more men as well as women cooking. But they end up bringing the gender-neutral language that somewhat works for talking about the present into their discussions of the past, where it has no place. This allows them to evade discussions of why less home-cooking happens, namely because those forced into home-cooking now have other options.