Cooking as a Feminist

At the risk of being repetitive -- this has certainly been a theme woven through many posts on this blog -- I have a burning desire to revisit the question about what it means for me to be a feminist who writes about food.

Because it is a real question, and one that I think about a lot. It bothers me to think that I might be playing out -- embracing! -- a female stereotype by spending so much time cooking. It worries me to think that my daughter might end up identifying what I do as "mom stuff" -- a category I can already see being devalued in big and small ways in her mind, despite my best efforts. I see the way some of my older feminist friends engage with my blog -- either with an enthusiasm moderated by the assurance that "of course I never cook," or with a skepticism, even perhaps a sense of betrayal -- and I feel tremendous guilt. 

I am not complaining about this guilt, or lamenting the fact of feeling guilty. I think guilt is one of the great gifts of being human. Shame, not so much. But guilt -- it's a prompt to self-reflection. Especially, for me, when it comes to politics.

When Martha Rosler made "Semiotics of the Kitchen" in 1975, she captured (in a completely hilarious way) the real anger that subtended so many women's relationship to the domestic roles to which they were limited in most middle-class marriages. Her deadpan, even uptight, alphabetical inventory of the contents of this kitchen -- apron, bowl, chopper, dish... -- speak to a seething, repressed hostility. When she gets to the end of the alphabet, having run out of implements to demonstrate, she acts out the letters with her body, using the knife to make a slashing Z at the end. Martha described the character she plays here as "An anti-Julia Child [who] replaces the domesticated 'meaning' of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration," a woman "who names the tools of her own repression."

I first encountered this video not quite twenty years after it was made, after more than one generation of women had protested and marched and theorized and written and created and legislated their way to a different set of possibilities for themselves and those who came after. When I saw it, I was fascinated with another aspect of those gestures of anger -- another aspect that I'm sure was in the artist's mind when she made it, too. Every time Martha pounded an instrument on the counter or wielded a knife or flung the imaginary contents of her ladles off to the side, I saw those instruments not simply as tools of her oppression but also as the (possible) weapons in her revolution. I imagined mincing, chopping, fricasseeing the patriarchy. Frying, grilling, roasting it. Grating, peeling, flattening, pounding oppression until its goose was cooked. 

Whatever I saw, it was not the idea that in order to be a feminist one must reject cooking.

This last sounds like such an obvious thing to say, and yet it's become an increasingly frequent claim these days: that feminism involved a rejection of caretaking as such, and of food preparation in particular, and that we are now in the position of having to recover that aspect of ourselves, as women, as a sort of correction of past generations' political excess. I've written about how Michael Pollen's recent writings on food culture have unfairly demonized feminism, stereotyping the feminist as someone who burned her apron alongside her bras; just today a friend pointed out to me an article in the New York Times, written by a woman whose memories of a warm and loving mother feeding her delectable meals was rudely interrupted by said mother's sudden politicization at the hands of consciousness-raising feminism

Her story is tragic, in it's own way. 
For my mother, the kitchen felt like a trap. When the women’s movement blossomed in the late 1960s, she was ready. She vanquished the spirit of homemaking the way Virginia Woolf had killed her “Angel in the House.” 
And then a tidal wave of rage, disappointment and raw desire overtook her. I saw it in her vehemence toward my father and in the raucous consciousness-raising groups that met in our living room. I saw it in the changed contents of our dinner plates: a dried-out chicken leg, a potato collapsed inward from overbaking.
But it was not only by cooking that the mother expressed her rage -- it was by leaving her husband, abandoning her young children to their own devices while she went out to do her feminist things, and not feeding them at all: "I went from being well fed and popular in third grade to near skeletal and often mocked in fifth. I wasn’t anorexic; I just didn’t know how to cook. I turned sallow and hollow-eyed and suffered headaches, eczema and stomach pains."

The author, Janet Benton, goes on to have a family of her own, to recover from her childhood, as it were, and forgive her mother her feminist zeal. She ends her essay with an explanation of why despite her own, different flavor of feminism she will never abandon her child in favor of her own self-actualization. No matter how tired, stressed, or grumpy, she will always hug her child and cook her child's food. 

The author writes as if feminism is at odds with motherhood, or childrearing, or cooking. As if, that is, feminism is a form of child abuse. As if her mother's child abuse was part and parcel of her feminism, and not simply a part of her cruelty.

Feminists do not starve their children. We are not Medeas, sacrificing our offspring to express our anti-patriarchal rage.

This shouldn't need to be said, but it does. Just like I need to say that I want my hobby -- it's more than a hobby, obviously, but I don't have an easy way to describe the place it occupies in my life -- to not just exist in a non-contradictory relationship to my politics, but to actually reinforce my politics. Somehow I want my Apron and Bowl and Chopper (and all my other gadgets, all the way down to Z) to be the weapons of my revolution.

I haven't even come close to figuring out how this might happen. For now, I'm watching a lot of contemporary artists I admire turn to food, hospitality, abundance, and the commons as sites of their artmaking, and figuring out how their work translates into my kitchen, my blog, my food, and my position in relation to all the systems (community, environment, family, etc.) that cooking plugs me into.

Because feminism isn't about abandoning caretaking, or food, or cooking. It's about politicizing them. Two different things entirely.


EndlessRiver said…
Good piece. I am sure you express the ambivalence of many feminists with their role as cook and provider. It has been noted in the UK, that a generation of women have a troubled relationship with domestic tasks, including cooking, as they did not want to end up as the kind of housewife their mothers did. However, being able to feed yourself well, often on a tight budget, is a crucial skill to be able to pass on to your daughters (and sons). To cook and share food is a very human joy, and it would be a pity if feminist idealism took that away from women.
Too bad men didn't bother to train their kids in domestic tasks. Would have gone a ways to solve the problem.

As I'm trying to say in the article: it's not feminism that "takes this away" from women -- it's a pop-cultural stereotype about what feminism is. Feminism has always provided the tools for thinking of these tasks politically.
Janet said…
Hi! Shocking to see that a few folks are reading my essay as an indictment of feminism as a whole. There was a time, in the late 60s/early 70s, when many extremely active feminist activists like my mom put their activism far ahead of their kids' needs, and kids suffered. I've gotten many, many emails and posts from others who experienced this. But as you write so nicely, I am also a feminist, and in 2013, partly b/c of what those earlier women gained, I am doing my best not to sacrifice my kid. For me, the kitchen is a place of healing. One can love one's kids attentively in just about any
setting. End of story--no indictment intended.
Hi Janet -- thanks for responding. I know a lot of those very very active feminists from the late 60s/70s (including many feminist artists) and kids of many of those feminists. Their mode of parenting might have been drastically different than the June Cleaver model of motherhood, but none of them were neglectful to the extent that they're children went entirely uncared for, which is what you seem to describe in your essay. To attribute the motivation of your mother's behavior to her feminism IS an indictment of feminism, just in the way that attributing a person's violence to their religion (as opposed to their own, skewed and misguided take on their religion) is an indictment of their religion.

I'm sorry you went through what you went through. I'm amazed that you seem to be so forgiving. And I'm glad you've found happiness, in the kitchen and out.