Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Truffles Quarterly

Jennifer Steinhauer is appalled that other moms in her well-to-do West Coast milieu are not bringing home-baked goods to bakesales. She mentions that "moms" are the culprits, with wording that might suggest she'll have a more egalitarian approach, but then doesn't question that moms and moms alone need to step it up. Not once are "fathers," "dads," or "men" brought up. It's strikingly unapologetic wimmin, kitchen, argument, with the notable caveat that this particular wommin is a journalist for the NYT, and thus not a housewife.

As someone too old to be bakeselling (or is that how to fund humanities departments?), too young (in my academic milieu, if not biologically) to have school-age children, this isn't an issue I give much thought to. If I didn't reflect on it, I'd probably agree with Steinhauer that "bakesale" implies something that was, you know, baked by the person (or a parent of the person) bringing it in.

I'm blogging the article in part because in one part of one of the sentences, the principle flaw of the food-movement approach is (inadvertently) as clearly laid-out as I've ever seen it: 

"Some pull out the 'lack of time' card when it comes to baking (though in truth, Rice Krispie treats take less time to make than going to Safeway for cookies) [.]"

Unless you have a marshmallow tree in your backyard, you're going to the store. Either on a special trip, or picking up bakesale goods while doing the rest of your shopping. If you have to do something with what you bought at the store, i.e. if you must then cook, like with ingredients, this is in addition to the time you spent shopping. Cooking takes more time and energy than not cooking. This may seem obvious, but rather than pointing to the other factors that compensate for this (i.e. home-cooked is often tastier, healthier, cheaper), food-movement sorts feel compelled to claim that from-scratch is effortless. Those who think cooking is exhausting, that there are better uses of free time, are, they want you to know, mistaken. 

Writers like Steinhauer completely misconstrue what the "'lack of time' card" is about. It's not that there is literally no time, that in "times like these" everyone's working from literally when they wake up to when they go to sleep. It's that the time is, as determined by those whose time it is, better-spent doing something else. Yes, that "something else" might be recuperating from a long day of work in front of the TV for three hours. But that doesn't mean those are three hours that could perfectly well be spent whipping up a meal. I mean, they could and they couldn't. It might mean being more exhausted at work, or (because guess what, the person being asked to make this tradeoff is a laydee) this sentiment known as resentment. After a long day, I have to work more?

Note also the arbitrary divide between prepackaged (bad!) and homemade (good!). The dessert in question - which I myself have never been known to turn down - is made from ingredients that are about as food-industry as it gets: a Kellogg's cereal (if one of the least-offensive ones) and marshmallows. This is super-revelatory, as it shows is that the key "ingredient" for food-movement types is kitchen labor. Were you just on your feet in the kitchen when you might have been reclining on the couch? Then there you go.

Much of the article might have come from a food-movement-piece generator. From-scratch is better! Let's emulate our grandmothers! It also hits the usual notes regarding socioeconomic class. There's the usual food-movement scorn for those whose reason for not cooking is something other than the most abject poverty. As always, there must be a disclaimer about how some families are so poor that they can't afford a baking tin, a nod of sympathy for those families, and then a quick switch over to romanticization of those who are not quite as poor, but still too poor (or, in this case, too gloriously Old Country) to buy premade treats:
No question, some people cannot afford the equipment needed to bake, even if they wish to, though flour and sugar are cheaper than Chips Ahoy. And in my observation in the four American cities where I have lived, income does seem to be the underpinning of the problem. 
Indeed, I have witnessed the reverse: the more upscale the community for the bake sale, the fancier the store-bought cookies. (Sprinkles Cupcakes may be the single biggest supplier of bake-sale goods in West Los Angeles.) Lower-income parents, especially first-generation immigrants, often turn up at school parties with the best-tasting homemade treats.
Bad yuppie women! You correctly assessed that your time and energy have significant value in your society, and chose an extra hour at the firm over one over the stove! Meanwhile, note also the YPIS-worthy conflation of those not rich enough to spend $3.25 each (say) for cupcakes for an entire class of kids, and those so poor they can't afford the raw materials to bake from and don't have access to an oven. Speaking on behalf of those who buy flour without a second thought, but who often gasp at the price of  upscale pastry (and imagine buying enough for 20-30 kids!), we're out there, and we're not "lower-income" except insofar as our incomes are lower than... I don't want to resort to OWS lingo, but you see where I'm going with this.

Then things get baffling. Steinhauer also conflates a host of foodie concerns that are rarely found in the same individuals:
It strikes me that all this bake sale corner cutting and potluck shrugging-off are odd anomalies in our ingredient-obsessed, locally sourced lima bean eating, organic milk swilling culture. We objectify food with our smartphones at restaurants, sticking photos with sauces slithering off the plate onto our blogs, and with fancy journals devoted to a single ingredient on our nightstands. 
We stick up our noses at out-of-season blackberries, and compete over the brands of our stoves and dishwashers. We moralize about the family dinner, outdo one another by killing and plucking our own turkeys and plan vacations around a dinner reservation.
Are "we" food-movement post-hippies? Jet-setting gourmands? Yuppies whose high-end, pristine kitchens as good as announce that we don't cook? These may all be well-off predominately-white coastal sorts with some proclaimed interest in food, but they're not the same people, not at all. The fancy-cupcake-bringers aren't an anomaly. They're merely the fancy-unused-oven-owners.

The more I think about the food-movement issue, the more I think its flaws come primarily from the near-unspoken assumption that the "we" who aren't cooking as much as we ought to (and thereby causing the downfall of Western civilization) are women. A movement that's ostensibly progressive, and that's spearheaded largely by men who do in fact cook (Bittman, Pollan, Oliver...) and women who've become so rich and famous from food that they're about as far from housewives as they come (Waters), in theory addresses men and women alike, but in practice, not so much. The question, then, is whether we should ask that these articles at least claim to be addressing men and women alike, or whether when they do just that, they're covering their bases but ignoring the reality of who, precisely, is being told to feel bad about not spending more time in the kitchen.


Britta said...

As someone who love love loves baking, I would very likely bring cheap store-bought treats to a school bake sale as a passive agressive protest about how sending one's child to school is turning into a full time job for mothers. (Also, class-check in a different way, growing up we weren't allowed to bring homemade stuff to school, because a significant portion of students were Hep C +, and that can be spread through homemade food.) Likewise, although I know people who do it, I would never bring in homemade baked goods for the students I teach--I don't want to send the message that women's time is expendable in certain ways that men's time isn't.

Dan O. said...

I am two years from PTA, and the politics of bake sales scares the crap out of me. I'm inclined to suggest any other fundraiser - selling printed PTA messenger bags, BPA-free PTA water bottles, PTA-printed kindle-covers. What the frig ever, just not baking. The question of labor and love is totally irrelevant when the point is raising money. I'll lie and say I sewed the messenger bag myself if it means selling more bags and funding a trip to The Botanical Gardens.

Anyhow, I liked to highlight Ayelet Waldman's responses to this article.

"Hey, you sanctimonious bitch, I have 4 kids, a fulltime job. I don't have time to bake cookies. Lucky you that you do."


"OWS? What's that? I just perfected my homemade playdoh recipe!"

Phoebe said...


I totally hear that, and as someone who enjoys baking (for husband, friends, self) but never once baked for my students, can relate. I never articulated it quite as well as you have. I suppose I saw it as, as a foreign-language instructor, I was already in the maternal-nurturing-nursery-school-teacher mode (i.e. not the usual TA mode) enough, and didn't need to reinforce an angle of the situation that was awkward both for me (serious literature grad student!) and for my class (some of whom, on any given day, might be hungover and legally so, which is to say, not 3 years old). No shame in teaching nursery school, but when your students hover around 20... Then again, I'm sure cupcakes and whatnot were appreciated when other instructors brought them in.


"The question of labor and love is totally irrelevant when the point is raising money."

It certainly ought to be! But on that note, when I was back in NY recently I noticed that a cupcake chain's motto is "baked with love." Which you kind of have to doubt, given the circumstances.

Waldman's response is good, but I don't think not having four kids, or working only part-time, should mean that one feels obligated to bake for the class. As Britta notes, one can have the time to bake (which is, I've learned since getting a hand-mixer, not much time at all with the right equipment) and even like to bake, but not wish to spend yet more time/energy/maternalness than is already the case.

Anyway, forget the BPA-free water bottles. Get a big tray of Twix. It works for the basketball-team fundraisers on the subway, and everyone's probably tired of local-sustainable by now.

Phoebe said...

The Times has put this up for debate. I do like Helen Zoe Veit's response. Most of the others, not so much. But it's interesting that it comes up in a few of them that one can absolutely enjoy cooking and cook for one's own family and still not want to be relied on to bring in an entire tray of from-scratch.

Phoebe said...

OK, one more thing: apparently humanities grad students do have bakesales! Yikes.

Dan O. said...

"Anyway, forget the BPA-free water bottles. Get a big tray of Twix. It works for the basketball-team fundraisers on the subway, and everyone's probably tired of local-sustainable by now."

How about PTA Squeegee-men.

Britta said...

Also, other angle, my guess is that bake sales are extremely unprofitable, once you factor in cost of ingredients + labor. Basically, you're asking parents to donate time and not inexpensive ingredients (butter, baking chocolate, vanilla, etc.) and get a negative ROI. (I would be surprised if the per item price covered the costs of the ingredients themselves, not to mention labor and electricity costs of baking). Again, rather than spend $20 of ingredients and an hour or two of leisure time to make $15, I would prefer (as a hypothetical parent) to donate $20 to the school.

Phoebe said...


This came up in the Room for Debate. I guess the issue is, people don't spontaneously give the $20, but have fun baking / are sheep-like participants, and bakesales mean that at least the school gets the $15.

The Room for Debate, btw, keeps expanding, and there's now an installment about how instead of bake sales, kids should grow their own arugula! I kid you not.

And with that, I leave the library and return to my brownie-filled apartment for lunch.

CW said...

The PTA at our son's school has a "no sale" fundraiser that's been quite successful ($33k so far for this year). There's less organizational effort (a website is set up and several reminders are sent out), no one ends up buying things they don't want, and more of the money goes to the PTA.

I wish we didn't need to fund the PTA so that it could fill the gaps left by ever-decreasing state funding.

On a different note, I think the food movement people ignore the fact that lots of women never did enjoy cooking. It was just something they had to do. My wife's grandmother was happy that she was able to stop cooking when she and her husband moved into an old folks' home. She didn't like cooking, never was good at it, and had only done it out of necessity. Sadly, the institutional food at the home was tastier, and not cooking left her more time to read books and write her poetry.

Phoebe said...


I'm sure techniques other than (more efficient than) sales could do the trick. But I also assume that this sort of thing persists in part because it raises money that wouldn't be raised otherwise. It's like PBS pledge drives where you get a tote bag, or charity galas. Presumably the justification is that it sugar-coats what would be, for many, a dull endeavor, and/or offers a way of being more ostentatiously generous than even a (modest) donation in one's own name permits.

Re: cooking, yup. Even many women who like to cook, and who cook well, can't help but think of cooking as something that's traditionally been an obligation, and resent a certain amount of meal-preparation.